Three Ways the U.S. Can Adjust Its Foreign Policy in 2021


With both a new year and new president, 2021 presents an opportunity for the United States to rethink its foreign policy.

The past four years have been some of the most consequential for U.S. foreign policy, with President Donald J. Trump taking a radically different approach. As some predecessors have done, Trump pushed an America-First agenda and foreign policy. This included renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into the United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement (USMCA), pulling the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, and even refusing to extend New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) or negotiate a new disarmament treaty with the Russian Federation.

On top of that, Trump’s administration and foreign policy pulled the U.S. away from the world stage. For example, the U.S. pulled out of the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) which would have put measures in place to prevent Iran from enriching uranium beyond levels necessary for energy production and would have systematically removed sanctions on Iran from the U.S. in return. On top of that, the U.S. also pulled its troops out of Northern Syria and pulled out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

With a new administration just days away from taking the reins, the U.S. has an opportunity to adjust its foreign policy. There are several areas where the U.S. can step back, rethink its role abroad, and improve its foreign policies to make them more effective and beneficial for both America and the world at large.

Here are three ways the U.S. can adjust its foreign policy heading into 2021 under the new presidential administration.

Rethink International Economic Policies

As previously mentioned, the U.S. has taken steps that have both improved and hindered economic relations abroad. Early on in his presidency, Trump sought out bilateral trade agreements. This decision was based on the fact that he viewed the TPP as potentially harmful to domestic workers in the U.S. However, the bilateral agreements that were reached under the Trump administration were very limited in scope and cannot be compared to other free trade agreements (FTAs) the U.S. has in place with many other countries. Going into 2021, the U.S. should seek out more bilateral FTAs and look for opportunities to forge multilateral trade agreements. As of now, the EU ranks highest in FTAs with about 30. The U.S., on the other hand, has only 14.

Second, the U.S. needs to adjust its economic policies with China. During the last two years of the Trump administration, the U.S. and China nearly broke out into a full-on trade war. While the U.S. was able to get Chinese President Xi Jinping to agree to put more safeguards for Intellectual Property (I.P.), it fell short of meeting the goals set out by the Trump administration. However, there is already hope for both parties to make substantial progress regarding trade. For example, China’s ascent into the World Trade Organization (WTO) allowed for its increased global trade. Simultaneously, the U.S. was able to rein in China’s anti-competitive practices through the WTO’s dispute settlement body. Surprisingly, China has accepted every decision that has come down from the WTO regarding its business and trade practices, including the recent one regarding steel. Therefore, the U.S. and China can find middle ground that is beneficial for each other and, in turn, the world economy. With this in mind, the Biden administration must reach out to China, with reasonable demands, to reach further agreements on our trade, I.P. law/protections, and more regarding our strongly tied economies. These are absolute necessities for China, the U.S., and the world, because if China or the U.S. were to engage in a trade war or suffer a form of sudden economic decline, it could send the world economy tumbling.

Lastly, the U.S. must push to complete the Doha Development Round of negotiations. The Doha Round has been under talks since 2001. Under the WTO, the world has seen reductions in tariffs and other trade barriers, which has boosted trade and helped the world economy grow and prosper. It is estimated that the WTO has managed to prevent nations from facing tariffs of around 32% worldwide on their exports. The previous round of negotiations, the Uruguay Round, took only 7 years to negotiate. With 20 years nearly passed since this round started, it is time for the U.S. to pull the world together and finish the Doha Round.

Extend Olive Branch to Russia

Going into 2021, not only are America’s global economic policies in need of refreshing, but also relations with the Russian Federation. Both the Obama and Trump administrations were not successful at garnering a successful relationship with Russia. Under Obama and Trump, the U.S. made attempts to either reset or improve relations to no avail.

While President Barack Obama was still in office, relations with Russia soured and then further escalated with intelligence reports pointing to Russia as culprit for cyber intrusions, Russia’s renewed and expansive foreign policy, and with the Magnitsky Act. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama was able to sign New START with then-President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev.

