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WASHINGTON – Key U.S. policy shifts caused immense global ripples. Can the Biden administration pick up where the Obama White House left off? Or must it plot a new course?

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The Winter 2021 issue of The Wilson Quarterly (Back to the Future?) explores the options open to a new administration as Joseph Biden is sworn in as president of the United States next week. From Iran to the EU and UK to Asia to the U.S./Mexico border, serious choices await the experienced policy team selected by Biden.

Editor Richard Byrne says: “At a moment in which multiple crises – pandemic, insurrection, and cyber-espionage – have come into powerful confluence, the incoming administration may feel strongly tempted to try and pick up where Barack Obama’s White House left off. Our essayists argue that the world has changed too much to do so, yet see the 44th President’s legacy as a powerful roadmap to global collaboration and projection of America’s democratic values.”

In this issue:

* University of Massachusetts-Amherst Professor of Public Policy Alasdair Roberts argues in “The Hundred Day Mistake” that the benchmark of hundred days’ progress for new administrations – a staple of U.S. politics since FDR took office in 1933 – may not suit the present moment:

“The benchmark of a hundred days might have made sense in 1933. In our more complex and fractious world, holding leaders to that standard may only produce frustration and disharmony.”

* Baroness Catherine Ashton –  Wilson Center Global Europe Chair – has been at the center of major world events that compelled the U.S. and Europe to collaborate to create peace. But as the UK leaves the EU, and a Biden administration takes command, the so-called “special relationship” is frayed as never before. Baroness Ashton’s assessment of relations – “Transatlantic Tranquility?” – offers a path forward to restore this essential international bond of cooperation: 

“[UK Prime Minister Boris] Johnson needs to develop not just the special nature of the relationship, but its indispensable nature as well. Primarily that means demonstrating clearly that a decision to leave the EU is not a decision to leave the international stage, nor to damage links across the Atlantic. For the United States, there are opportunities to bring the UK and EU closer together on areas of policy that are important for American interests.”

* In “Reverse Engineering,” Wilson Center Global Fellow Dalia Dassa Kaye observes that the Biden administration’s eagerness to reverse President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal may meet with complications throughout the region and in the U.S. as well:

“Maximum pressure has bequeathed the Biden administration a region on the brink and a steadily advancing Iranian nuclear program. And diplomacy simply cannot pick up where President Barack Obama left it in 2016. And even if the U.S. and Iran surmount significant obstacles to renewed diplomacy, regional pushback may place stumbling blocks on reviving the JCPOA.”

* Shihoko Goto, Deputy Director for Geoeconomics and the Senior Northeast Asia Associate at the Wilson Center’s Asia Program, surveys the ripple effects from a U.S. retreat from Asian trade in  “Beyond Deals.” Goto argues that the decision by the United States to withdraw from the TPP and its absence from new key agreements – as a domestic unwillingness to engage in new agreements – have taken key tools away from U.S. policymakers:

“The opening for the Biden administration is clear. It can step up efforts not only to call out China’s violations of global trade rules, but to pushing back against worldwide Chinese economic coercion. Washington could rally like-minded nations to work together to counterbalance China’s violation of global trading rules without having to deal with the domestic political minefield of trying to negotiate new trade deals.”

* Among the fiercest domestic opposition to the policies of President Trump came with his actions at the U.S.-Mexico border. Yet over the past few years, the White House found a surprising partner in its efforts in Mexico itself. As Director of the Central America and Mexico Policy Initiative at the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin Stephanie Leutert observes in her essay, “Back and Forth,” the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) at the center of Trump policy have become a new status quo:

“The [MPP] agreement was born of desperation. U.S. officials sought to stop asylum-seeking Central American families arriving in caravans at the southern U.S. border—a surge that led to increasing apprehension numbers and intense media coverage. President Donald Trump demanded a solution, especially since his administration’s previous attempts to stop asylum seekers were blocked in federal court, or reversed amid public outcry, or simply failed to deter them.”

* Unlike many global agreements reversed by the Trump administration, the Paris Agreement has survived. What will it take for the U.S. to rejoin the world battle against climate change? In his essay, “Survive and Advance,” We Are Still In founder Elan Strait lays out a plan for reengagement:

“It will not be easy to repair the U.S. reputation as a leader on climate issues after its retreat from the Paris Agreement. Despite the Biden administration’s eagerness to rejoin, global partners fear future retreat is still possible – especially if climate remains a distinctly partisan issue in the United States. Reestablishing credibility will be key.”

* The U.S. Constitution gives Congress a powerful role in shaping foreign policy. So why has that foundational prerogative languished in recent decades? Gerald Warburg, Professor at the University of Virginia’s Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, says in “Restoring the Balance” that the road to reasserting Congress’ constitutional role won’t be easy:

“The divisive 2020 election campaign and subsequent battles over confirming its result left both Congress and the Presidency even further diminished in public esteem and credibility. Divided government and razor-thin margins of control in Congress promise contentious battles over foreign policy. Securing America’s future in a rapidly-changing world will require difficult negotiations between seriously-weakened institutions.”


Notes to editors:


  1. The Wilson Quarterly, one of the nation’s premier journals since 1976, offers fresh takes, on-the-ground reporting, and thought-provoking perspectives through carefully curated articles and multimedia pieces. A unique narrative publication to emerge from the Washington think tank world, each issue takes a deep dive into a single topic or theme shaping our reality. The publication became digital-only in 2012. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Wilson Center.
  2. The Wilson Center provides a strictly nonpartisan space for the worlds of policymaking and scholarship to interact. By conducting relevant and timely research and promoting dialogue from all perspectives, it works to address the critical current and emerging challenges confronting the United States and the world.