REPORT: Multilateralism and the Biden Administration

John Feffer


The Biden administration has promised to return the United States to the international community after four years of confrontational policies under Donald Trump. The new administration has pledged to revive diplomacy. It has emphasized multilateralism rather than unilateralism.

With his initial executive orders, the new president has made a down payment on these promises – by rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords, bringing U.S. immigration policy more in line with international norms, and extending a major nuclear arms control agreement with Russia. It has sought to reassure allies in Europe and Asia as well as engage strategic competitors like Iran.

In some ways, the new administration’s take on multilateralism resembles the foreign policy approach of the Obama team. In other cases, particularly on China, Biden has borrowed heavily from Trump’s playbook. And on a few issues, like the environment and drone attacks, the new administration is heading in a more progressive direction.

Overall, however, this “multilateral restoration” has yet to grapple with the full extent of the challenges that the pandemic, the climate crisis, economic inequality, and ongoing military conflicts pose to the international community and its institutions.

Multilateralism and the Biden Administration

Key findings

  • The United States remains wedded to “a la carte multilateralism” in which Washington acts multilaterally when it can and unilaterally when it chooses.
  • The new administration is pursuing a “MAGA Lite” approach on key issues like access to COVID-19 vaccines and “Buy America” provisions.
  • The administration’s approach to the climate crisis may prove most consequential in pushing U.S. foreign policy in a more equitably multilateral direction.
  • A willingness to engage countries like Iran and put pressure on putative allies like Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen may substantially reduce global tensions in the Middle East.
  • But heightened multilateral containment of China and Russia may increase the potential for great power conflict.

Key Recommendations

The new administration would be well-advised to:

  • Join with Europe immediately to provide vaccines to Africa, ideally in as broad a multilateral fashion as possible.
  • Provide the full $9 billion to the Green Climate Fund.
  • Expand Special Drawing Rights at the IMF, increase the use of climate-debt instruments, and renegotiate trade agreements to eliminate ISDS provisions.
  • Work in concert with a global array of actors to end the war in Yemen and rebuild the country.
  • Reenter the Iran nuclear deal with some compensation for Iraq for the last four years of sanctions.
  • Identify a new arms control agenda with Russia and negotiate new environmental projects with China.
  • Lift Trump-era sanctions on the ICC and cooperate with the organization on its investigations.
  • Rejoin and restore funding to UNESCO.
  • Launch a new Good Neighbor Policy toward Latin America.