On the other hand, nearly the same story can be said of the Trump administration. While Trump voiced both on the campaign trail and in the early days of his presidency that he sought to improve relations with Russia, he could not accomplish such. On top of that, Trump, like his predecessor, also placed further sanctions on the Russian Federation. While he is known for not listening to the intelligence community, the U.S. government and the Democratic Party were keen to criticize Russia for hacks and possible executions. Unfortunately, this further complicated Trump’s work in hoping to improve relations. However, in the end, he refused to seek an extension for New START or sign a new nuclear disarmament treaty with Russia.

With 2021 upon us, it is time for both the U.S. and Russia to begin working together on areas that common ground already exists. While neither the U.S. nor Russia may be the first one to give up in this tit-for-tat game that has been souring their relations and world politics, they can instead turn around and begin working together. Amidst all the political games, the U.S. and Russia have managed to continue cooperating in the realm of space. Having retired its space shuttle program, the U.S. has been joining Russian Soyuz launches to and from the International Space Station (ISS) over the past decade or so. While this is a minute area of cooperation, it shows that both the U.S. and Russia are capable of agreeing on things. On top of that, both the U.S. and Russia have an extensive history of working together to lower the number of nuclear arms in their arsenals. With that in mind, the coming administration must start here.

In about one month, New START will expire, leaving both the U.S. and Russia open to expanding their nuclear arsenals. While it is unlikely that either nation would do so, it is imperative that the incoming Biden administration immediately extend the treaty by one year so that a new agreement can be forged. Furthermore, the U.S. and Russia should seek to expand beyond this scope and find a common solution for the worldwide issue of nuclear arsenals. It would be naïve to assume that the U.S. and Russia would be willing to sign a worldwide agreement banning nuclear arms in the next year. Still, they can make forward progress on that goal which U.N. Resolution L.41 from 2017 called for (both the U.S. and Russia voted against it). For the relationship between these two nations to improve, they have to start small.

Going further, the U.S. should focus its efforts on other areas of common ground between the U.S. and Russia. For example, they can cooperate on both terrorism and drug trafficking. Both nations take these issues very seriously, which would allow them to find common ground. From there, they would be able to expand the scope of both government and law enforcement interactions amongst themselves. At the same time, the U.S. should look for opportunities to reduce sanctions against Russia. In tandem, both reductions in sanctions and continued cooperation can foster a snowball effect. This, in turn, could sow the seeds needed for a better future relationship between the U.S. and Russia that is both peaceful and productive for themselves and the world.

Tackle Climate Change

In contrast with the previous and incoming administrations, the Trump administration did not view climate change the same. During Trump’s first year in office, the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord, which included legally binding limits on emissions. Beyond the scope of international affairs, the Trump administration relaxed many regulations that minimized pollution and fossil fuel use. At the same time, many other nations have prioritized going green. For example, Germany has consistently prioritized limiting fossil fuels and going carbon neutral by 2050. In the past year, China also announced its own similar plan to slash carbon emissions by over 60% by 2030. The U.S. is more than capable of prioritizing renewable energy both at home and abroad, which is vital since the U.S.’ hesitation stems from domestic politics.

In 2021, the incoming administration must rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. By rejoining, the U.S. will signal not only that it is taking Climate Change seriously, but that the U.S. will be stepping back into its former role as a global leader of change and prosperity. The U.S. must lead by example in this area. Going further, the U.S. can improve conditions for many struggling with energy needs by providing developing nations with microloans or other forms of assistance. This will not only get developing nations moving in the right direction in terms of carbon emissions, but will provide energy for those struggling already.

The U.S. and the incoming administration have an excellent opportunity to improve foreign relations for all drastically. 2021 presents a chance for the U.S. to rethink and refine its foreign policy in many areas. The first recommendation is to rethink America’s foreign trade and economic policies. These policies will not only allow the U.S. to prosper but also the world. Second, the U.S. must rethink its relationship with Russia. Relations can easily be improved by starting with the areas we have previously worked together on. Alongside that, the U.S. must be willing to slowly wipe the slate clean with Russia so that the relationship can be given the proper chance it needs to develop. Lastly, the U.S. needs to return to the Paris Climate Accord and reassess its foreign policy stance regarding climate change.

Again, it’s time for the U.S. to step back and refresh not only itself but its foreign policy. The incoming Biden-Harris administration has already given a preview of the tone and change they seek to bring to Washington. Whether Biden administration follows through or not, this is America’s moment to step up to the plate.

From our partner RIAC

Aidan Music
Aidan Music
Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC)


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