Biden and the Future of American Internationalism


Will the incoming Biden administration be able to steer US foreign policy back toward internationalism, or did the rise of Donald Trump signal a long-term shift in American attitudes? The author finds grounds for cautious optimism in the surprising results of two recent opinion surveys.

Donald Trump’s election as US president in 2016 was widely seen as signaling a structural shift in American foreign policy, from an internationalist orientation to an isolationist stance. Inasmuch as Trump’s campaign pledges amounted to a wholesale rejection of the internationalist line embraced by previous US administrations, his victory suggested to many that Americans were turning inward. Trump’s behavior during his four years in office did little to dispel such concerns; his continual criticism of America’s allies and his disdain for international regimes threatened to undermine the very systems that supported the American-led international order.

On November 3 last year, the American electorate delivered its collective verdict on the Trump administration, electing Joe Biden president. Still, the lasting impression left by the 2020 election and its aftermath has been one of a society more deeply divided than ever. The rest of the world is watching anxiously to see how those divisions affect the trajectory of American foreign policy under the Biden administration. Drawing on the results of recent public opinion polls, I would like to offer a tentative outlook concerning the direction of US foreign policy in the coming years and the implications for Japan-US relations.

Americans Support Global Engagement

Contrary to popular belief, US public opinion has not swung toward isolationism over the past few years. In an opinion survey conducted in July 2020 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (released in September 2020), 68% of the respondents endorsed the view that the United States should take an active part in world affairs, up from 64% in 2017. Only 30%—down from 35% in 2017—took the opposing view.(*1)

With regard to America’s security alliances, the majority of Americans believe that they benefit both the United States and its allies, according to the CCGA survey. Only 17% of respondents said that America’s security allies in East Asia were the main beneficiaries of those alliances, down from 22% in 2017. The idea that America’s European allies are enjoying a free ride was endorsed by just 21% of respondents in 2020, down from 26% in 2017.(*2)

On the subject of international trade, 74% of respondents opined that it was good for the American economy (up from 59% in 2016), and 82% (up from 70%) said it was beneficial to consumers. More surprisingly, perhaps, 59% saw it as a plus for job creation in the United States, an increase of 19 points from 2016.(*3) In short, more Americans see the benefits of international trade and security alliances now than when Donald Trump took office, despite the latter’s continual criticism of those relationships.

The results of an August 2020 survey by the Eurasia Group Foundation (released in September) reinforce this impression. Of those surveyed, 55.6% agreed with the statement that “the U.S. should engage more than it does now in negotiations with other countries on topics like climate change, human rights, and migration,” while just 22.8% disagreed.(*4)

Not surprisingly, Washington’s foreign-policy elite is more enthusiastic about global engagement than the general public. In an August–September opinion survey of US foreign-policy professionals (conducted by the CCGA in cooperation with the University of Texas at Austin), a full 97% of respondents said that the United States should play an active part in world affairs, and 99% said that international trade was good for the US economy. Only 9%, meanwhile, supported reducing US obligations to NATO.(*5) But the perception gap between those inside and outside the Beltway seems to have narrowed instead of widening over the past four years. The data simply do not support the assumption that American voters have turned inward during the Trump administration.

Hard Versus Soft Power

Perhaps the central question, however, is not whether the United States intends to engage with the world but how. In its survey report, the EGF grouped respondents into four broad categories on the basis of their answers and visualized the distribution of those four orientations using the table below. As we can see, close to 70% (those in the top row) supported diplomacy, institutions, and trade. Of these, just over 30% supported military primacy, while close to 40% did not.

What Type of Global Engagement Do Americans Support?

Support Military Primacy Oppose Military Primacy
Support Diplomacy, Institutions, Trade Traditional Internationalists
Global Ambassadors
Oppose Diplomacy, Institutions, Trade Hard Power Primacists
Genuine Isolationists

Source: Mark Hannah and Caroline Gray, “Diplomacy & Restraint: The Worldview of American Voters,” Eurasia Group Foundation, September 2020, p.10.

On the subject of military spending, the EGF survey found that 56.7% of Trump supporters wanted to maintain the defense budget at its current level, while another 29.9% wanted to increase it. By contrast, 47.8% of Biden supporters favored cuts in military spending, while 39.3% thought it should remain at the current level.(*6)

The future of Washington’s East Asia security policy and US relations with China are matters of great concern to Japan and others in the region. In the EGF survey, American voters were asked to choose which of the following better represented their viewpoint: (1) “The US should move more troops onto U.S. bases in allied countries such as South Korea and Japan and increase its naval presence in the Pacific Ocean to check China’s growing influence,” or (2) “The US should reduce its military presence in Asia while transitioning regional allies toward defending themselves and taking over the responsibility for security in the region.” In 2020, 50% of American voters favored the first option up from 42.4% in 2019. However, Trump supporters were more likely to support such an increase than Biden supporters, by a margin of 62.3% to 43.8%.(*7)

It would be unfair to conclude from the foregoing, however, that Biden supporters want the United States to step back from its commitments to its allies. After all, in the CCGA survey, 43% of Democrats said that the United States should do more to defend the security of its allies, and another 42% supported the current level of effort.(*8) Taken together, these results suggest that Democrats want the United States to provide support for its allies’ defense efforts while reducing the number of forward-deployed American troops. Incidentally, in the CCGA survey, voters identifying as Democrats were significantly more supportive of stepping up efforts to defend US allies than Republicans were, by a margin of 43% to 28% (although another 53% of Republican voters endorsed the status quo).(*9) This may be an area in which foreign-policy experts and ordinary Americans differ.

Divergent Threat Perceptions

The CCGA survey also asked subjects to identify the top threats facing the United States in the coming decade. The results, tabulated below, showed a clear split along partisan lines.(*10)

Top Five Threats to the United States by Party Affiliation


  1. The development of China as a world power
  2. International terrorism
  3. Large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States
  4. Domestic violent extremism
  5. Iran’s nuclear program


  1. The COVID-19 pandemic
  2. Climate change
  3. Racial inequality in the United States
  4. Foreign interference in American elections
  5. Economic inequality in the United States

Source: Dina Smeltz et al., “Divided We Stand: Democrats and Republicans Diverge on US Foreign Policy,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, September 17, 2020.

Conspicuous here is the almost complete lack of overlap between ordinary Democrats’ and Republicans’ perceptions of the biggest threats facing their country. China, which tops the Republicans’ list, does not even make the Democrats’ top five. However, as has been pointed out by a number of observers China figures prominently in both the COVID-19 pandemic and the issue of climate change. Moreover, there is little doubt that Washington’s defense and foreign-policy establishments view China as the biggest challenge going forward. That being the case, we can be fairly confident that China will remain America’s top foreign-policy priority under the Biden administration.

The surveys introduced above suggest that ordinary American voters are more oriented to global engagement than commonly supposed. Americans, it seems, want their government to be proactive in seeking diplomatic solutions to international problems even while maintaining an appropriate level of military presence. True, Democrats and Republicans differ as to the biggest threats facing the nation. But if these results give an accurate picture of voters’ basic stance on global engagement, Biden’s foreign-policy team should have considerable room to pursue its internationalist inclinations.

Within the Washington elite, meanwhile, a bipartisan consensus appears to be taking shape on the need for the world’s liberal democracies to compete more effectively with autocratic states in the political, economic, technical, and informational spheres. This emerging consensus underlies the recommendations adopted by a bipartisan task force under the Alliance for Securing Democracy (housed at the German Marshall Fund of the United States) and published in October 2020.(*11) Among the 30 task force members are several experts said to be on the short list for key positions within the Biden administration.

Outlook for International Leadership Under Biden

With the foregoing observations in mind, what predictions can we make regarding the Biden administration’s exercise of international leadership?

Washington’s two basic options for exercising leadership in the resolution of international issues are coalition building and the mobilization of US resources. Inasmuch as Democratic administrations have traditionally favored multilateral cooperation, it seems likely that Biden’s foreign-policy initiatives will focus on proactive coalition building. That means stepping up US involvement in international organizations, regional frameworks, alliances, and partnerships.

Under Biden, Washington will seek to exercise leadership by setting an agenda and soliciting the cooperation of other countries in pursuing it. That agenda will doubtless reflect the political priorities of the president and the Democratic Party. That means we should expect early diplomatic initiatives in such areas as pandemic response and climate change, identified as key threats by Democratic voters (see table above). Biden has already indicated that he will move quickly to rejoin the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change. But the world will be watching closely to see what reforms Washington demands from the WHO and what new environmental initiatives it has to offer.

As for mobilizing resources, it seems doubtful that the Biden administration will seek a substantial increase in defense spending . A more likely scenario  for U.S. defense expenditure is a year or two at current levels followed by spending cuts. Over the past year, the government has spent vast sums in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the attending economic slowdown, and sooner or later the bill is bound to come due in the form of cuts to the defense budget. What this means is that, for the Biden administration, greater international cooperation implies a more equitable sharing of costs and risks between the United States and its allies and partners. In the event that cost cutting entails rebalancing of the US military presence around the world, it seems likely that force reductions will focus first on the Middle East and Europe as the United States strives to maintain a strong presence in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Japan and the United States

In the months and years ahead, Japan will be called on to collaborate closely in America’s coalition-building efforts on a wide range of policy issues of common concern. It must also work diligently to ensure that America does not lose its strategic focus on East Asia.

During the administration of President Barack Obama, Washington’s restrained response to aggression by Russia and Syria raised alarms in Japan, as some here questioned whether the US government was still committed to protecting the Senkaku Islands from Chinese expansion. This is an extreme reaction, predicated on the notion that America has an obligation to respond militarily each time a problem breaks out somewhere in the world, and that anything short of such a response signals a total failure of will. We need to face the fact that the United States is operating with limited resources in a new security environment. If realistic strategic considerations impel the Biden administration to steer clear of military entanglement in some other part of the world outside of the Indo-Pacific  and search for a diplomatic solution, we should support that decision.

One cannot rule out the possibility that the US government will decide at some point to adjust its force posture in the Indo-Pacific region. Faced with limited resources, it is only natural for the United States to make some adjustments in their allocation. The important question, it seems to me, is whether Japan and other allies can respond to such adjustments by strengthening their own capabilities and showing a willingness to take on more responsibility. Instead of passively awaiting America’s next move, Japan should be taking the initiative to boost its own defense capability and expand its role in the region.

If the United States decides that it no longer wants to be “the world’s policeman,” Japan should respond by supporting and assisting America’s ongoing role policing the Indo-Pacific region and, further, by working in tandem with the United States to secure peace and stability in the region, maximizing foreign-policy collaboration and leading the way in the formation of a rules-based regional order.

Japan and the United States have a lot to do in the coming years. In terms of defense, we must rethink the regional division of labor and our relative contributions to the maintenance of a deterrent power sufficient to guarantee stability in the region—whether in a bilateral context or a trilateral partnership including Australia. In the diplomatic sphere, the United States and Japan must apply themselves—patiently but with a sense of urgency—to the process of building a strategic partnership of like-minded countries, including Australia and India, and strengthen regional cooperation on everything from trade and technology to information and foreign aid.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: US President-elect Joe Biden speaks at a press conference on November 16, 2020. © Getty/Kyōdō.)

(*1) ^ Dina Smeltz et al., “Divided We Stand: Democrats and Republicans Diverge on US Foreign Policy,” Chicago Council on Global Affairs, September 17, 2020,, p. 10.

(*2) ^ Ibid, p. 11.

(*3) ^ Ibid., p. 13

(*4) ^ Mark Hannah and Caroline Gray, “Diplomacy & Restraint: the Worldview of American Voters,” Eurasia Group Foundation, September 2020,, p. 8.

(*5) ^ See Jonathan Monten et al., “Americans Want to Engage the World,” Foreign Affairs Online, November 3, 2020,

(*6) ^ Hannah and Gray, “Diplomacy & Restraint,“ p. 16.

(*7) ^ Ibid., p. 18.

(*8) ^ Smeltz et al., “Divided We Stand,” p. 20.

(*9) ^ Ibid, p. 27.

(*10) ^ Ibid., p. 5

(*11) ^ Alliance for Securing Democracy, “Linking Values and Strategy: How Democracies Can Offset Autocratic Advances” (a task force report), German Marshall Fund, October 2020, The task force was co-chaired by Eric Edelman and Avril Haines.

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