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SITUATION UPDATE 19 January, 2021 Back

Situation Update - United States

Tuesday May


  • US foreign policy is set to shift following the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden on 20 January

  • Whilst an overarching change in foreign policy direction is not expected, Biden’s approach to foreign affairs will involve a change of emphasis compared with the outgoing president’s “America First” focus

  • Biden is expected to concentrate on multilateralism and rebuilding relationships, re-joining key international agencies and accords

  • The incoming president’s team will face difficulties deriving from last-minute foreign policy actions undertaken by the outgoing administration

  • Biden will have a short window of opportunity to return Iran to compliance with the Iran Nuclear Deal, with Iran setting a deadline of 21 February before it takes further action

  • The new administration is likely to continue to pressure China on key issues, but is expected to work with key allies to create a united front

  • Biden has expressed support for continued negotiations with North Korea, though he has said talks will depend on the North Korean leader’s will to abandon nuclear ambitions 


US foreign policy is set to shift under the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on 20 January. Whilst the overarching foreign policy direction of the incoming and outgoing administrations are not likely to differ significantly, their approaches will. The past four years have been defined by President Donald Trump’s “America First” strategy, which has seen the outgoing president withdraw from international agencies and agreements. In contrast, Biden is expected to promote multilateralism, which will include re-joining the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate accord as well as developing relationships and working closer with key allies such as the EU.

Biden has significant experience in foreign relations, having previously served as the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Vice President under former President Barack Obama. However, he is taking office amidst multiple domestic challenges, characterised by a public health and economic crisis deriving from the COVID-19 pandemic in combination with the aftermath of the recent Capitol Hill riots perpetrated by Trump supporters espousing that the outgoing president’s election loss should be overturned. Addressing these key domestic aspects is a priority for the incoming administration, whilst the global scope of the COVID-19 crisis provides the incoming Biden government with an opportunity to reframe Washington’s role internationally by taking a leading role in managing the pandemic, which will likely start with the US re-joining the WHO.

In the final weeks and days of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced a series of major foreign policy actions that work to consolidate the legacy of the Trump administration, thereby creating challenges for Biden’s team to realise international goals. This includes new sanctions against Iran, designating the Houthi rebels in Yemen as a terrorist organisation, lifting decades-long restrictions on official contact with Taiwan, recognising Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory and relisting Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism.


Despite facing multiple domestic challenges that will require immediate attention, there are also several foreign policy decisions that will require swift action by the incoming administration. This includes the issue of the Iran Nuclear Deal, which was signed in 2015 under Obama’s presidency. As part of the Trump administration’s stated “maximum pressure” strategy against the Islamic Republic, Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in May 2018 and has steadily increased sanctions against the nation in an unsuccessful bid to pressure Iran to return to the negotiating table regarding its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Since the one-year anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal, Iran has been incrementally scaling back its commitments under the deal and increasing its nuclear activities. Iran has also set a deadline of 21 February for the US to re-join the Nuclear Deal and lift sanctions, otherwise it will further increase its nuclear efforts and halt inspections of its nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This deadline provides Biden with a small window of opportunity to shift US-Iran relations, with an agreement conditional on both sides surmounting significant diplomatic challenges. Should the February deadline be missed, Biden’s team then will face pressure to make headway before Iran’s presidential election in June, when there is the possibility of a hardliner taking over from the current relative moderate President Hassan Rouhani.

An area that will remain relevant throughout Biden’s presidency is that of Sino-US relations, whereby Biden is expected to work more cooperatively to create a united front against China. Such action would be motivated by issues relating to international trade rules, intellectual property and COVID-19. Notably, Biden has expressed opposition to Trump’s trade war with China, saying that the wide-ranging tariffs imposed are ineffective and self-defeating due to their corresponding impact on the US. The parameters of pressure on North Korea will similarly be of continuous relevance throughout Biden’s tenure, whereby Biden has said he supports ongoing negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but conditioned talks on Kim committing to abandoning nuclear ambitions. Biden will take office in the wake of recent provocations by North Korea, which has included Pyongyang describing the US as its “biggest enemy” and unveiling a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile during a recent military parade overseen by Kim.

The overall direction of US foreign policy under the incoming Biden administration will not change significantly, though diplomatic style under Biden is expected to take on an alteration of emphasis. Accordingly, the US will still place pressure on certain nations, including Iran, China and North Korea; however, Biden is expected to focus on working more collaboratively with other nations and international agencies in order to fulfil his foreign policy objectives. In general, Biden’s disposition to a more conciliary approach will likely make US foreign policy more predictable than it was under Trump.