If Joe Biden wins the presidency in November, his foreign policy team will present him with a staggering to-do list. Given his significant international experience, the former vice president will be tempted to dive in. But he should pause to consider his priorities.

Biden will face vast demands at home. COVID-19 will continue to endanger American lives and livelihoods and spotlight inequities in the nation’s health-care system. The new president will need to direct an inclusive economic recovery. He will face frustrations over racism and criminal justice. Democratic constituencies will demand action on climate change, the environment, energy, and immigration.

Biden’s staff will want to rely on his skills as a dealmaking legislator—no president since Lyndon Johnson has had his experience working in and with Congress—even as he faces a diverse and impatient caucus. Biden will understand that he needs to demonstrate effectiveness, not just stand for causes, because many Americans will have voted against President Donald Trump, not necessarily for Biden’s program. He and his inner circle know the experience of newly elected Democratic presidents who have taken power along with a Democratic-controlled Congress after an era of Republican rule: Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter all faced high expectations and then suffered midterm defeats after two years. A wise White House will set priorities and pursue specific accomplishments.

Given the constraints on the new president’s time and political capital, a Biden administration should leverage its domestic agenda in crafting its foreign policy. The president can signal U.S. leadership with an international agenda that rests squarely on his domestic priorities. A combined program offers an incumbent President Biden a cohesive strategy, rather than a long roster of individual items.

The natural components of such a policy include public health and biological safety, environmental and energy security, inclusive economic growth, cyber-protection and technological innovation, and immigration. These topics should appeal to U.S. allies, too, creating the basis for a reinvigorated transatlantic and transpacific partnership. From this new base of cooperation, the United States and its partners will be better positioned to address two overarching challenges: the future of free societies and competition with China.


The pandemic offers the clearest, and most urgent, link between policy at home and abroad. The United States needs vaccines, better treatments, and effective precautionary systems to counter the virus. But recovery in the United States requires global progress. Scientists and doctors will need to share knowledge and treatments across borders. In contrast to current policy, the United States will need to work with other nations to strengthen the World Health Organization and supplement it when necessary. In doing so, a potential Biden administration should look to President George W. Bush’s successful campaign against HIV/AIDS, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). That program combined resources, knowledge, and compassion to address a common threat. PEPFAR and a similar effort against malaria and tuberculosis have been among the United States’ greatest contributions to Africa. A Biden administration should initiate a similar initiative for COVID-19.

A foreign policy agenda for 2021 should start at home—but then look beyond.

The world faces dangerous viral outbreaks every year. The United States and other countries, including China, need to learn lessons—without issuing indictments—about prevention, precautions, and treatments. To complement this work, the United States should promote collective action against wildlife trafficking that spreads hazardous viruses.

Similarly, a Biden administration should build upon its domestic carbon policies to generate support for international climate change action. In addition to rejoining the Paris agreement, Biden would regain momentum and broaden support, including among developing nations, by rolling out coordinated international policies across a range of topics. For example, the United States could help integrate climate change and development policies: a soil carbon initiative could assist African agriculture, and reforestation incentives would boost biological diversity worldwide. Alternative energy technologies could be scaled to match capacities and needs in developing countries as well. All countries will need adaptation policies, and carbon taxes and trading markets would direct investments to projects with the greatest potential benefits.


Biden also needs to link his economic policies to a global post-COVID-19 recovery. U.S. workers will not make gains in a stagnant world economy. Though domestic politics will likely limit big trade initiatives, Biden could boost confidence and assist farmers and other U.S. exporters by putting a stop to Trump’s economic warfare. He should start by rolling back perverse “national security” barriers with allies and offsetting some tax increases at home by cutting tariffs and import costs. His administration should also free the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement system to get back to work and coordinate with the EU, Japan, Canada, Australia, and others to address the WTO’s weaknesses.

If Biden wants a trade initiative, he should propose that the three North American economies negotiate a North Atlantic accord with the United Kingdom. That accord would underscore the strength of an integrated North American economy and announce that the “Three Amigos” intend to shape global rules. U.S. unions cannot reasonably complain about British labor standards.

A future global economic recovery will go hand in hand with U.S. research and technological innovation. In the past, the United States’ “triple helix” of government funding for basic research, universities, and private enterprise proved superior to state-directed systems. To succeed today, the United States must remain open to people, ideas, capital, and competition from outside its borders. U.S. universities must be magnets for the world’s talent. A potential Biden administration should work closely with other countries to strengthen common standards and safeguards for commercial security and intellectual property.

A Biden administration should leverage its domestic agenda in crafting its foreign policy.

The United States needs a revitalized immigration policy to maintain this economic and intellectual edge. The country needs safe gateways, not dumb walls. Early action on “Dreamers” and visas would set the stage. In 1979, Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign with a message that fits our present moment: “The key to our own future security may lie in both Mexico and Canada becoming much stronger countries than they are today,” he said. “It is time we stopped thinking of our nearest neighbors as foreigners.” The North America of NAFTA withstood Trump’s efforts to rip the three partners apart. But Biden will need to make the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), NAFTA’s successor, work.

The new NAFTA should support North American supply and production chains that offer attractive alternatives to Chinese exports. Biden’s “Buy America” should become “Buy North America.” Although the region’s demographic future shines brighter than that of China, Europe, and Japan, violence and organized crime shadow Mexico’s prospects. To improve Mexico’s working conditions and union safety, the United States and Canada can help build institutions and the rule of law. The USMCA’s Competitiveness Committee should invest in human capital through education and skills to build a continental workforce, while respecting citizenship requirements and sovereignty. A fresh approach to North America could also offer Biden electoral dividends with Hispanics. That backing could help shift southwestern states into his column.


My recommendations for a new domestic-foreign policy combine novelty with continuity. During difficult days in the Cold War, Presidents Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush recognized the need to draw allies closer together. They prioritized building and strengthening partnerships before negotiating with their Soviet adversary.

The same must be true today. This plan leads with topics of common interest among allies in Europe and the Pacific. Free societies need to be able to meet twenty-first-century demands for citizen security and opportunity. Acting in concert, the United States and its partners can become more attractive to others and compete effectively with rising authoritarian states. At the same time, this agenda, if promoted by a coalition, could offer common ground with China and Russia. Competition, and even rivalries, can be tempered by mutual interests.

This agenda can also help the United States build international support for its traditional security responsibilities. Alongside its partners, Washington will need cutting-edge technological capabilities to deter would-be aggressors and counter nuclear and terrorist threats. Yet U.S. military leadership has traditionally enjoyed greater support among allies when it begins with mutual political and economic interests.

A foreign policy agenda for 2021 should start at home—but then look beyond. A Biden administration can succeed if it makes domestic and foreign policies two sides of the same coin.

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  • ROBERT B. ZOELLICK served as President of the World Bank, Deputy Secretary of State, and U.S. Trade Representative. He is the author of America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy.
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