The World That Awaits the US President in 2021

There has never been a more critical time to pull nations together. The next president must decide what kinds of partnerships the US will form with foreign leaders in an increasingly polarized world.

Map of topics covered by affiliates in each world region

By Michelle Nicholasen

Foreign policy is a study in contrast for the presidential contenders in the 2020 US presidential election. Current US President Donald Trump favors an aggressive approach with other countries, one based in unilateralism and protectionism. Democratic rival Joe Biden argues that domestic policies are deeply connected to those abroad, and vows to restore multilateral agreements and advance human rights and democracy.

During the past four years, the US has rejected or revamped partnerships with other nations, such as NATO, the Paris Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and recently the World Health Organization in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Some believe that this strong-armed style of leadership is advantageous to position the US as a global leader, while others believe that these actions have profoundly damaged the reputation of the United States around the world.

To understand what lies ahead for the US president, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs asked several affiliates in international relations to comment on the challenges and opportunities that await in six regions of the world: Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Latin America, Europe, China, and Russia/Eastern Europe.


Arunabh GhoshArunabh Ghosh

Faculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Associate Professor, Department of History, Harvard University.

After 2016, election prognostication has become an especially risky business. Regardless of who wins, however, the challenges the next president of the United States will face on the China front are straightforward to delineate, albeit hard to resolve. 

Many of these challenges originate within the United States. Today, the US is widely perceived as a failing nation and an increasingly poor model of a liberal democracy. Neoliberalism run amok—exemplified by a concentration of wealth and political power among a plutocratic elite and by a rightward shift in everyday politics—has seen the US renege on a range of international commitments, none more embarrassing (and petty) than the ongoing withdrawal from the World Health Organization. The Trump presidency is, to a large extent, both cause and symptom of this malaise. For the wider world, and especially to the Chinese, the sense of American decline will be confirmed if Trump defies predictions and manages to secure a second term. 

These developments have played into the hands of the leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), who have started positioning their country as the bulwark of a new international order. But exemplary acts in the areas of environmental policy and success in controlling COVID-19 have been undermined by aggressive posturing against Taiwan, Australia, in the South China Sea, along the border with India, and elsewhere. Some of these trends predate the Trump presidency, but they have almost without fail been exacerbated over the past four years. 

Under the circumstances, what should the next president do? There are some things that can be done quickly and with relative ease. The first is to reverse American society’s descent into a right-wing, white supremacist, plutocratic morass. This will require the president to set an example, personally and through his choice of officials. The most direct way to signal this would be to acknowledge the seriousness of COVID-19 and to draw up effective palliative and preventive plans. 

The next task will be to reengage with the world through multilateral institutions, such as the World Health Organization, the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Agreement, and so forth. Just as important will be a review of bilateral treaties that the US unilaterally broke in the past few years, none more important than the one with Iran. 

Many of these actions are merely in keeping with America’s pre-Trump commitments. Taken together, they will do much to arrest—though not reverse—the perception of American decline. That will, in turn, enhance America’s global legitimacy to negotiate with the PRC. 

At a China-specific level, the next president should seek out and appoint in the State Department and in advisory positions people with China expertise and experience. Although these appointments may not immediately alter the widespread anti-China consensus that has come to pervade Washington, DC, they will certainly result in a better-informed White House and in greater engagement with Chinese counterparts in government, think tanks, and the private sector. 

Such capacity resuscitation and broad-based engagement is a baseline condition for addressing a slew of far more intractable China-related challenges, none of which the next president can ignore. These include resolving trade disputes, addressing aggressive military buildups (in the Taiwan Straits, along the border with India, and in the South China Sea), and confronting expanding human rights abuses in ethnic-minority regions such as Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. 

The final challenge, and one where the US and China need to demonstrate joint leadership given their major contributory role, is climate change. Despite Sino-US rivalry in many of the aforementioned areas, it is in addressing climate change that common ground must be found. 

