Biden Administration's Review of International Conventions

The following opinion article reviews the political and legal obstacles that Biden's team will face reviewing international agreements ratified by previous administrations. It also argues about the validity of the view of some analysts that the influence of the US Presidency in foreign policy is limited, since the decision-making process is conducted according to specific professional foundations.

  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Jan 30, 2021

From the very first days of Biden's presidency, he started reversing some of the decisions made by his successor, Donald Trump. He rejoined some agreements, such as the Paris agreement, and returned to some organizations, such as the World Health Organization, not to mention that he issued executive orders that cancel some of the ex-president’s decisions on the domestic level, such as immigration laws and Covid-19 response measures in the economic and health sectors.

In this regard, what matters to international relations scholars are the turning points that the Biden administration will make in the country's foreign policy, and whether it will be able to "correct the course" and reset the balances of allies as well as adversaries.

Perhaps President Trump's decisions, which were usually "improvised", have called into question the prevailing opinion that the identity and personality of the US President have no influence over foreign policy decisions, because the decision-making process is an institutional bureaucratic process subject to in-depth calculations that weigh the situation in a way that guarantees the maximum gains - or minimum costs – in accordance with the vital interests of the US national security, the matter which makes the President's options limited, as they are dictated by objective and methodical studies and recommendations.

Hence, it is necessary to differentiate between two processes constituting the determining of the foreign policy decision: The decision-making process carried out by professionals in institutions of sovereignty (such as the Department of State, the Pentagon, and security agencies involved in collecting information), during which appropriate options are prepared and submitted to the executive presidential body. Here comes the second most important process, the decision-taking, in which an option is approved by the President or the Secretary of State.

This does not mean that personal and ideological attitudes do not play a role in foreign policy decisions, however. According to the foreign policy decision-making theorist, Richard Snyder, since the processes and stages in which foreign policy decisions pass through are conducted by individuals, the beliefs and psychology of these individual actors must be studied as well; because people are typically incapable of completely setting aside their own biases, impressions, and experiences.

Biden’s team will be cautious in reversing the withdrawals from international agreements which had legally taken effect for the following considerations:

Politically speaking, Washington realizes that its credibility as a party that fulfills its international obligations has declined in the past four years. If the Biden administration opposed the Trump administration - which in turn had been somewhat opposing the Obama administration - this would damage the reputation of the United States, and its ability to exert diplomatic influence and pressure states to respect the rules governing the world order would decrease.

According to Progressive Realism, an American foreign policy paradigm which some theorists call to adhere to, American politicians should work to harness international governance to serve the US interests. This governance would take place through active involvement in international institutions and an emphasis on adherence to international law that developed in a historical context in which the United States was one of the most prominent influencers, meaning that it is consistent with the American view.

The use of hard force cannot be convincing and justified unless it is based on supporting international legitimacy. If the Biden administration entrenched the withdrawal from the existing agreements, Washington would not be able to deal with its allies and adversaries on a solid foundation or provide the necessary momentum to support its military steps in case it is forced to take military action against a threat.

Some members of Biden's team are regarded as progressive realists, but their ability to apply the theoretical approach will be limited by realistic considerations. It is not possible, for example, to combat terrorism by means of carrot and diplomatic influence. Likewise, the economic threats posed by China cannot be dealt with by moving forward with the "economic interdependence" that progressive realism calls for, because this principle - according to American experts - is monopolizingly harnessed by Beijing through its government-managed economy to increase its penetration into the international political economic system.

In legal terms, international agreements that bind two - or more - legal entities of the international law personalities are legally binding, meaning that breaching or terminating them, in a unilateral and unorganized manner, entails legal responsibilities the repercussions of which may go beyond the relations with the parties to the agreement.

Domestically, it is necessary to take into account the legislative and bureaucratic considerations regulating the termination of international agreements.  Such process will not be easy in light of the partisan polarization that has reached even the professional level. A report published by The Washington Post in January 2021 revealed that former US President Donald Trump had appointed and nominated 35 political figures for professional vacancies towards the end of his term.

The "politicization" of these positions will hamper the Biden team’s proceeding with taking decisions that cancel previous measures taken during the Trump era, especially since the dismissal of these officials will collide with legal obstacles related to their job rights.

In sum, The US administration's upholding of the value of political stability with regard to the international agreements in force will contribute to reducing the current international turmoil, even if this "stability" is at the expense of the soundness of the decisions taken. It is more beneficial not to terminate a legally binding agreement without actively seeking to address its deficiencies by agreeing with the concerned parties on the amendment, addition of appendix or canceling some provisions.

Based on the foregoing, Washington must restore its position as a guarantor of international peace and security based on adherence to covenants and agreements, and deprive its opponents, such as China and Russia, of the opportunity to emerge as a party that respects international law obligations at the expense of US position.





Policy Analysis Team