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The First 100 Days: Analyzing the Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy Successes and Opportunities for the Next Year

President Joe Biden looks on during a virtual meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at the White House on March 1, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

The Biden administration has accomplished an enormous amount to put U.S. domestic and foreign policy back on track in its first 100 days in office—a feat even more impressive amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the administration’s most significant foreign policy achievements correspond with the recommendations put forth in CAP’s 100-day plan on national security, which was released in October 2020. In fact, of the more than 100 policy recommendations contained in CAP’s plan, the Biden administration has advanced or adopted at least 73 of them in whole or in part. This column provides a snapshot of the alignment between CAP’s 100-day plan and the administration’s key national security and foreign policy achievements and identifies near-term opportunities for the Biden team to build on this progress during the remainder of the year.

Rebuilding and rebalancing our national security tools and institutions

The Biden administration inherited a set of foreign policy and national security institutions in serious need of repair. An overreliance on the military—combined with emerging challenges that the existing infrastructure is ill-suited to address—has showcased the need to shift away from an approach that defines American national interests primarily as security from foreign threats. The need for rebalancing the U.S. approach to national security was made even more clear by the January 6 insurrection, in which pro-Trump extremists violently stormed the U.S. Capitol. Consistent with CAP’s recommendations, the Biden administration has taken a number of steps to repair trust in these institutions and recalibrate the U.S. approach to national security, including:

  • Resuming regular press briefings. (recommended on p. 11 of CAP’s 100-day plan)
  • Signaling a realignment of defense resources toward emerging threats. (p. 22)
  • Signing a memorandum to revitalize national security and foreign policy institutions and partnerships. This included steps to restore integrity to the national security workforce (p. 10); prioritize diversity and inclusion (p. 13); and reform the security clearance process. (p. 26)
  • Swearing in key intelligence and law enforcement appointees at their home agencies. For example, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland was sworn in at Department of Justice headquarters by a career civil servant rather than a political appointee. (p. 11)
  • Appointing a diverse slate of foreign service officers to key ambassadorships, including a first announcement of nine career officials. (p. 11)
  • Phasing out the use of the Overseas Contingency Operations account. (p. 20)

More can be done to rebuild America’s national security institutions during President Biden’s first year in office. To build on its early progress, the Biden administration should:

  • Work with Congress to reduce the Pentagon’s budget and increase resources at the U.S. Department of State, such as by centralizing security assistance at the State Department. (p. 20)
  • Better align DHS with today’s needs. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ pledge that DHS is an agency of “partnerships” is an important step, but the department’s work could be better aligned toward a safety and services model and away from a purely threat-oriented model. President Biden should direct Secretary Mayorkas to conduct a high-level review of the department’s mission that is focused on reorienting DHS to today’s needs that are not being addressed by other parts of the federal bureaucracy.
  • Repeal the 1033 program, which provides excess equipment that militarizes local police forces. President Biden’s team pledged to conduct a foreign policy that starts at home. One place to start would be recognizing the domestic effect of the forever wars and working with Congress to repeal the 1033 program. (p. 23)

Living our democratic values

The Trump administration did enormous damage to democracy and human rights at home and abroad. The Biden administration has done significant work to reverse some of this damage and start aligning U.S. practices and policy with what we preach. Some of the CAP recommendations that the Biden administration has taken include:

  • Issuing an executive order to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation. (p. 13)
  • Reversing Trump-era policies against transgender military personnel. (p. 13)
  • Pledging to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council and making the assistant secretary for democracy, human rights, and labor an early appointment. (p. 41)
  • Rejecting former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attempt to distort human rights and clarifying U.S. support for the interconnected, invisible nature of universal rights. (p. 41)
  • Revoking the global gag rule, or Mexico City policy, and restoring global funding for reproductive rights. (p. 42)
  • Establishing a White House Gender Policy Council and taking key first steps to advance gender equity and equality. (p. 42)
  • Lifting the refugee cap for fiscal year 2021 from a record low of 15,000 to 62,500 to expand the United States’ capacity to resettle more refugees in upcoming years. (p. 105)

However, there is always more to be done in our quest to become a more perfect union. To build on this progress, the Biden administration should:

  • Work to resettle as many refugees as possible under the new raised cap of 62,500 and rebuild the capacity to resettle 125,000 refugees next fiscal year. While President Biden acknowledged that the administration is unlikely to reach that level this year given the institutional damage from the previous administration, the United States can continue to work to rebuild the U.S. resettlement system and create a more resilient program that offers safety to refugees around the world at a time of record-breaking need. (p. 105) On the diplomacy side, the administration should join the global compacts on refugees and migrants and work with partners to spur real investments in the international system designed to help support those forced to flee. (p. 41)
  • Launch a Democratic Strategic Advantage Initiative to improve how U.S. foreign assistance is provided to aspiring democracies and strengthen U.S. support for people striving for freedom and universal rights. The initiative would align well with one of President Biden’s early pledges to host a Summit for Democracy that aims to better coordinate international support and cooperation among advanced and emerging democracies. (p. 46)

Ending the wars responsibly

President Biden took office amid ongoing military involvement and humanitarian crises around the world. Although it was not possible to end the wars within the first 100 days, CAP recommended a few key first steps that the Biden administration has since taken:

  • Announcing a plan to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year. (p. 63)
  • Working with Congress to repeal the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force and signaling an intent to constrain war powers. (p. 70)
  • Taking critical first steps to rebuild the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and take better care of the generations that have served in the armed forces. (p. 72)
  • Offering to restart nuclear talks with Iran and entering preliminary negotiations. (p. 61)
  • Ending support for offensive military actions in Yemen that further destabilize the region. (p. 92)

However, progress needs to be made to move away from the overmilitarization of U.S. foreign policy and toward a sustainable strategy that fits today’s challenges. To continue advancing toward these goals, the Biden administration should:

  • Reverse its decision to approve massive arms sales packages to Egypt and the United Arab Emirates despite the countries’ egregious human rights records. Approving these packages—which were proposed under the Trump administration—is a step in the wrong direction and undermines the administration’s pledge to put “human rights back at the center of American foreign policy.” The administration should cancel the sales and further restrict security assistance and sales to abusive and illiberal regimes. (p. 92)
  • Expedite special immigrant visas for Afghan and Iraqi translators. The Biden administration’s decision to exit the war in Afghanistan is the right call, but the United States has an obligation to protect and support all those who served with U.S. officials during the conflict. Expediting visas for those who would be at risk of violence or oppression because of their involvement in U.S. efforts is the least the country can do to repay the sacrifices they have made to advance U.S. interests. (p. 62)

Recalibrating U.S. global relationships

CAP recommended that the Biden administration prioritize early engagement with allies and partners to shore up these relationships that will be critical to tackling a range of global issues. The Biden team has done just that. Among the early steps the Biden administration has taken that CAP recommended are:

  • President Biden held his first meetings with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to coordinate regional issues, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken virtually visited Mexico and Canada in his early days in office. (p. 47)
  • Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Secretary Blinken made their first trips to the Asia-Pacific region to meet with key democratic allies (p. 47), and Secretary Blinken later visited NATO to highlight the strength of the trans-Atlantic alliance. (p. 84)
  • President Biden announced his first overseas trip to Europe, where he will attend the Group of Seven, a NATO summit, and a European Union summit in June. (p. 47)
  • The administration adopted a tougher stance toward Russia by announcing new sanctions against key Kremlin backers and pledging to fully implement U.S. sanctions laws. (p. 89)
  • The Biden team sent early, supportive signals to Taiwan and Hong Kong by sending an unofficial delegation to Taiwan as a “personal signal” of support; updating State Department guidelines for U.S. government interaction with Taiwan; and certifying that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous under the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act. (p. 87)

The Biden administration could make even more progress in restoring America’s role in the world. To do so, the administration should:

  • Increase U.S. engagement with African countries by releasing a new policy directive on U.S. policy toward Africa along with announcing a return of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit next year. (p. 84)
  • Reenvision U.S. relations in the Middle East; engage with diplomacy to resolve long-running tensions between Israel and Palestine; and incentivize cooperation instead of conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. (p. 92)
  • Launch a new multilateral trade approach on China, including taking collective action at the World Trade Organization to address Beijing’s most concerning industrial policies. (p. 87) The administration should also continue to prioritize human rights issues in relations with China and grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and special immigration status to the people of Hong Kong. (p. 87)