Shifting focus to within America’s borders, the next president will have to send a clear signal on two related issues. The Chinese American community numbers nearly 4.5 million now, and yet, under Trump it has increasingly become the target of Sinophobia. On many occasions, Americans of Japanese, Korean, and Southeast Asian descent have also not been spared. The White House will have to publicly denounce such expressions of hate. Related to Sinophobia are proposals for new visa policies that seek to bar or severely restrict Chinese students from studying and working in the United States. These policies too must be reversed. Absent these measures, a reverse brain drain is likely, especially in the cutting-edge areas of artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and computing. 

The fact is that China is in many respects as large and as significant a player in global affairs as the United States. Any reasonable China policy has to acknowledge this reality and approach China as a potential partner—not automatically as an adversary. 


Cary Aileen Garcia YeroCary Aileen García Yero

Raphael Dorman Postdoctoral Fellow, Weatherhead Center Scholars Program, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. PhD, Department of History, Harvard University.

As the US presidential election approaches, the next president of the United States faces unprecedented challenges in Latin America (LA). The COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate historical tensions that have shaped LA-US relations, including issues of political and economic interference, militarization, race, migration, human rights, culture and the arts—among others. Donald Trump’s discursive statements towards Latin Americans—from labelling Mexicans as “rapists” to his “build the wall” slogan—cast the present moment as a low point in the history of LA-US relations. Beyond words, the actions of the current administration over the last four years have impacted the lives of many Latin Americans deeply, perhaps most severely on matters of migration and economic intervention. The next administration has the opportunity to rebuild its standing regionally, reassessing its approach on these two areas toward the advancement of hemispheric mutual interests. 

The current government inherited a problematic immigration regime that provided the infrastructure for Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies. However, as migration scholars such as Adam Goodman and international organizations such as Human Rights Watch have explained, Trump’s government has further expanded the system with policies such as border militarization, the growth of the privatized immigration detention system, the increase of ICE raids, the “zero-tolerance” (family separation) policy, active US immigration enforcement inside a foreign sovereign country (Guatemala, as reported by a US Senate Committee), and the “Remain in Mexico” program and Safe Third Country Agreement. The administration’s efforts to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program galvanized widespread support for the young program beneficiaries. The new administration will be challenged by a legacy of immigration policies that have violated the basic human rights of Latin American migrants. It will also have to deal with a changing demographic of asylum seekers, which used to be predominantly undocumented male Mexican job-seekers and is now increasingly formed by Central American women and children. Most importantly, the new government will have to confront the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on migration. The crisis has already deeply disrupted the US immigration system, suspending many immigration court hearings and limiting the functioning of the courts, as reported by the American Immigration Council.  

Another major consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is its impact on the global economy. Prior to the pandemic, however, Latin America had already been rocked by massive protests during 2019 in Chile, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Honduras, Paraguay, and other nations. Studies suggest that many of these demonstrations were sparked by increased poverty, inequality, and economic ills such as growing inflation. With that in mind, the new administration will also be faced with the legacies of policies that have interfered in the internal economies of several Latin American countries. As is the case with migration, these interventionist economic policies have a long and troubling history, justified mainly by the US’s alleged efforts to promote democracy in the region. For instance, the current administration reverted Obama’s openings toward Cuba, further entrenching a sixty-year-old economic embargo against the island that has proven utterly ineffective in overturning the existing government. More recently, economic sanctions have been imposed on Venezuela and Nicaragua, with the goal of removing the governments of Nicolas Maduro and Daniel Ortega, respectively. While these three regimes remain in control, the economic sanctions have particularly hurt the more vulnerable low-income populations, as scholars such as Alexander Main have pointed out. The new administration has the opportunity to reconsider these economic interventionist policies that have proven unsuccessful in bringing about positive political, social, and cultural change.


Katharina PiechockiKatharina N. Piechocki

Faculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Department of Comparative Literature, Harvard University.

What if one were to consider a state’s foreign policy through the lens of a president’s international travel patterns? While Donald Trump has undertaken (only) nineteen international trips as a president, visiting twenty-five countries and four continents (thus far, he has not been to Africa and Australia), Europe has been at the center of his travel agenda. 

