US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: Joe Biden vs. Donald Trump

Joe Biden arrives in Baghdad

Par Edgar Saint-Hillier

On January 20th, Joe Biden will replace Donald Trump at the White House, triggering a set of changes for the United States and its foreign policy. Biden has indeed campaigned on his opposition to Trump’s foreign policy and his objective to repair the damage wrought by President Trump. The two men indeed represent opposite conceptions of US interests abroad. On the one hand, Trump considers that the protection of the US’s interests may be realized at the expense of other countries and not through multilateral co-operation, contradicting decades of projection of American values. On the other hand, Biden claims a return to diplomacy and the defence of democratic values to restore American leadership on the world stage.

This dichotomy can be clearly observed in the Middle East, especially through the Iranian issue and the Yemeni civil war. During the past four years, Trump has led a hardline policy towards Iran as well as supported Saudi-coalition in Yemen. Biden, in opposition, has already announced his desire to relaunch diplomatic negotiations with Iran and withdraw US support from the Saudi-led coalition, accused of fuelling the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Opposite Visions of Foreign Policy

During his electoral campaign, Biden pledged to reverse what many consider to be the cornerstone of Trump’s foreign policy : ignoring autocracy and human rights violations in favour of realpolitik, embodied in his slogan “America First”. The President’s foreign policy has been guided by a strategy based on the economic or geopolitical importance of his interlocutors.  Alliances were made and broken swiftly, to reflect interests at any given time. Trump has pushed diplomacy and conciliation to the sideline, preferring to repeatedly demonstrate the US’ freedom to act as he pleased. On the ground, this has led to the withdrawal of American troops from Northern Syria and the imposition new conditions to American aid such as in the Yemeni civil war, breaking with the strategy adopted by previous administrations to project US as the world’s cop i.e. interventions to fight for freedom and democracy across the globe.

In contrast, the President-elect promises to put democratic and liberal principles back to the fore. While we will not get a full comprehension of Biden’s foreign policy until a few months into his tenure, his electoral manifesto and the members of his administration he has already selected give a preview of what is to come. He has indeed chosen Antony Blinken as his Secretary of State and Jake Sullivan as his National Security Advisor. Both men previously worked in the Obama administration, suggesting that Biden will continue in the footsteps of the former President, notably on the role of the US in promoting democracy and maintaining a liberal world order.

The spread of democracy worldwide is likely to be at the top of Biden’s priority list. The members of Biden’s administration strongly believe in the US’ democratization mission. They consider the US to be a powerful hegemon which has the ability to spread and to strength democracy throughout the world. This willingness is illustrated by Biden’s idea to organize a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office. It would focus on strengthening, and promoting democracy and human rights abroad.

Means to renew the US’s global leadership is also likely to resemble those mobilized by Obama.  The latter indeed emphasized negotiations and collaboration to reach this goal. According to his electoral manifesto, Biden will seek to reinforce international institutions and increase multilateral co-operation, both cornerstones of US-led liberal internationalism. These were indeed weakened under Trump who withdrew the US, for instance, from  UNESCO and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The President-elect indeed considers that it is better for the US to stand inside “the multilateral tent” to shape global rules according to their needs. Multilateral institutions can also act as powerful tools to limit the influence of rivals,  as illustrated by Biden’s willingness to strengthen NATO – which Trump has never stopped to criticize and to weaken it – against Russian. Their differences regarding their approaches will certainly be observed throughout the Middle East, and especially in Iran and Yemen.

The Iran Nuclear crisis

One of the biggest destabilizing issues of the Middle East is certainly the Iran Nuclear crisis. Tensions have risen considerably after Trump withdrew the US from the JCPOA, undoing most of Obama’s peacemaking efforts. Trump indeed considered the agreement too lenient due to is limited durability and weak restrictions on the Iranian nuclear development program. To curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Trump conversely imposed harsh economic sanctions and military actions.  This strategy, however, yielding more instability as Iran reacted with defiance. For example, in reaction to this policy, Iran has attacked oil tankers in mid-2019, and the latter has also shot down an American surveillance drone with a surface-to-air missile over the Strait of Hormuz in June 2019.

In total opposition, Biden will likely renew diplomatic ties with Iran. According to his electoral manifesto, Biden will seek to return to a status quo ante, successfully defined by Obama. We can expect Biden to mobilize the diplomatic apparatus at this disposal, which Trump dismissed, to re-establish an environment favourable to peaceful dialogue and negotiation. To that end, Biden has formulated the wish for the US to reenter the JCPOA, to the condition that Iran returns to “strict compliance” to the treaty. When done, Biden has announced his plan to establish a hard-nosed diplomacy for renegotiating the treaty by strengthening and extending the nuclear deal’s provisions to ensure that Iran will definitely stop its destabilizing activities in the region.

These efforts will allow the US to address other concerns that they have with Iran, especially regarding human rights. Thanks to this approach, Biden will have the possibility to call out the Iranian regime for its ongoing violations of human rights as well as the wrongful detention of political prisoners. Yet, promoting human rights in Iran will have to be balanced against the nuclear deal. Biden has indeed proclaimed his willingness to renegotiate the treaty, a possibility the Iranians have rejected.

The Yemeni Civil War

The Yemeni civil war began in 2014, following opposing claims by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi- and the Houthi rebel movement. The conflict escalated dramatically in March 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition, backed by the US, intervened against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Meanwhile, the intensification of this war has led one of the Middle East’s poorest nations and the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Trump has backed up the coalition for two main reasons which are related to his approach anchored in realpolitik. Under Trump, the US has provided weapons, intelligence and logistical support to the Saudi-led coalition. By doing so, the President sought a strong and durable relationship with Saudi Arabia. This alliance has indeed been portrayed as  economically and militarily important for US interests in the region, especially as it counterbalances Iran’s regional ambitions. This has contributed to the lasting and deepening of the conflict, with no end in sight.

Biden stands in stark opposition to Trump’s policy in the management of this conflict. He has expressed his wish to put an end to the US backing of the Saudi-coalition, responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen where 80 % of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance. The withdrawal of US material support could contribute to the end of the war. By doing so and offering aid, Biden would contribute to restoring the US standing and moral exemplariness on the protection of human rights abroad, both key factors if the US is to regain its leadership role. Nonetheless, we can be doubtful about the efficiency of this approach due to the complexity to reverse Trump’s approach which has strongly tarnished the US’s image across the globe.


When Biden replaces Trump as the President of the US, a new chapter will be turned for the US foreign policy, and especially approaches for stabilizing the Middle East. Whereas Trump’s policies were based realpolitik, Biden is expected to go back to a similar approach as Obama, i.e. diplomacy and protection of democratic ideas.

Although it is too early to pass clear judgments on Biden’s foreign policy, we can be doubtful about the efficiency of his strategy. A return to a liberal interventionism advocating the promotion of democracy, as promised by Biden, can lead to reinforce this deleterious environment in the Middle East. Since the 1990s, this approach has greatly destabilized many countries in the region.

About the Author

Edgar Saint-Hillier a terminé un Baccalauréat en études internationales à l’Université de Montréal. Il s’intéresse aux questions de sécurités et de conflits relatifs aux régions du Moyen-Orient et de l’Afrique du Nord, ainsi qu’aux relations que ces États entretiennent avec les puissances étrangères.

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