Jan 21, 2021 - World

What has and hasn't changed as Biden takes over U.S. foreign policy

Photo illustration of President Joe Biden in front of a wall of international flags.

Photo Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Biden swiftly recommitted the U.S. to the Paris climate pact and the World Health Organization, but America's broader foreign policy is in a state of flux between the Trump and Biden eras.

Driving the news: One of the most striking moves from the Biden administration thus far was a show of continuity — concurring with the Trump administration's last-minute determination that China had committed "genocide" against Uyghur Muslims.

  • Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken also said the U.S. would continue to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, consider Juan Guaidó the legitimate interim president of Venezuela, provide lethal defensive weaponry to Ukraine, and oppose the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.
  • President Trump's trade war tariffs will remain in place for now, pending a review, as will his plan to extricate the U.S. from Afghanistan.
  • Biden's nominees spent significant chunks of their confirmation hearings promising not to make sudden changes to Trump's policies. That's perhaps to be expected, as they have no incentive to make waves before facing a Senate vote.

Still, Biden has made some immediate changes on substance, in addition to style.

What they're saying: Blinken said unequivocally that the U.S. would end its support for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen.

  • He also vowed to swiftly review Trump's controversial decision to label the Houthi rebels a terror group.
  • Meanwhile Avril Haines, the newly confirmed director of national intelligence, said she'd declassify an intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. It reportedly assigns culpability to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

On Iran, both Blinken and Haines reiterated Biden's plan to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal if Iran returns to compliance.

  • Yes, but: Both cautioned that was "a long way off," that allies like Israel would be consulted, and that Biden's true objective was a broader deal that also covers Iran's missile program and regional behavior.
  • Worth noting: Blinken said he doesn't believe Biden has legal authorization to strike Iran without consulting Congress.

The state of play: Biden has taken early opportunities to signal that the U.S. will recommit to multilateralism, including over the pandemic.

  • Blinken announced the U.S. would join the COVAX initiative — the global effort from the WHO and other groups to ensure that every country has access to COVID-19 vaccines.
  • Virtually the entire world had already signed onto COVAX, apart from the U.S. and Russia.
  • Biden’s nominees didn’t signal any immediate policy changes on China, though Blinken did emphasize the importance of working with allies to confront Beijing.

Biden ended the travel ban targeting a dozen mostly majority-Muslim countries.

  • He promised during his campaign to raise America's annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000 from the historic low of 15,000 under Trump.

The bottom line: Biden's team has a radically different perspective from Trump's on how to confront the greatest challenges facing the U.S. — or even what those challenges are. But it will take time to truly chart a new course.

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