Biden’s challenges on foreign policy

The president-elect will confront a changed world and difficult diplomacy with nations such as China, Iran and Venezuela.

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(Photos by Emilienne Malfatto and Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post, Mikhail Svetlov and Feng Li/Getty Images)

President-elect Joe Biden set out big principles on foreign policy — consult with allies, participate in international institutions, elevate climate to the top of the agenda — and plans to quickly reverse some of President Trump’s more egregious departures from historical norms on issues such as immigration.

But on a host of matters, he faces competing priorities, congressional hurdles and wary, if welcoming, allies.

In some cases, such as with North Korea and Venezuela, the most daunting obstacle to foreign policy success is the one that has bedeviled several presidents before him. There are no good options.

Biden is “inheriting a country in crisis,” said Ellen Laipson, director of the International Security Program at George Mason University.

“Between the pandemic and not traveling and economic pain, it’s not going to be an easy time for the foreign policy crowd. They’re going to have to wait their turn,” she said.

Some issues will not wait.

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    A changed world
    Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, arrive at the Guatemalan air force base in Guatemala City on March 2, 2015. (Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)
    Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill Biden, arrive at the Guatemalan air force base in Guatemala City on March 2, 2015. (Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)

    Biden faces no end of foreign policy challenges

    By Karen DeYoung

    President-elect Joe Biden has received no shortage of advice on how to fill the gap between his “America’s back!” mantra and the challenges facing a world that has undergone major changes since he last served in the White House.

    Russia and China
    Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping appear before the opening ceremony of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia in 2014. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)
    Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping appear before the opening ceremony of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia in 2014. (Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

    To counter China and Russia, Biden has said he will strengthen alliances

    By Paul Sonne

    The Trump administration viewed competition with China and Russia largely through a realpolitik lens, christening a new era in foreign policy as one of “great power competition.” President-elect Joe Biden is more likely to cast the matter in ideological terms, seeing the situation not just as a contest among nations for power, but also as a struggle of like-minded democracies against rising authoritarianism. He will inherit significant challenges.

    Iran nuclear deal
    Mourners attend the burial of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in Tehran on Nov. 30. (Hamed Malekpour/Tasnim News/AFP/Getty Images)
    Mourners attend the burial of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in Tehran on Nov. 30. (Hamed Malekpour/Tasnim News/AFP/Getty Images)

    Restoring the Iran nuclear deal may be easier said than done

    By Joby Warrick

    As a White House candidate, Joe Biden said his formal plan for dealing with Iran would start with a seemingly simple first step: rejoining the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. A new nuclear crisis in the Middle East could be best averted, he argued, by keeping Tehran boxed inside the agreement’s strict, if temporary, limits, while working to negotiate stronger ones. But the prospects for reviving the deal are looking more complicated as an oddly diverse collection of opponents work to ensure that his vision is never realized.

    Venezuela and Maduro
    Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a news conference at Miraflores Government Palace on March 12 in Caracas. He announced restrictions on travel and mass gatherings to try to stem the coronavirus.
    Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks at a news conference at Miraflores Government Palace on March 12 in Caracas. He announced restrictions on travel and mass gatherings to try to stem the coronavirus. (Carolina Cabral/Getty Images)

    Limited options on Venezuela for Biden administration

    By Karen DeYoung

    President Trump has imposed “maximum pressure” sanctions on Venezuela, recognized an opposition leader as the country’s legitimate president, and hinted at various times that he would negotiate with President Nicolas Maduro or use the U.S. military to oust him. But the policies have accomplished little. President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to continue U.S. sanctions and said he would increase humanitarian spending for Venezuelans enduring “enormous suffering.” But his administration will be limited in what it can do to change the situation anytime soon.

    ‘The forever wars’
    Vice President Joe Biden arrives at a U.S. base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 11, 2011. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)
    Vice President Joe Biden arrives at a U.S. base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan, on Jan. 11, 2011. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images)

    Complicated landscape awaits Biden as he seeks to end U.S. wars

    By Dan Lamothe

    President Trump took office after repeatedly promising to end the United States’ “endless wars.” But reality proved more complicated, and the U.S. military is still involved in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other terrorism hot spots. President-elect Joe Biden also has said it is time to “end the forever wars,” but he has indicated that does not mean shutting down all counterterrorism operations abroad. He is likely to face similar challenges — and political pressure — as he takes over the White House.

