American foreign policy is a constant swing between isolationism and internationalism. The former is a policy that consists of turning inwards and departing from world affairs, while internationalism promotes greater political and economic cooperation between states. As a short account of American foreign policy history, the period between the American Revolution and World War I is considered the founding era of American isolationism. The young nation expanded to the Pacific – fulfilling its “Manifest Destiny”[1] – while the Monroe Doctrine designated continental America as its “chasse gardée”. The first world war was the first proper period of American internationalism. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson, after waiting three years to join the conflict, allied with the Triple Entente (France, United Kingdom, Russia) powers to face the Triple Alliance, named later the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy (until 1915)). However, this brief period of internationalism was short live as the US Congress rejected the Versaille Treaty and subsequently refused to join the League of Nations. It was only in 1941, when the US joined the Allied Forces, that a period of internationalism resurfaced, lasting for decades and becoming part of American foreign policy culture. Some cornerstones of this foreign policy strategy are the Marshall Plan, membership to the United Nations, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the Pivot towards Asia under the Obama administration. Overall, America’s newfound foreign policy doctrine is affirmed in the maxim “a city upon a hill” arguing that the US has a duty to bring democracy to the world[2]. As Hal Brands finds, the past 75 years were marked by American internationalism as US foreign policy emphasised securing its “interests through the leadership of an open, stable, and integrated global community, one in which Washington bears the heaviest burdens in exchange for enormous benefits”[3]. Furthermore, Clarke and Ricketts, argue that the Trump foreign policy administration, “has been remarkable for the extent to which its foreign policy positions have run counter to the largely liberal internationalist approach of successive administrations since 1945”[4]. However, Joseph R. Biden inauguration will be undoubtedly a rollback to the “Obama way”, under which he served as Vice President. At this stage, we can only speculate on how his foreign policy strategy will look, however, by analysing past actions as Vice President, campaign speeches, materials, and administration composition, a couple of clear lines emerge. Thus, this piece will study what is to be expected from a Biden administration on the foreign policy front, concentrating on how it will impact Europe. Furthermore, we shall discuss how European’s should respond to this new American foreign policy. To better answer these questions, this piece is divided into three sections. The first will take stock of the Trump foreign policy legacy, the second turning to the Biden administration, finally, the third, studying the expected European response to the administration. This third section will also serve as a call for greater European integration, military independence, and the constitution of a substantial European foreign policy strategy.

The Trump Legacy

American foreign policy for the past 75 years was relatively uniform and bipartisan. Indeed, foreign policy advisors for one side of the aisle sometimes served the other side. However, the Trump administration brought a halt to this bipartisan consensus. Hiring foreign policy advisors outside the establishment led to a rupture with the conventional American foreign affairs philosophy. The Trump tenure was undoubtedly a shock, and the following administrations will feel its legacy.

From isolationism to internationalism and back again 

First, we should note how Trump’s isolationist policies differ from previous internationalist policies. When labelling Trump’s foreign policies as “isolationist”, this piece relies on Brands analysis that the Trump administration followed a “Fortress America” model[5]. “Fortress America” is defined as a foreign policy doctrine based on nationalism and isolationism. It views the world as a zero-sum game based on the belief that foreign powers, traditionally allies, have exploited America’s economic, political and military power. This observation translates into economic brinkmanship policies, reservations and retreat from multilateral international cooperation, and military disengagement from foreign conflicts while preserving a high degree of deterrence aimed at national threats. The past four years validated the “Fortress America” analysis model. Indeed, Trump’s “America First” slogan translated economically into international trade protection. For example, the United States imposed tariffs on Chinese aluminium and steel, renegotiated NAFTA (now USMCA), threatened a 25% tariff on Japanese and European automobiles, and failed to offer a trade deal with the United Kingdom post-Brexit[6]. With regards to international politics, Donald Trump repeatedly criticised international organisations. The US left the World Health Organisation on the allegation that the organisation colluded with China during the coronavirus pandemic’s beginning[7]. Furthermore, the President of the US did not hesitate to confront his traditional allies (notably Emmanuel Macron, President of France on the question of NATO[8]) while promoting friendly relations with authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un. On the one hand, on questions of defence, Trump kept his campaign promise to strengthen and infuse more money into the military. On the other hand, US military presence overseas has decreased under the Trump Presidency[9]. Donald Trump failed to provide a satisfying strategy in the Middle-East, saying that he will “hit ISIS hard” while maintaining that there should be less US troops on the ground[10]. Furthermore, the Trump administration turned its back on the Kurds, an indispensable ally during the Mosul liberation campaign. These three elements (economics, politics, military) of the “Fortress America” model paint a picture of American isolationism. A picture which is in stark contrast with the tradition of American internationalism.

