Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

U.S. Foreign Policy Is About to Get Boring

| May 04, 2023

The presidential election is around the corner—and that means “Scranton Joe” is about to take the international stage.

U.S. President Joe Biden has officially announced that he intends to run for reelection. If you're a regular reader here at Foreign Policy, you may have asked yourself what his decision to run means for U.S. foreign relations. If so, this column is for you.

Of course, it is much too early to speculate on what U.S. foreign policy will look like after the next election. Biden might not win, and his most likely opponent—former President Donald Trump—would almost certainly do things differently if he regains the Oval Office. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis might still catch fire and end up on top, but nobody has any idea how DeSantis will handle foreign policy if he manages to become president. (And I doubt he knows himself.) This level of uncertainty is a serious problem, because both allies and adversaries are less likely to make lasting adjustments to their behavior if they expect U.S. policy to shift every time the White House changes hands.

Furthermore, the world is full of surprises, and no president can anticipate all the challenges they are going to face. Biden took office intending to improve relations with Russia and focus on China, for example, and look what happened instead. A president's second term often differs dramatically from the first, as key advisors are replaced and the results of the first four years create new problems or unexpected opportunities. Ronald Reagan's first term was a caricature of Cold War hawkishness, but his second term produced an unlikely détente with Mikhail Gorbachev. George W. Bush made huge mistakes during his first term, but his performance improved once he stopped listening to Vice President Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives. Bill Clinton's first term focused on domestic issues and contained some notable foreign-policy stumbles, but he grew more comfortable with foreign-policy issues as time wore on and racked up several noteworthy second-term achievements.

The bottom line is that nobody knows what the U.S. foreign policy will be like after November 2024. Let's consider a more modest question instead: Given that winning reelection will take precedence over just about everything else, how will the Biden administration handle foreign policy between now and Election Day?

#1: Staying the Course in Ukraine. The administration has been all-in on Ukraine since the beginning of the war and repeatedly said it will back Kyiv "for as long as it takes." Barring an unlikely military breakthrough by Kyiv's armed forces or an even less likely change of heart in Moscow, I expect the Biden team to maintain that position. U.S. arms and aid will continue to flow, allies in Europe will be pressured to follow suit, Biden's rhetoric will not waver, and there won’t be public pressure on Ukraine to cut a deal, even if some insiders believe a negotiated compromise of some sort is inevitable....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“U.S. Foreign Policy Is About to Get Boring.” Foreign Policy, May 4, 2023.

The Author

Stephen Walt