    Strained transatlantic ties
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, surrounded by other foreign and economic leaders, talks to President Trump on the second day of the Group of Seven summit on June 9, 2018, in Charlevoix, Canada. (Jesco Denzel /Bundesregierung/Getty Images)
    German Chancellor Angela Merkel, surrounded by other foreign and economic leaders, talks to President Trump on the second day of the Group of Seven summit on June 9, 2018, in Charlevoix, Canada. (Jesco Denzel /Bundesregierung/Getty Images)

    Wary allies await change after four years of ‘America First’

    By Carol Morello

    Joe Biden’s presidential victory brought a collective sigh of relief from many allies, who are expecting improved relations as President Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and go-it-alone policies are replaced by a more traditional approach. But the president-elect has acknowledged that the transition will not be seamless. Four years of Trump’s attacks on European institutions have left many allies wary, and several long-standing issues could further strain relationships.

    The North Korea threat
    Kim Jong Un arrives in Lang Son, Vietnam, on Feb. 26, 2019, for a summit with President Trump.
    Kim Jong Un arrives in Lang Son, Vietnam, on Feb. 26, 2019, for a summit with President Trump. (Linh Pham/Getty Images)

    Biden’s first foreign-policy challenge could be North Korea

    By Joby Warrick

    Despite “fire and fury” rhetoric and a trio of summits, President Trump is leaving office without fulfilling his promise to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear threat. Yet even though Kim Jong Un refused to stop building bombs and missiles, he did become quieter about it. Now, with Trump’s impending departure, U.S. analysts fear a return to more brazen behavior, perhaps in the earliest days of the new administration. North Korean leaders have shown a penchant for provoking crises with newly elected U.S. presidents, and many analysts think that President-elect Joe Biden’s term could start with a new North Korean nuclear test, or the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, or both.

    A new Middle East
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Vice President Joe Biden chat at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 21, 2016.
    Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Vice President Joe Biden chat at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 21, 2016. (Michel Euler/AP)

    Trump emboldened Israel and Saudi Arabia; Biden will try to rein them in. A little.

    By Anne Gearan

    The terms of Washington’s relationships with close ally Israel and regional partner Saudi Arabia changed under President Trump, who emboldened their leaders while muting U.S. criticism. President-elect Joe Biden is likely to try to change the tone and emphasis of U.S. policy toward both nations, which have been the pillars of U.S. engagement in the region for years. But with the exception of some arms sales and U.S. backing for some of the kingdom’s foreign policies, Biden has not signaled that he will try to undo most changes wrought by Trump.

    Karen DeYoung is associate editor and senior national security correspondent for The Post. In more than three decades at the paper, she has served as bureau chief in Latin America and in London and as correspondent covering the White House, U.S. foreign policy and the intelligence community.
    Paul Sonne covers the U.S. military and national security. He previously reported for the Wall Street Journal from Moscow, London and Washington.
    Joby Warrick joined The Washington Post’s National staff in 1996. He has covered national security, the environment and the Middle East and writes about terrorism. He is the author of two books, including 2015’s “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS," which was awarded a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.
    Dan Lamothe joined The Washington Post in 2014 to cover the U.S. military and the Pentagon. He has written about the Armed Forces for more than a decade, traveling extensively, embedding with each service and covering combat in Afghanistan numerous times.
    Carol Morello is the diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post, covering the State Department. She previously wrote about demographics and the census. She has worked at The Post since 2000. Before that, she was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and USA Today.
    Anne Gearan is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, with a focus on foreign policy and national security. She covered the Hillary Clinton campaign and the State Department for The Post before joining the White House beat. She joined the paper in 2012.
    About this story

    Editing by Peter Finn and Tiffany Harness. Design and development by Tyler Remmel. Additional development by Lucio Villa and Junne Alcantara. Design editing by Greg Manifold and Virginia Singarayar. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Copy editing by Carrie Camillo. Operations by Maite Fernández Simon.