A heritage

Now let us turn to Trump’s legacy and its impact on Biden’s foreign policy capabilities and strategy. Trump’s candidacy to the US office was a danger to the Democrats as much as it were to the Republicans. For the Democrats, Donald Trump is a populist who would capitalise on the nationalist sentiment growing in the United States. If done successfully, this political novice, which never held office before the Presidential campaign, would come as a wrecking ball, breaking even the most established career politicians – such as Hilary Clinton. On the other side of the aisle, Republicans saw Donald Trump, although a federating figure, as someone who could challenge the Grand Old Party’s very foundations. In fact, during the Republican primaries, a substantial number of Republicans spoke openly against Donald Trump’s candidacy[11]. The fact that Donald Trump won seventy-two million votes despite Republican and Democrat opposition shows that a large body of the electorate was sick of traditional US foreign policy. With the backing of several votes, Donald Trump implemented structural changes to US foreign policy, which won’t overturn by Biden’s election in 2020. As mentioned earlier, the Trump era was a decisive blow to the traditional approach of American policy. The 45th President of the United States broke down the conventional bi-partisan approach to US foreign policy[12]. The Biden administration will thus have to face many challenges. The first is bringing back bipartisanship. Warranted or not, Democrats have done everything they could to delegitimise Trump’s foreign policy. For Mearsheimer, Republicans see it as “payback time” and will do all their possible to block Parliament’s bipartisanship. Without the support of Parliament, it will be incredibly difficult for America to join the global discussion and return to its role as a world leader. This challenge is further exacerbated due to Trump’s appraisal of authoritarian leaders and demeaning attitude towards its traditional allies. The North Korean PR stunt might have produced a nice photo but ultimately has reinforced North Korea leader Kim Jong-Un’s legitimacy. Biden will have to prove to the world and its leaders that he can offer a credible strategy that doesn’t alienate its allies but brings them in to discuss and coordinate multilateral actions. One of the dossiers at the top of the pile is the situation in the Middle-East. In 2016 Trump moved the American embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. The result was increasing tension in the region with regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Biden must come forward on the subject and establish whether Israel has the full support of the American superpower or whether the US is open to creating new discussion channels to resolve the dispute. However, specific policies cannot be rolled back, such as the green light given to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to invade the West Bank. For John Mearsheimer, the Israelian lobby has gained so much power during the Trump tenure that Biden will not distance itself from Israel[13]. In the Middle-East, Biden will have to justify why the US abandoned its Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS. He will also have the responsibility of leaving Iraq and Libya sensibly without causing more structural disruption. Finally, another central dossier is America’s trade war with China and its relationship with Asia-Pacific allies[14]. Overall, Trump’s legacy will undeniably tie Biden’s arms together. However, he must persevere to bring back bipartisanship and reaffirm America’s role as a major superpower.

Assessing the Biden administration

As discussed above, the Biden administration will have to mix damage control and progressive policies when carrying out foreign policy action. Damage control, as his administration will inevitably distance itself from the decisions of the previous administration. Progressive policies, as Biden will have to rethink America’s role in this decade and the ones to come. Repositioning America does not only mean putting it at the forefront to deal with climate change. It also means acknowledging and cooperating with its historical ally: Europe. However, although Biden will not be as aggressive as Trump, it seems unrealistic to expect genuine cooperation between the two actors.

