US foreign policy in 2021: Key moments in Biden’s first term

Washington moved to re-engage with global institutions, pivot towards China, and oversaw chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.

The administration of President Joe Biden entered office on January 20, 2021, pledging a broad-strokes overhaul of how Washington interacts with the world, promising to be a distinct counterpoint to the disruptive, go-it-alone posture of former President Donald Trump [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

The administration of President Joe Biden entered office on January 20, 2021, pledging a broad-strokes overhaul of how Washington interacts with the world, promising to be a distinct counterpoint to the disruptive, go-it-alone posture of former President Donald Trump, and tying stability and prosperity at home to US interests abroad in his so-called “foreign policy for the middle class”.

Among its pledges:

  • Re-engage with the global community
  • Re-assert US leadership
  • End the country’s longest war
  • Better respond to an “increasingly assertive” China
  • Seek a “stable” relationship with Russia
  • Revive the landmark Iran nuclear deal
  • Insert more humanity into Washington’s policies along the southern border with Mexico.

As 2021 ends, the administration has indeed sought to re-up relations with key allies and position itself as a central player in combating global crises, but has faced criticism for failing to live up to vows of a human rights-leading foreign policy and for what some have described as an over-emphasis on sweeping ideological differences at a time when global cooperation — particularly between superpowers — is sorely needed.

“2021 was a year of transition. President Biden replaced Trump’s impetuousness with pragmatism and realism. There is a greater understanding of what US policy actually is,” PJ Crowley, the former US assistant secretary of state for public affairs under President Barack Obama, told Al Jazeera.

“This is a real achievement, but it also sets up a major test for 2022. Having reset the tone of American foreign policy, can he now deliver meaningful results?”

Here are key takeaways from the US foreign policy in 2021:

‘Re-engage’ with global organisations and allies

Biden moved quickly to signal a distinct about-face from the previous administration, beginning the process on his first day in office by rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. Trump moved to withdraw from both starting in 2017 and 2020, respectively.

Biden has also sought to reassure NATO allies rankled by Trump’s confrontational approach, mend relations with North American neighbours, re-up US engagement at the United Nations, and position Washington globally as a leader on combating climate change, the response to the coronavirus pandemic, and reversing a backslide in civil liberties.

Addressing the UN General Assembly in September, Biden envisioned an era of “relentless” US diplomacy that would bolster international cooperation at an “inflection point in history”.

He capped the year with a so-called “Summit for Democracy”, which aimed to push for commitments to reforms from world leaders, but attracted criticism over its guest list and whether the US’s domestic election tumult undermined its ability to take the reigns on the issue.

While longtime US allies generally welcomed Biden’s more predictable approach to the global stage, his first year has not been without friction.

The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Biden initially pursued without the buy-in of NATO, have led some to question Washington’s credibility.

More recently, direct talks between Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin amid a Russian troop build-up on the border of Ukraine, have reportedly stoked concerns and anger from NATO eastern-most members, who fear harmful concessions being granted to Moscow.

Dischord also briefly surrounded a deal to sell US and UK made submarines to Australia, which set off a dispute with Washington’s oldest ally, France.


Biden held his first, albeit virtual, summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, an airing of deeply-entrenched differences also viewed as an attempt to cool increasingly ratcheted tensions.

Since 2018, Washington and Beijing have been locked in a trade war, which has continued under Biden.

Meanwhile, the US administration has sought to rally European and Asian allies against Chinese influence, forge defence agreements, and pivot military might to better respond to what US military officials consider an “increasingly assertive” Beijing.

The Biden administration has been clear that it considers Beijing its top foreign policy priority, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in March, calling China “the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system — all the rules, values, and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to”.

Biden, meanwhile, has rebuffed allegations from some, including Beijing, that Washington is pursuing a “new Cold War” with the Asian superpower.

While the US regularly condemns what it calls China’s coercive and assertive actions in the region, notably in regards to the East and South China Sea and Taiwan, as well as human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province, tensions have remained highest around Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory.

China has not ruled out a land invasion of the island, and has in recent months flown a record number of fighter jets near Taiwan’s airspace.

Biden, in October, appeared to break from the longstanding US policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan, saying that Washington would come to Taipei’s defence in the event of a Chinese incursion. The White House later walked back his words.

Following the face-to-face meeting, the state-owned Global Times tabloid reported that Xi had warned Biden the US was “playing with fire” in supporting Taiwan’s independence.


Former President Donald Trump signed a deal with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw US troops from the country by May 2021 — an agreement that would end Washington’s longest war — but was criticised for not including the US-backed Afghan government.

Biden pushed back the withdrawal deadline to September 2021, but moved ahead with the plan.

The lightning fast advance of the Taliban across the country, a chaotic evacuation that saw thousands of vulnerable Afghans desperately gathering at Kabul international airport, and an August 26 suicide bombing claimed by ISIS-K that killed at least 180 Afghans and 13 US military personnel, stoked mounting criticism that the withdrawal was an intelligence and strategic failure.

A subsequent US drone strike, meant to target an ISIS-K member that instead killed an Afghan family, added to the list of deadly apparent missteps by Washington.

