US foreign policy is a complicated subject. It shifts with every president to reflect the new administration’s needs and goals. Each president sets the overall tone, working closely with advisors and the Department of State. The State Department consists of the Secretary of State (currently Antony Blinken), the US Mission to the UN, and the US Agency for International Development. Underneath the Secretary serve several Undersecretaries and offices for various policy areas that affect the US and other countries. These positions and offices are filled by diplomats who do the day-to-day work of foreign policy.
What was President Trump’s approach to foreign policy?
The Trump administration approached foreign policy differently than other recent presidents. Since the end of the war era, the US has been a leader in the international community. In his inauguration speech, Trump called for “America first,” prioritizing American needs over communal international ones and retreating from the center-of-the-network role America had held for decades.
For instance, Trump tried to withdraw from major international organizations such as NATO, believing that the US spends far more capital in money and troops on those organizations than we receive back in any sort of benefit. Trump faced a backlash over this because the US is key to the success of these organizations. When Trump met directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un to try and reach a nuclear deal, most of the technical minutiae that diplomats usually negotiate had not been worked out. While time-consuming, such negotiations are a normal step so that the President’s role is more straightforward and publicly successful. Overall, Trump’s style was based on showing American strength and he rarely relied on convention.
What about President Biden’s approach?
President Biden is a seasoned diplomat and will likely take full advantage of international conventions. In his first speech to the State Department, he emphasised “America is back,” referring to his hopes to return America to many of the agreements former President Trump backed away from. He stated that “America’s alliances are our greatest asset,” (C-Span) referring to America’s goal of advancing democracy around the world, which in turn protects the US by increasing the strength of our alliances and our role internationally. Biden was also referring to the value of having good standing in an international community of political equals.
How is Biden’s approach playing out worldwide?
One recent example of foreign policy differences under Presidents 45 and 46 is US-Iran relations. The Obama administration negotiated a deal in 2015 to get Iran to stop enriching uranium to the point where it can be used in atomic weapons. Trump pulled out of the deal in favor of sanctioning Iran, an economic rather than cooperational approach. Biden now wants to return to that deal, though his administration is in a stalemate with Iranian officials over who will make the first move: the US doesn’t want to lift sanctions before Iran stops its enrichment program, and Iran wants the opposite. However, US spokespersons said on February 8 that they were considering plenty of options, and that “the ball is in Iran’s court” (US News). In short, Biden is taking the diplomatic approach with Iran (based on negotiations first rather than actions), and it remains to be seen how things will move forward.
That’s not how Biden responds in every case, however. He is taking a firm line with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even discussing the arrest of Russian opposition leader Sergei Navalny on a recent call with Putin. Trump tended to avoid discussing unfavorable topics with the Russian President. Biden is also removing US support from Saudi-backed fighters in Yemen and taking the rebel Houthi group off the terrorist list.
While both presidents expressed their desire to protect American livelihoods, Trump tended to be more demanding and stringent, but Biden is moving slower and appears to be extending an open hand of diplomacy. In line with the Biden administration’s philosophy, each situation is analyzed to create an individualized plan of action. The changes to foreign policy are already evident, and will continue to unfold throughout the Biden administration.
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