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Where Biden’s Foreign Policy Is Taking the U.S.

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Soon after taking office, President Biden announced triumphantly that “America is back,” saying that he would put internationalism and diplomacy at the heart of his approach to governing — all with the goal of strengthening the United States’ standing on the world stage, and reasserting its competitive edge over China.

Nearly six weeks into his term, he has already made a number of foreign policy decisions that give a sense of what that might look like. The picture that’s emerging lines up with the tone of his presidential campaign: He’s playing things cautious, turning back many of the disruptive policies that his predecessor introduced — but not committing to any major reversal of the United States’ long-term investments in the Middle East.

“Biden is really focused on the domestic agenda, and as a result wants to minimize any political capital he has to spend on foreign policy issues,” said Trita Parsi, a founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “Biden never sold himself to be someone who would come in with massively huge ideas and wanted to see a big break with the past.”

As Biden has surrounded himself with veterans of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment in Washington, it’s prompted concerns from some critics in his party that he will return to the kind of moderate-interventionist approach that defined Obama’s tenure.

Biden has said he wants to “end the forever wars,” and he often speaks of his experience as the parent of a service member deployed to Iraq (his son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015). But Biden is now seen as highly unlikely to follow through on a campaign promise to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 1, in what will be a crucial test of his commitment to nonintervention — in a situation where the results may be ugly either way. This, too, can be explained by his desire to focus on domestic policy, Parsi said, calling it a path-of-least-resistance approach.

When it comes to China, the Biden administration has indicated that it plans to invest in coalition-building to a greater degree than the Trump administration did — and in ways that will inevitably be more complex than under Obama.

“Biden’s vision is that we work together with allies in order to compete more effectively with China,” said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It doesn’t mean that there’s one coalition that provides one solution to everything. It’s not the Cold War, where it’s very clear which side each country is on.”

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