U.S. foreign policy under a Biden administration: A return to normalcy?

With a Biden electoral win, many expect a return to orthodox American engagement with Asia. However, a granular look at election results provides a more sobering assessment of U.S. global commitment beyond the Biden administration. U.S. allies and partners in Asia should be clear-eyed that there will be no reset.


The 2020 U.S. presidential election did not end with a straightforward result. Instead, the delay in ballots counting in battleground states and President Donald Trump’s legal threats to challenge the result complicated the usually smooth power transition. Nonetheless, President-elect Biden has already begun setting the tone for his Presidency through the formation of a COVID-19 task force and the vetting of potential Cabinet members.

A Biden’s win provided a sigh of relief for U.S. allies and partners around the world after an unprecedented period in U.S. foreign policy, which saw President Trump walked away from international agreements, weakened the American system of alliances, and generally pushed a more unilateral approach over a range of issues from trade disputes to China. Most expected Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will guide the U.S. back to multilateralism, pursue a more consistent strategy towards Asia and work more closely with allies and partners.

These predictions are accurate. However, the risk here is U.S. allies and partners in Asia might expect orthodox foreign policy. In the background of Trump’s chaotic and unpredictable approach, regional powers such as Japan and Australia stepped up their engagement with the region, spearheaded new interpretations of the Indo-Pacific concepts, and persuaded the U.S. to engage with the region in a coherent manner. An American return to multilateralism and close cooperation with allies and partners might pose a risk of persuading regional countries to lessen their engagement. 

A granular look at the election results provided a sobering assessment of U.S. engagement in the region. The close results in popular votes, in which 47% of American voters chose the incumbent President, showed that Trumpism remains a powerful force in American society and the Republican Party. Furthermore, Biden will face political gridlock from U.S. Congress, with the House under the Democrat control while the Republican Party might retain its grip on the Senate. This power-sharing arrangement might complicate Biden’s efforts to reach a bipartisan consensus on a host of issues, from affordable healthcare to clean economy, might become a subject of opposition from the Republican party. However, Biden might find a way out of political gridlock to push for his agenda. With his experiences working within the legislative and the government and his reputation as a centrist politician, Biden and his team might be able to forge consensus in issues that receive bipartisan support, such as investment in infrastructure and strategies towards a more assertive China.

This point is critical to American foreign policy and its global commitment. The U.S. needs to get its own house in order before it can engage more meaningfully with the region and to compete more effectively with China. Biden himself already underlined this point in a Foreign Affairs essay outlining his policy agenda: “As a nation, we have to prove to the world that the United States is prepared to lead again – not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example.” Unsurprisingly, Biden believes that renewing American democracy and developing a middle class-friendly foreign policy are the centerpieces of his agenda, “Build Back Better.”

Furthermore, the profound economic, social, and political polarization exposed by the election results has its roots in vast economic inequalities between the educated and the rest that spilled into economic resentment, cultural and political volatility. Diminishing polarization and inequality to tangible levels will naturally consume a considerable share of time and resources from the Biden administration. What we should be worried about is not whether Biden will be tough to China, but, as Tom McTague eloquently put, whether the American public continues to shoulder the burden of American regional and global commitments? And for how long?

Trump’s disdain for multilateralism and his unnecessary fights with allies over burden-sharing and trade disputes naturally stoked fears among regional countries over U.S. commitments. The region faces multiple security challenges from the shift in balance of power, triggered by China’s rising influence and strategic assertiveness in its neighborhood. Furthermore, non-traditional security challenges such as climate change, terrorism, trafficking, and piracy continue to threaten regional development and prosperity. The prospect of not being able to rely on U.S. global presence drove U.S. allies and partners towards greater engagement to maintain the rules-based order and regional security architecture.

A clear example of this shift is Japan. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Japan found ways to actively engage with the region under the auspice of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific. Emphasizing three pillars, which are: rule-of-law, economic prosperity, and commitment to peace and stability, Japan spearheaded multiple initiatives, from enhancing regional connectivity through quality infrastructure development, promotion of free trade through multilateral agreements to strengthening maritime security through capacity-building. Australia, another trusted ally of the U.S., is also having a “strategic revolution.” Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan signify this fundamental shift, where Australia not only acknowledges its security environment has deteriorated but also commits significant investment to enhance deterrent capabilities. Furthermore, Australia also works with the U.S., Japan and India within the framework of the revived Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad), in infrastructure development (the Blue Dot Network), and in strengthening supply chains’ resilience after the COVID-19 shocks.

A Biden win, therefore, could spur three different scenarios. The first scenario will see U.S. allies and partners’ attempt towards greater engagement and coordination slowly fades upon the hope that Biden will reorient American foreign policy back to its traditional posture. This is not a wise move for the reasons mentioned above. In the second scenario, the greater engagement, whose fundamentals were laid out under the Trump administration, will be reinvigorated even further now that we have a new U.S. leadership that believes in cooperation and multilateralism but still face certain domestic obstacles. In the most optimistic but less likely case, in which the U.S. goes through a V-shaped recovery by controlling the pandemic, the economic tailwind and domestic support will encourage Biden to pursue an even more proactive foreign policy that focuses on the Indo-Pacific, a rational approach to China and strengthen allies and partners.

Whether Biden can achieve this outcome remains an open question. Therefore, for U.S. allies and partners, sustained engagement is not only an effective solution for the current situation but also a long-term strategy for a new era of uncertainty and great power competition.

Hanh Nguyen
Hanh Nguyen
Hanh Nguyen received her M.A. in International Relations at International Christian University, Tokyo. Her research interest includes Vietnam's foreign policy and US-China relations. She was a fellow under the Japanese Grant Aid for Human Resource Development Scholarship (JDS). She has written for the Pacific Forum, The Diplomat, 9DashLine, Geopolitical Monitor and the East Asia Security Centre.