President Trump’s numerous trips to Europe—the second largest economy in the world—are perhaps indicative of the frictions that have punctuated the relations between the US and Europe during his presidency. Europe is facing many challenges, now and in the years ahead. They include the upcoming elections in Germany and France, the possibility of increased trade wars, Brexit, the rocky relationship with Russia and Belarus, the so-called “migration crisis,” and the handling of COVID-19.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will step down in 2021 (after first becoming chancellor in 2005), while France will hold its presidential elections in 2022. The diplomatic ties between Washington and Paris—and Berlin, for that matter—have declined over the past years, and these two elections will most likely reshape Europe’s geopolitics and economy in significant ways. Recently, the Trump administration imposed 25 percent tariffs on French goods as a response to France’s imposition of a 3 percent tax on digital turnover by tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple. 

In the same vein, the US has opposed the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline—a controversial project for many reasons—which would allow Russia to circumvent Ukraine and other Eastern European countries to deliver gas directly to Germany. What is more, the US has criticized Germany for its failure to meet NATO targets on defense spending and announced that it will withdraw thousands of troops from Germany in what it describes as a “strategic” repositioning of its forces in Europe (Italy and Belgium). At the same time, the US has increased its military presence in Eastern Europe, in particular in Poland, a country considered strategic in the concerted effort by the US and NATO—an organization US officials fear Trump might want to leave during his second term—to deter potential Russian aggression. (As a side note: no previous US president has, alas, made an effort to lift the uncalled-for visa restrictions for Poland, a EU member since 2004.)

The Brexit withdrawal agreement, ratified in January, has now hit a new barrier: the Northern Ireland protocol, which would include the province under the European Union’s customs code and single-market rules in order to avert a hard border. Presidential candidate Joe Biden (who is Irish American) has made clear that any US–UK trade deal had to be contingent on the respect for the Good Friday Agreement, but whether a Trump administration would honor that protocol is quite unclear. 

In Europe’s east, Belarus’s future is more than uncertain. Following the elections of August 9, widely seen as fraudulent, the Trump administration—reluctant to advance democratic values if it comes at the cost of displeasing Moscow—has failed to condemn President Alexander Lukashenko, “Europe’s last dictator,” whose government has been heavily relying on Russia since he took office in 1994. In a speech titled “Securing Freedom in the Heart of Europe” (and delivered only days after the elections), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blatantly failed to mention Belarus, a country where the police are now authorized to use lethal force against anti-government and pro-democracy protesters. 

The two topics that continue to dominate Europe’s headlines are the “migration crisis” and COVID-19. The influx of asylum seekers in Europe, in particular in Germany, has given momentum to far-right and populist parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), now Germany’s largest opposition party in parliament. In France, Marine Le Pen could emerge as the winner in the first round of the presidential elections. If the number of refugees in Europe has significantly dropped, it is not due to a decrease in migration and improved conditions in the migrants’ countries of origin—in particular Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq—but rather to (shady) deals made by the European Union with “safe third countries” such as Turkey and Libya. It is fair to say that the EU has not ended the migrant crisis as much as it has displaced it beyond its borders. 

As far as COVID-19 is concerned: for the moment, travel between the US and Europe is largely interrupted and on July 6, 2020, the US administration officially notified UN Secretary-General António Guterres of its intention to withdraw membership from the World Health Organization. How the transatlantic communication will continue, literally and metaphorically, against the backdrop of the pandemic’s geopolitical aftershocks, and its second wave we’re experiencing right now, is to be seen. Will it unfold in tandem with the aftershocks of the US presidential election?

Quote from Jacob Olupona on race


Jacob OluponaJacob Olupona

Faculty Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Professor of African Religious Traditions, Harvard Divinity School; Professor of African and African American Studies, Department of African and African American Studies, Harvard University.

This election comes at a very precarious time for the world, and particularly for Africa. More so because Africa has borne the brunt of the last administration and its policies. Whether they be on immigration, trade, international relations, or poverty alleviation through the United Nations and other international agencies, America's instituted policy inadvertently gives the impression that the US has long since ceased to be a country that Africa can count on as an ally for its progress. 