Distancing from Trump

Biden hope to distance himself from Trump’s legacy is multiform[15]. However, this strategy revolves around three core components, reversing the “Withdrawal Doctrine”, the overall language, and making amends with traditional allies. The “Withdrawal Doctrine”, coined by Richard Haass[16], a prominent international relations scholar, asserts that Donald Trump’s grand strategy can be understood as decoupling America from international liberalism. In other words, America will retreat from world affairs and turn inwards to face its domestic issues, which, following the Doctrine, find their root in internationalism and cannot be fixed by international liberalism. Concrete measures evidence the Doctrine: leaving the Paris Accord, JCPOA, and a myriad of international organisations – such as UNESCO, WHO, UN Human Rights Council. Biden joined back the Paris Accord hours after being inaugurated[17]. He also stated that the United States would become a party to the JCPOA and that a new treaty on Iranian missile capabilities is in the making. All these elements constituting a reversal of the “Withdrawal Doctrine” and a return to internationalism. While Trump’s “Withdrawal Doctrine” took form in the “America First” slogan, Biden’s “Build Back Better” hints to a federating (at home) and internationalist (abroad) way of conducting politics. Indeed, while Trump belittled and insulted political opponents at home and ostracised allied nations, Biden will employ a uniting and positive language. As illustrated by the term “Build Back Better”, “A President for All Americans”, “not to divide, but to unify”[18]. Finally, Biden will make amends with traditional European allies by appointing Antony Blinken, a pro-European, as Secretary of State. While transpacific cooperation will be better off than during the Trump tenure, Biden will continue the “Asia-Pacific Pivot”, which began during the Obama years. In other words, America and Europe will talk, broadly agree. Still, they will not act in tandem to face modern challenges such as climate change, international security, terrorism, the rise of authoritarianism and many more.

A road map for future policies

The current administration faces many challenges from which we can infer specific goals. Although these goals are numerous[19], we shall concentrate on three: the “Asia-Pacific Pivot”, green diplomacy, and defense. The “Asia-Pacific Pivot” emerged during the Obama mandates. It argues that Europe is no longer the superpower that it once was and that America’s future lies in Asia-Pacific. This posture is evidenced by the ties between America and Taiwan, and Japan. It also sees Australia and New Zealand as anchors of American culture, which can be propelled within the Asia-Pacific region. Under Biden, this strategy is two faceted. First, Biden agrees with Trump that China is abusing human rights within its territory and abroad and observes that China is conducting unfair practices regarding bilateral trade. The two, however, differ on the way to keep China in check. While Trump was a proponent of an aggressive reaction, Biden will be more measured, seeking cooperation rather than confrontation. In line with his internationalist philosophy, Biden proposed to create a Summit to coordinate with its allies a response to cease human rights abuses and economically disloyal practices from the part of China[20]. The second point of focus will be green diplomacy. Biden stated in 2019 that Trump has “bankrupted America’s word in the world”[21]. One way to bring back legitimacy will be through tough stances on climate change. Indeed, Biden has already adhered America to the Paris Accord, wishes to see the country carbon-neutral by 2050, and promised debt relief for countries with green policies. We should, however, mention that as a Senator, he supported fracking, “clean coal”, and did not vote in favour of the 2008 Climate Security Act. Nevertheless, if Biden follows through with his policies, America could once again become an example for the world regarding green policies. With regards to the final point, defence, Biden is quite ambiguous. He supported the Iraq intervention in 2003, now acknowledging it as a mistake. He promised to end the “forever wars” and guaranteed that all use of force will have Congressional approval unless it is an imminent threat. Biden argues that the US should keep special forces and intelligence agents on foreign soil. He stated that force would not be used for regime change and only employed when America’s security is a stake or to prevent genocide and the use of weapons of mass destruction. In his campaign speeches, Biden systematically appraised NATO and multilateral coordination and cooperation on international defence and security questions. As opposed to Trump, who criticised NATO members for not spending enough and failed to act in concert with allied nations. Overall, Biden is a proponent of international multilateralism. On questions of defence, climate change and trade, he is a proponent of international cooperation. However, he will most likely find his new allies in Asia-Pacific, neglecting traditional European states.

