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Why Biden’s foreign policy may not differ much from Trump

Although Biden signed a slew of executive orders in his first days in office, domestic problems will keep him from sparking massive changes in foreign policy

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, left, meets with Ammar Al-Hakim, right, head of the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) which is part of the broad Shiite coalition the Iraqi National Alliance in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, July 5, 2010.
Hadi Mizban, Associated Press

In the months ahead, President Joe Biden will be met with various challenges on the international stage, from Iran’s nuclear deal and the wars in Syria and Yemen to coordinating a global response to conquer the pandemic. Will Biden foreign policy be a complete break from Trump’s foreign policy, or will it be more of the same?

A look at the foreign policy actions undertaken by the new administration, the most recent foreign policy presidential remarks, and the domestic challenges facing the nation (including COVID-19, racial tensions and post-pandemic economic prospects) indicate that we will likely see more of the same, rather than a complete break from the past.

On the first day in the Oval Office, Biden signed 17 executive actions. Three of them are a clear break from the past. The first action instructs the U.S. to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and reenter the agreement to lead global efforts in tackling climate change. An action which the Trump administration believed undermined our energy independence and economic growth.

The second action ends the so-called Muslim ban. The ban blocked travel to the U.S. from several predominantly majority-Muslim countries, with the ambition to protect the nation from foreign terrorism. The Biden administration considers believes the ban violated our values of religious freedom and tolerance, principles enshrined in the Constitution, and America’s image in the world.

The third action halts the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization and instructs the American delegation to rejoin the organization in order to form an international alliance against COVID-19 and other global health challenges. To the new administration, working with international partners is an essential step to stop the virus and its devastating consequences.

Furthermore, Biden ordered an end to arms sales and other support to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen — a war he calls a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.” This move will pause the sale of $478 million in precision-guided munitions to the Saudis. However, during the same remarks Biden asserted that the U.S. will “continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity” from potential threats by Iranian-supplied forces. It remains to be seen whether the end to support of Saudi actions in Yemen will be a clear break from the past or just a substitute for support against Iranian threats.

While these foreign policy moves signal a break from the past, they might also be seen as “easy” issues to quickly deal with. Tougher foreign policy issues will loom over in the months ahead, including the Iran nuclear deal, cyberthreats to democracy, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive actions, civil war in Syria, Venezuela’s political and humanitarian crisis, human rights violations against Uighur Muslims in China, and North Korea nuclear threats. How Biden will deal with these issues will strongly be affected by our conditions at home.

In fact, it appears that demands at home and the urgency to focus on them now — the record death tolls from COVID-19 in recent weeks, increased racial tensions in our communities, economic hardship across the country, and the deep political divisions within our nation — will make it extremely difficult for Biden to unleash America’s full foreign policy potential and energy.

Regardless of Biden’s abiding interest in foreign affairs and actions currently undertaken, the new administration will be heavily consumed by demands at home. As Biden avowed, we are undergoing a national emergency situation and we need to act like we are in one. In the months ahead, questions such as how to avoid a health care system crush, how to assist those who are hit the most by the pandemic, how to quickly move the vaccine from factory to front lines, how to return our kids safely back to school, and how to unite a deeply divided nation will take the front seat.

So long as Biden remains consumed by these challenges at home, we will likely see more of the same, especially in tougher foreign policy issues, rather than a complete break from the past.

Perparim Gutaj is a professor of international and comparative politics at Salt Lake Community College. His views are his own.