The current US administration began on a sour note, the sitting president barely hiding his disdain for Africa and other developing nations. It was evident in policy adjustments and the renewed emphasis on stricter competition laws and international trade politics that America's global policy position had taken a turn for the worse. As a result, years of peaceful coexistence, environmental improvement, and trade agreements have gone down the drain. Nevertheless, Africans continue to be optimistic and hopeful for better relations with the United States in the future. The next few years following this election, especially if there is a regime change, will require years of fence-mending to repair the broken relations between African countries and the US.

A shift in the tide will require significant efforts from the US and rely on the ability of African stakeholders to listen to public opinion. African people should also demand that the US government come down firmly against African leaders who have betrayed their offices' trust through misrule and incompetency and are responsible for poor governance. Consequently, America must be willing to work with the private and public sectors to build long-lasting institutions rather than continue with business as usual.

The US should realize that its actions, as a first-world nation, affect and impact the rest of the world. Therefore, American leadership should take a hard look at how US aid is channeled and applied towards helping the poor and underprivileged in African states. As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages the world, the economic wage gap is now wider than ever, and development aid to Africa and other developing nations will be necessary for the global economy to recover.

Perhaps one of the most critical issues of this age relates to race relations, which have thoroughly diminished human rights worldwide. Impunity and excessive use of force are becoming a more prevalent theme in many developing nations. Relatedly, America has failed dismally to address human rights abuses against black people and attend adequately to reports of police brutality across the nation. Africa has been the collateral damage in the American race wars, and has become very skeptical of America's ability to preserve black people's democratic rights everywhere. 


David SzakonyiDavid Szakonyi

Former Academy Scholar (2017–2018 and 2019–2020), The Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Assistant Professor of Political Science, George Washington University.

No matter who wins, the president taking office in 2021 faces perhaps the most volatile politics in the post-Soviet region in nearly two decades. Russia’s claims to being a regional guarantor of security have increasingly been put under question. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has reignited with a vengeance, with the violations of ceasefires reminiscent of the seemingly intractable failures to bring peace to still-simmering eastern Ukraine. Massive protests in Belarus have shaken President Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime, while those in Kyrgyzstan unexpectedly toppled the leadership earlier this month. All this has occurred amidst the Russia government’s own contentious activities—from meddling in foreign elections, allegedly poisoning its domestic opponents, and providing military support in Syria, Ukraine, and even parts of Africa. President Putin has recently gone so far as hinting at a military alliance between Russia and China.

The fundamentally broken relationship between Moscow and Washington means the prospects for resolving these many challenges are dim. And even though the approaches offered by each US presidential candidate are distinct, we should expect relations to get worse before they get better. In a second term, Trump may try to double-down on his strategy of goodwill and reconciliation with Moscow, but will run into the same distaste among Congress, no matter who’s in control. Trump simply cannot overcome Congressional reticence by trying to rewrite the reality of Russia’s belligerence towards the West. Alternately, Biden has labelled Russia the biggest threat to US security and promised harsher economic punishments for human rights violations and election meddling. Though some of this response may be justified, a more active foreign policy in the region may reignite Russia’s fears of the US encroaching on its sphere of influence and lead to more conflict. With relations already so fraught, the only solution is to restart principled dialogue diplomacy in order to stake out the little common ground that exists (such as nuclear issues) before relations deteriorate even further.


Hicham AlaouiHicham Alaoui

Associate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. DPhil, Oriental Studies, St Antony's College, Oxford.

If Joe Biden wins the November 2020 elections, his new administration would immediately confront four challenges in the Middle East—Iran, the Saudi-Emirati axis, the Arab Spring, and Israel/Palestine. 

The Trump administration’s Middle East policy is one of chaotic retreat. By contrast, the Biden administration’s strategy would be one of cautious reengagement. It would be predicated upon a sense of critical realism, not unlike the Obama administration’s approach. It would see the region as a coherent geopolitical terrain, in which achieving long-term goals would require less unilateral action and more multilateral coordination. At the same time, it would confront the declining importance of the Middle East to American interests overseas. 
First, regarding Iran, the Biden administration would try to restore the principle of negotiation embodied by the 2015 nuclear deal framework. For the past four years, the US has returned to a stance of unilateral bullying and militarized rhetoric, sanctions, and military strikes in hopes of cowing Iran into submission. Yet while the US can slowly choke off Iran’s nuclear resources, it cannot do so with its existing ballistic missile program, which is the primary Iranian spearhead to its ambitions for regional expansion.