The vision for Europe

Since 2009 Europe has become close to irrelevant for American foreign policy thinkers and policymakers. Indeed, Europe is seen as a benign block that will not challenge American leadership; in fact, it serves it. However, on the other side of the Pacific, China is a rising power that challenges American ideals (human rights, free market, liberalism, democracy) and its position as a global hegemon. For succeeding administrations, the main issue is containing China. So, where does that leave Europe in the equations? As mentioned in the previous sections, America currently, and in the future, will continue to care very little about Europeans. As John Mearsheimer stated in an interview, most foreign policy advisors in the Biden administration see Europeans as children who cannot care for themselves[22]. Paradoxically, the Biden administration loathes Russia – suffering from Russian intervention’s stigmas in US elections – and sees Europeans as an entity that can contain Russia out of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, in line with containing China and the “Asia-Pacific Pivot”, America needs Europeans to contain China economically. Biden’s advisors recognise that Europe has minimal military capabilities and cannot project force against Russia or China. Therefore, Europe will be used as a tool to preserve American interests. On the one hand, NATO will remain alive to challenge and deter Russia. On the other hand, America will expect Europe to apply economic pressure on China. Overall, while transpacific relations will be less heated, Europe will remain a weak block that can serve US interests in the American imaginary.

A call for European independence

European powers are relegated to powers of second zone. The United States, under the Obama, Trump, and now Biden administration, has abandoned the idea that Europe can be treated as a peer. This piece believes that rather than a tragedy, a decoupling of the US in European affairs is a golden opportunity to reinvent and strengthen European independence regarding foreign policy. Europe must become the third power, competing for its values and keeping the two other superpowers – the United States and China – in check. Due to its inherent multiculturalism, Europe can become an effective middle-man. Dialogue with Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Arab world in primordial to promote European interests. The good news is that the EU has the means but not the will. Strong of its many institutions, the European Union possess numerous branches which serve foreign policy tasks. Through the EEAS (European External Action Service), the EU should formulate a long term strategy. However, this strategy or doctrine should be thought of uniquely and without external influence, notably from the US. To formulate such a Doctrine, France can be taken as an example. For a long time, French foreign policy advisors have promoted a strategy of non-alignment. As Hubert Védrine famously said about French foreign policy concerning the United States, “nous sommes amis, alliés, mais pas alignés” (FN 23) (“we are friends, allies, but non-aligned”). Indeed, Jacques Chirac, at the time President of the French Republic, was the only leader of any major power to refuse following the United States in invading Iraq in 2003. The EU must offer a third way. It must cooperate with America in promoting our shared values of open societies, human rights, democracy while pushing back when the United States tries to bully through its interests. Consequently, Europeans must form economic ties with China as it has become an undeniable trading superpower. On the other hand, it must condemn China’s attitude towards human rights and democracy. Furthermore, Europeans should stop worrying about Russia as it is not the threat it tries to make out to be (FN 24). Overall, Europeans, through the European Union, must muster the courage to decide their fate. No longer can it treat the Union as a solely economic project. Instead, it should see the European organisation as a catalyst to advance their shared interest.


[1] See Steve Jones, “American Manifest Destiny and Modern Foreign Policy” (ThoughtCo, 6 March 2020) https://www.thoughtco.com/american-manifest-destiny-3310344.

[2] See Andrew Bacevich’s interview for more on the origines and content of the maxim “a city upon a hill”, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB3_2MpAebESee also ibid on how “Manifest Destiny” is employed to justify the promotion of democracy to foreign states.

[3] Hal Brands, “U.S. Grand Strategy in an Age of Nationalism: Fortress America and its Alternatives”, The Washington Quaterly 40, No. 1 (2017), p. 73.

[4] Michael Clarke and Anthony Ricketts, “Donald Trump and American foreign policy: The return of the Jacksonian tradition”, Comparative Strategy 36, No. 4 (2017), p. 366.

