Biden’s domestic priorities should guide his foreign policy

The United States needs a plan that starts at home, but looks abroad

By Robert B. Zoellick

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 programme. 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 programme offers an incumbent President Biden a cohesive strategy, rather than a long roster of individual items.

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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. 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 Organisation 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 programme combined resources, knowledge, and compassion to address a common threat.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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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