Biden’s Realist Foreign Policy: A Shift Towards Institutionalism

President elect Joe Biden
Credit: U.S. Embassy Jerusalem, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Fundamentals of America’s Foreign Policy have remained rooted in the Bretton Woods arrangement of Institutions and the subsequent Washington Consensus that reinforced such multilateral arrangements. These fundamentals have directed much of America’s Foreign Policy objectives since WW-II, and have transcended across presidencies and their respective party ideologies. 

However, the unconventional ‘America First’ doctrine of the Trump administration has expanded the centrality of ‘national interest’ in its foreign policy calculations. The proposition of renewed ‘American Isolationism’ under President Trump has intended to focus on American interests at home, while resolutely challenging the role played by multilateral organizations and alliances.

The term ‘Isolationism’ here refers to a category of foreign policies institutionalized by leaders who assert that their nations’ best interests are best served by keeping the affairs of other countries at a distance, or even argue that a country is best served by avoiding international trade agreements or other mutual assistance pacts. 

On Jan. 23, 2017, the Presidential Memorandum Regarding Withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Negotiations and Agreement categorically outlined the intention of Trump administration to deal directly with individual countries on a one-on-one (or bilateral) basis in negotiating future trade deals. The U.S. Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement likewise proposed an argument that gave centrality to American workers and businesses at home. The same argument has engineered the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. This very rationale also extends to Trump administration’s deliberations on Middle-east policy, Transatlantic Relations or even America’s renewed prospects with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Theoretically and otherwise, while ‘Isolationism’ under the Trump administration seems to have undermined the core of the Bretton Woods ideologue, it also has underlined and upheld ‘America-centrism’ concerning its national interests. 

President-elect Biden’s circumspection of ‘American economic interests’ also is apparent in the foreign policy vision document. It underscores the potency of economic interests of the American middle-class by stating that economic security is national security. 

The Buy American Plan lays down a comprehensive foundation which aims towards revitalizing American domestic economy – modernize international trade rules and associate domestic regulations regarding government procurement to make sure that the United States and allies use their own taxpayer dollars to spur investment in their own countries. 

Furthermore, the foreign policy vision document also identifies the necessity for the United States to lead the world to address some of the most urgent global challenges — climate action and nuclear cooperation at the forefront. The vision document details two priorities of the Biden administration in this regard:

1) Rejoining the Paris Climate Accord to lead a major diplomatic push and raise the ambitions of countries’ climate targets, aimed towards pressuring China.

2) Renewal of American commitment towards arms control

  • Re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — given Iran’s full compliance.
  • Sustained, coordinated campaign with allies towards denuclearization of North Korea.
  • Pursuing an extension of the New START as an anchor of strategic stability between the United States and Russia. 

The underlying principle that will shape the Biden foreign policy is more the structural power realities primarily posed by China than the precedent set by President Trump; as the latter is essentially an outcome of these changes in the structural power dynamics.

A Rational Choice Institutional analysis presumes that utility-maximizing individual states, acting out of self-interest, are central actors in the international political process and that institutions emerge because of their interdependence, strategic interaction and collective action or contracting dilemmas. Institutions are established and survive because they fulfil important functions for the individual actors (nation-states) affected by these institutions.

A Rational Choice Institutionalist approach is more likely to strengthen American Interests at home and abroad, as the United States will once again look forward to assuming global leadership via a stronger realignment with the Bretton Woods institutions on matters related to security, trade, technology, energy and climate. 

The substitution of an unpredictable Isolationist doctrine of the Trump administration by a process-oriented Institutionalist approach will advocate for a robust diplomatic engagement that advances American economic interests, perhaps on a narrow transactional basis. In this regard, a Biden foreign policy assessment appears to be distinct from the Obama Doctrine, as it intriguingly integrates Realism and Institutionalism. The Obama Doctrine sought an explicit multilateral diplomatic push aimed towards economic globalization whereas the Biden Doctrine highlights the need to prioritize the domestic economy. The distinction is also seeming because of a rising China that poses strategic limitations vis-à-vis restoration of an erstwhile Liberal International Order. Hence, redeeming a rules-based international order that is driven by Realism and Institutionalism putting American economic interests at the forefront, will be a top goal of the Biden administration. On an ending note, the President-elect’s nominee for Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Oct. 01, 2020 stated: “A Biden administration [will] engage the world not as it was in 2009 or even 2017 when we left office, but as it is.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.