[5] Supra note 3, p. 77-82.

[6] Desmond Lachman, “President Trump’s dangerous free trade retreat”, The Hill (2019), available at https://thehill.com/opinion/finance/474782-president-trumps-dangerous-free-trade-retreat.

[7] Katie Rogers and Apoorva Mandavilli, “Trump Administration Signals Formal Withdrawal From W.H.O.”, New York Times (2020), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/07/us/politics/coronavirus-trump-who.html.

[8] Michael Peel and Laura Pitel, “Trump and Macron clash as Nato leaders gather”, Financial Times (2019), available at https://www.ft.com/content/5b265f70-15bc-11ea-9ee4-11f260415385.

[9] Christophe Giles, “US election 2020: Has Trump kept his promises on the military?”, BBC News (2020), available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-us-2020-54060026.

[10] Brian Bennett, “President Trump Showed His Contradictory Foreign Policy Doctrine in Iraq. Call It ‘Hawkish Isolationism'”, Time Magazine (2018), available at https://time.com/5489044/donald-trump-iraq-hawkish-isolationism/. For a counter opinion, arguing that Trump’s military policy was not isolationist see Ted Galen Carpenter, “Wrong: Trump Is Not an Isolationist”, CATO Institute (2019), available at https://www.cato.org/commentary/wrong-trump-not-isolationist.

[11] See David A. Graham, “Which Republicans Oppose Donald Trump? A Cheat Sheet”, The Atlantic (2016), available at https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/where-republicans-stand-on-donald-trump-a-cheat-sheet/481449/; Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin, “Republican Leaders Map a Strategy to Derail Donald Trump”, The New York Times (2016), available at https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/us/politics/donald-trump-republican-party.html.

[12] See John Mearsheimer on how the bi-partisan approach was dismantled under the Trump adminitration. The interview is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KaTGGdsomf4.

[13] See ibid. See also John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” (2006), KSG Working Paper No. RWP06-011 for further reading on the Israelian lobby and its influence on American foreign policy.

[14] See Green Michael, “Biden Makes His First Bold Move on Asia”, Foreign Policy (2021) available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/13/kurt-campbell-biden-asia-china-appointment/; and Raja Mohan, “A New Pivot to Asia”, Foreign Policy (2021) available at https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/15/biden-china-asia-allies-strategy-pivot/.

[15] See Lindsay Maizland, “Biden’s First Foreign Policy Move: Reentering International Agreements”, Council on Foreign Relations(2021) available at https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/bidens-first-foreign-policy-move-reentering-international-agreements for more points of distancing.

[16] Richard N. Haass, “Trump’s Foreign Policy Doctrine? The Withdrawal Doctrine”, Council on Foreign Relations (2020) available at https://www.cfr.org/article/trumps-foreign-policy-doctrine-withdrawal-doctrine.

[17] Oliver Milman, “Biden returns US to Paris climate accord hours after becoming president”, The Guardian (2021) available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/20/paris-climate-accord-joe-biden-returns-us.

[18] See Joe Biden’s official campaign website for more elements of language proponing unification and bipartisan collaboration, available at https://joebiden.com/presidency-for-all-americans/.

[19] See Council on Foreign Relations, “President-Elect Biden on Foreign Policy”, Council on Foreign Relations (2020) available at https://www.cfr.org/election2020/candidate-tracker for a list of the different goals of the administration foreign policy wise.

[20] See Joe Biden, “The Power of America’s Example: The Biden Plan for Leading the Democratic World to meet the Challenges of the 21st Century”, Joe Biden (2020) available at https://joebiden.com/AmericanLeadership/.

[21] John Haltiwanger, “Joe Biden ripped Trump for bankrupting the world’s trust in the US in a blistering speech”, Business Insider (2019) available at https://www.businessinsider.com/joe-biden-rips-into-trump-in-blistering-foreign-policy-speech-2019-7?r=US&IR=T

[22] Supra note 12.

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