Tackling global challenges

CAP emphasized the threat of accelerating climate change and other global challenges such as migration and new technologies as top priorities for the incoming administration. The administration has adopted several of CAP’s recommendations in its early steps to tackle both of these key issues, including:

  • Putting climate change at the center of President Biden’s domestic and foreign policy approaches by committing that the United States will achieve net-zero emissions by 2050; rejoining the Paris Agreement and other international climate action efforts; appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry to a Cabinet-level climate envoy position; and meeting with key European leaders on climate. President Biden also gathered 40 heads of state at a Leaders Summit on Climate, during which he reconvened the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change and elevated the forum to the leader level. In his discretionary budget request for FY 2022, President Biden sought funding from Congress to meet the U.S. commitment to the Green Climate Fund. These early moves set the stage for more concrete policy efforts to transition to a carbon-neutral economy and jump-start international efforts on climate diplomacy. (p. 100)
  • The administration took early steps on immigration and asylum such as rescinding Trump-era immigration policies, including the Muslim ban (p. 36); starting a task force and beginning to reunite families that had been separated at the U.S.-Mexico border (p. 36); restarting the Central American Minors program; and reinstating Deferred Enforced Departure for Liberians and granting TPS to people from Venezuela and Burma. (p. 105)

In addition to continuing to build momentum toward tackling climate change and global migration, the Biden administration should be taking more significant action on several issues:

  • Lead international cooperation against corruption by launching a Global Anti-Kleptocracy Initiative. By some estimates, corruption costs the global economy 5 percent of annual GDP, or some $2.6 trillion. As governments look to recover from the current economic crisis, corruption could be an important area of focus for the international financial system. The administration should appoint an anti-corruption coordinator at the National Security Council to lead these efforts. (p. 49)
  • Appoint chief technology officers in each national security department or agency. Technology continues to play an outsize role in driving changes in today’s society. The Biden administration should appoint a chief technology officer in each national security department or agency tasked with grappling with these changes. (p. 15) The administration should also convene a high-level meeting with tech companies on ways to enhance cooperation while protecting privacy and free speech. (p. 38)
  • Continue to work to restore asylum access. The Biden administration should rescind the Trump administration’s Title 42 order, which continues to cut off asylum access at U.S. borders, and do more to facilitate full access to asylum to those who seek safety here. The administration should also restore protected status to all those whose status was ended under the Trump administration, such as those from Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Addressing the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic will only end when everyone—not just those living in the United States—has access to and confidence in vaccines. The Biden administration has made enormous progress at home, where early vaccine rates are a triumph, and taken several important steps on the international front that CAP recommended:

  • Committing $10 billion to address global vaccine inequities. (p. 127)
  • Rejoining the World Health Organization. (p. 88)
  • Reengaging with key multilateral health initiatives such as Gavi the Vaccine Alliance and COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX). (p. 128)

The United States has the resources and capacity to do much more, however, and the pandemic will only end when all countries can vaccinate their populations. These steps include:

  • Commit to sharing excess vaccine doses early and generously as we move beyond the first 100 days, and release a detailed timeline of how and when the United States plans to distribute doses. (p. 126)
  • Pledge to give more financial support to global health initiatives when it releases a more detailed budget proposal in May. (p. 128)
  • Finally, to help prevent future pandemics and establish better response plans, create a lessons-learned commission and incorporate its recommendations in future planning and policy. (p. 124)

The Biden administration has clearly made significant progress in each of the six areas CAP recommended in its 100-day plan. Building on these achievements during the rest of the administration’s tenure will do an enormous amount of good by putting the United States on a path to a more progressive and sustainable national security agenda.

For the Center for American Progress’ National Security and International Policy team, Katrina Mulligan is the acting vice president; Alexandra Schmitt is a senior policy analyst; and Siena Cicarelli is a research and program associate.