The Biden administration has defended the withdrawal, with Biden saying the timeline was “not due to an arbitrary deadline. It was designed to save American lives”.

Washington has since not recognised the Taliban government, but has tapped Qatar to serve as a diplomatic envoy to the country, which international observers say has seen a backslide in human rights, particularly in the rights of girls and women.

On December 22, the administration issued licenses to allow aid money to flow into Afghanistan via the UN and non-governmental agencies as the country, faces a mounting humanitarian crisis.

Middle East

The Biden administration has been viewed as continuing a wider de-emphasis on the Middle East that began under former President Obama and continued under Trump, which has included the shifting of some military assets from the region.

On December 9, Washington also announced that the US-led combat mission in Iraq had officially ended, although the top US commander in the region told the Associated Press that the 2,500 US troops in the country predominantly serving in advisory and assistance roles since mid-2020 would remain for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, a withdrawal of the about 900 US troops remaining in Syria is also not expected any time soon.

The Biden administration entered office saying it would build off of the Abraham Accords signed under Trump, which saw several Arab nations normalise ties with Israel. In November, the UAE, Bahrain, Israel and US held a joint naval drill in the Red Sea, the first time the quartet had publicly acknowledged a shared maritime exercise.

Biden has maintained the US’s historically strong ties to Israel, and has been criticised for not taking a strong enough stand on human rights and for Washington’s slow public condemnation of an Israel-Gaza escalation in May that killed at least 256 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. Washington has maintained its behind-the-scenes mediation hastened the end of the violence.

At the same time, the new administration has sought to signal a shift from the permissive approach towards Israel under Trump, notably blacklisting the Israeli NSO Group, whose spyware technology was used by governments to monitor dissidents, journalists and opposition figures, pledging to reopen a US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem, and denouncing Israeli settlements.

Still, advocates say Biden’s wider pledge of holding rights abusers in the region  to account has thus far fallen short, with Washington moving to end offensive support for the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen, but neglecting to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman after a US intelligence report directly linked him to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Biden state department also conditioned a fraction of the annual $1.3bn in US security aid to Egypt on improving human rights conditions in the country. On December 20, Egypt sentenced three prominent human rights activists to prison, in what observers called a continuation of a years-long crackdown on dissent.

Iran nuclear deal

Biden has been a staunch advocate of reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which saw Tehran curtail its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

Trump withdrew from the agreement, which also includes the UK, Germany, France, the European Union, China and Russia, and instead imposed a “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Tehran, which maintains it only wants to develop a civilian nuclear capability, has said it wants to return to the deal, but the two countries remain at loggerheads over the timeline on lifting US sanctions, and on which sanctions would be lifted. The situation has been further complicated by the August election victory of conservative President Ebrahim Raisi.

An eighth round of negotiations, in which the US is participating indirectly, is set to begin December 27, with previous talks seeing only modest gains.

Meanwhile, the US’s chief negotiator has warned there may be only “some weeks” left to revive the agreement before Iranian nuclear advancements render it irrelevant.


Biden’s early hopes of establishing “strategic stability” with Russia have been dashed against the reality of the latest Russian troop build up along the border with Ukraine, which has sparked fears of an invasion like the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

In a video meeting with Putin on December 7, Biden warned of severe consequences if Russia chose to invade Ukraine, including “economic consequences like none he’s ever seen”, Biden later told reporters.

However, he said a unilateral use of force “to confront Russian invading Ukraine is not on the cards right now”, noting the eastern European country is not a member of NATO and the US would not have a legal obligation to intervene.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin said that Putin presented the US president with a demand for legally binding security guarantees that would rule out the expansion of NATO during the video meeting. Washington has dismissed the demand, noting that only NATO members decide when other nations join the security alliance.

A senior administration official told reporters on December 23 that the US is ready to engage with Russia and the White House said talks were planned for January.


To date, the Biden administration’s diplomacy towards Africa has largely focused on calming the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia and the fallout of the recent military takeover in Sudan, as well as supporting a trade initiative launched under Trump.

However, during his first tour of sub-Saharan Africa in November, Secretary of State Blinken laid out a sweeping overhaul of Washington’s approach that would treat the continent as a “major geopolitical power” and not just as an arena to counter Chinese influence.

Biden is also set to hold a summit to boost cooperation with African leaders, although a date has not yet been set.

Latin America

The Biden administration has released a raft of policies and funding initiatives aimed to address the “root causes” of migration from Central America, with Vice President Kamala Harris named the lead on the issue.

The administration, however, has had to contend with a record surge in border crossings during 2021, amid vows to have a more “humane” immigration policy than former President Donald Trump’s hardline approach.

While US immigration enforcement within the US has dropped dramatically, immigration advocates say the approach along the southern border have not matched Biden’s campaign promises.

They say the Biden administration has continued to use the controversial Title 42 health rule, invoked amid the coronavirus pandemic, to send migrants and asylum seekers back, although the administration has introduced an exemption for unaccompanied minors.

Meanwhile, a federal court has compelled the Biden administration to reinstate the so-called “Remain in Mexico” policy, which requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, often in dangerous makeshift camps, for their requests to be processed.

The Biden administration appealed the ruling, but lost.

Source: Al Jazeera