What does the new Biden administration mean for American foreign policy and the Middle East?

Vice President Kamala Harris, left, looks on as President Joe Biden delivers a speech on foreign policy, at the State Department, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Less than three weeks ago, a new American president was sworn in, thus beginning a new administration, a new era in U.S. history and, as with the inauguration of any president, a new foreign policy. 

In an afternoon seminar entitled “Will a new administration bring a US-Middle East reset? Assessing Biden’s approach”, the Middle East Studies program, alongside Global Affairs and the Department of Political Science, featured a discussion by Dr. Sarah Yerkes. Yerkes is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and has experience working for the United States Department of State. In Thursday’s discussion, Yerkes addressed the current state of foreign affairs that the Biden administration is currently faced with, in addition to making analyses and predictions based on what is already known of Biden’s planned foreign policy. 

“The MENA [Middle East/North Africa] region is likely to take a backseat to other regions during this administration.” Yerkes said. “I think we are going to see a big emphasis on Asia, more so than under the previous administration, and particularly on combating rising Chinese influence, as well as on Russia in sort of a push-back against Putin in a way that we did not see in the previous administration.” 

In the Arab world, however, Yerkes believes that Iran will be of particular focus, working on resuming negotiations between the U.S. and Iran to prevent the development of nuclear weaponry in Iran, as Biden made clear on his campaign trail. 

Yerkes also predicts, what she describes as “frostier” relations between Biden and leaders of countries like Israel and Egypt, compared to that of the previous administration, as well as a greater focus on resolving the humanitarian crises occurring in Yemen, a nation plagued by civil war for more than a decade that was largely ignored under Trump’s foreign policy. 

While the MENA region will remain important to international conversations, Yerkes believes that allies will be of greater focus to the United States than adversaries. 

“We are going to see Europe retake center stage as some of the closest allies and partners of the United States,” Yerkes said. “This could include reaffirming alliances, and developing this kind of multilateral approach to foreign policy that Biden has promised to undertake.” 

The key to a strong foreign policy, however, will lie in monitoring how America behaves at home; something Yerkes believes the previous administration did not recognize. 

“We are going to see,” Yerkes said. “Understandably and necessarily, a big push to repair our own democracy, but simultaneously the acknowledgement that when we violate human rights at home, that opens the door for others to do so abroad, and actually serves as a great recruitment tool for ISIS and Al Qaeda and others who seek to do us harm.” 

U.S. foreign policy in the past has included the encouragement of pro-democratic regimes in nations particularly in the MENA region. With Tunisia existing as the only democratic nation of the 20 countries of the area, democracy is a hard sell to the dictatorships and autocratic regimes of countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, especially in light of the insurrection at the Capitol exposing the vulnerabilities of a republic. 

“Our challenges and our dirty laundry was aired on the front steps of the Capitol.”

“Our challenges and our dirty laundry was aired on the front steps of the Capitol,” Yerkes said. “Everyone saw our problems and I think that was a good thing. Democracy is something that needs to be practiced, it needs to be taken care of; it is a living, breathing entity. We showed our dark side, in a way, to a lot of countries, and so far, we have prevailed. I think what really matters going forward is how we deal with the consequences of this.” 

A large part of repairing the United States’ image abroad will lie in rejoining our allies in world organizations such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization, as well as focusing our efforts in humanitarian ways, particularly as the world is facing the international crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. If such partnerships and policies can be made, Yerkes believes that the United States will be able to once again serve as a beacon of hope and democracy on the world stage. 


  1. This is a joke. Stop feeling entitled to the Middle East. No one wants you over there to involve in their business. Stop this colonizing narrative. Shame…

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