What Does A Biden Presidency Mean For Foreign Policy?


After a drawn-out election process, Joseph Biden Jr. was announced as the winner of the presidential election and will be sworn into office on January 20, 2021. This election was watched around the world and is record-breaking in voter participation. However, what does this mean for the international audience? Before considering the future, examining the outcomes of the Trump administration’s foreign policy is vital to understand the likely agenda of the Biden presidency.

In the realm of foreign policy, the Trump administration was hostile towards the existing multilateral institutions and international agreements. This greatly disrupted how countries worked together as the previously reliable United States became unpredictable and erratic. Threatening to blow up longstanding agreements like NATO, withdrawing from the Paris Accords, and pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership were significant actions that accelerated the declining influence of the United States on the international stage.

Despite these destructive tendencies, the administration was adept at identifying meaningful flaws in international organizations like the World Trade Organisation and the unequal nature of American military alliances which sees the U.S. taking the greatest share of the burden. One of the major expectations of the Biden presidency will restore the normative role America plays in global geopolitics, but there will be an opportunity for U.S. alliance partners to mature their relationship and make plans to remedy the lopsidedness of their relationship.

From an Australian foreign policy perspective, Washington’s stance on China is paramount to Canberra’s strategic direction. In America, there is bipartisan support for a hawkish approach to contain the expanding China and in that sense, little has changed for Australia. However, the methodology for engineering this approach is vastly different between the outgoing and incoming presidencies.

Biden is a firm supporter of the rules-based international order, a concept that assumes that countries should share the norms of democracy, free trade, and cooperation to ensure the peace and productivity of all states that abide by them. Ashley Townsend of the United States Studies Centre expects that “…Australia, India, and others will be more empowered by a Biden administration and more effectively able to coordinate with the U.S.” In taking this course of action it runs the risk of increasing the polarizing force of great power conflict. The narrative of great power competition is naturally exclusive and forces foreign policy to be conducted in a binary of the U.S.A. versus China. This outcome only produces negatives for Australia. That binary-only considers other countries as accessories to this competition which align themselves with either the U.S. or China, ignoring their own agency and desired outcomes.

While Australia was relatively unscathed by the Trump presidency, it too is an alliance partner that relies heavily on U.S. support to maintain its sovereignty. To avoid being sucked into the vortex of great power conflict Australia needs to mature its relationship with the United States. On the domestic front, Australia needs to assume a greater stake in its own security and rely less on American guarantees. On the international front, Australia must play a different role.

While the U.S. is operating to restore relations in Europe and Asia, both regions have needs and attitudes that are incredibly different. As presented the rules-based international order infringes on a country’s sovereignty as it prescribes a Western standard by which to organize the country. Asia has been so negatively affected by colonialism, adoption of foreign standards to the exclusion of their own preferences is unpalatable. Australia needs to help shape the strategic conversation with the U.S., so it skews towards an issues-based approach that engages effectively with the actual needs of these countries rather than perceived