President Joe Biden is undoing his predecessor's foreign policies, but with less drama than Donald Trump created when he sneered four years ago at the diplomatic approaches that came before him.
The civil war in Yemen, which caused a severe famine, has displaced millions of people and in recent years killed thousands of civilians, took center stage late last week. Biden announced an end to support for the Saudi Arabia-backed military campaign there.
That alone marks a big change from what many saw as the Trump administration's reflexive coddling of the Saudi monarchy, such as the ex-president's complacency in response to its ordered killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden's turnaround on Yemen reflects what has been a matter of consensus on Capitol Hill. In April 2019, Trump vetoed a bipartisan congressional resolution that would have brought about what Biden is now doing. It was Trump's second veto to that point. The GOP-run Senate and Democratic-run House invoked the War Powers Act in an effort to distance the U.S. from the conflict.
At the same time, however, the Biden administration also is making clear it won’t drop U.S. military assistance, and it still plans to help Saudi Arabia build up its defenses. Biden as a candidate said the Saudis should "pay the price" for human rights abuses and that he'd "make them in fact the pariah that they are."
Biden's posture on Iran, which is Saudi Arabia's rival for power in the Mideast and backs its foes in the Yemeni war, could generate static in Congress. Biden supported the nuclear accord with Tehran that the U.S. and European nations agreed on during the Obama administration. The Israeli government and allies in Congress — Republicans most vocally — opposed the agreement.
But Secretary of State Antony Blinken, no doubt aware of congressional concerns, has let it be known the U.S. will rejoin the multination accord only if Iran returns to full compliance with its terms. So prospects for resumption of the agreement Trump dumped are unclear. The former president had acted under the rationale that the pact didn't cover Iran's ballistic missile program or the theocratic state's support for militant groups overseas.
In Afghanistan, the tentative agreement Trump reached with the Taliban leaves Biden with gnarly choices over how to continue the slow U.S. withdrawal. Neither of the big power rivals there, the Taliban and the government, is very popular nor has a clear ability to garner the consent of that nation.
China remains as complicated a subject for Biden as it was under Trump, who came off as personally passive and compliant in one-on-one relations with President Xi Jinping both in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic and the run-up to Beijing's crackdown against civil liberties in Hong Kong.
Ties to India are expected to be connected with U.S. dealings with China.
Despite Biden's posture that the U.S. will "out-compete" China and will work "in lockstep" with allies, nobody knows exactly what that would mean in practice. It also is unknown how Biden will resume Obama-era detente with Cuba or if it will be done in a way that satisfies or alienates Cuban Americans.
The president also looks unlikely to lurch in a substantially new direction on either Venezuela or North Korea.
Messaging from the White House sounds more coherent than it was before Trump left. But barring a sudden new crisis, any clear change in the country's international role would likely be slow.