By attempting to revisit the nuclear deal framework as entrée to new dialogue, the US would try to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile program by giving its regime a place at the negotiating table. Iran’s leaders would undoubtedly resist the invitation, as the arsenal remains a vital asset to its military capacity. However, this process could open the door to a grand regional bargain in the long run. Such a bargain would address Iran’s involvement in places like Syria, Yemen, and Iraq in a comprehensive way without escalating tensions in the Gulf.

Second, regarding Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the US would carefully reconsider its free-handed attitude. For the past decade, and largely under new political leadership, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have acted as the counterrevolutionary vanguard of the Middle East, striving to reverse democratic gains. They have sought to bolster authoritarian regimes and allies throughout the region—and they have succeeded under a virtual mandate from the Trump administration.

The Biden administration would be stricter, cognizant of the disastrous consequences of what Saudi-Emirati adventurism has produced in Yemen, Libya, and Qatar. Actions within these countries have created tumultuous disruptions with little in the way of positive returns. Of course, the US would stay out of Saudi-Emirati domestic politics. Yet, it would also recognize that the two are different. While the UAE leadership would face less serious consequences from this recalibration, the Saudi leadership would face steeper costs due to its ruling over a much larger country with more diverse popular currents, and a more difficult economic challenge. Furthermore, the Saudi leadership would have aggrieved many internal political actors, and they may try to reassert their power in the political system.

Third, the US would reorient its view of the Arab Spring—which is an ongoing historical process rather than a singular outcome. This process is one of political change, and the Biden administration would recognize that the struggles involved have structural roots. The old social contract that swapped political obeisance for economic subsistence is over. Youthful societies demand voice and dignity, and authoritarian regimes cannot deliver.

The restoration of American democracy at home may embolden democratic movements in the region and indeed around the world. The decline of democracy globally and its undermining of the Arab Spring’s vibrancy is frequently overlooked. Moreover, if new revolutions break out, a Biden administration would not assume that autocratic allies, such as the Sisi regime of Egypt, will remain stable. Popular expectations for reform would demand a more principled response from the US. 

In the same vein, fractured countries like Libya and Syria would require multilateralism rather than one-off interventions. This would ultimately necessitate rebuilding modes of cooperation with Western allies, and reengaging Russia and China through a framework of positive, well-regulated interactions. A Biden administration would more readily pursue such an approach.

Finally, the Biden administration would deal with the Palestinian tragedy. Here, by virtue of its past partiality, the US has little maneuvering space, and this probably will not change. It would backtrack from “the deal of the century” and attempt to resuscitate the two-state solution. The possibility of a two-state solution is effectively dead, but none of the parties involved wish to recognize the painful implication. Thus, the US would attempt to nudge Israel back to negotiations. However, there would be limited gains: even if the Israeli government halts de jure annexation of Palestinian territory, there would still be de facto annexation through illegal settlement activity. Much also would depend upon how the Palestinians reorganize themselves, for the Palestinian Authority has been stuck in moribund decline for decades now.

Still, pulling back from the deal of the century would have regional implications worth considering. For example, there would be less incentive for Arab states to rush into normalizations with Israel without the latter addressing Palestinian rights. In this sense, the Biden administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East would have momentous consequences, but it would take some time to undo the damage done by current American policies.

In the event that Trump wins, we would see more of the same in terms of the foreign policy employed over the last four years. The US would continue its militant approach regarding Iran, and continue giving the Saudi and Emirati leadership their mandate for the counterrevolution. It would stand by as the region enters a new cycle of authoritarian repression and popular pushback. This pushback would consume the street and be more fractured than ever, because there would be even less breathing space within civil society. Regional conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere would worsen in the absence of transatlantic cooperation and multilateral engagement. These countries would sink deeper into conflict. 

Finally, the US would continue to neglect the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, and not expend even a modicum of effort to restart the negotiation process. As a result, this would quicken the eventual dissolution of the Palestinian Authority and likewise speed up formal recognition that the two-state solution is definitively dead.

—Michelle Nicholasen, Editor and Content Producer, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs