In Brief

Biden’s First Foreign Policy Move: Reentering International Agreements

Biden has moved to rejoin the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization. They likely won’t be the last international agreements and institutions that the United States reenters.

President Joe Biden has signaled that he will rejoin many of the various international treaties, agreements, and bodies that former President Donald J. Trump withdrew the United States from over the past four years. 

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These will be Biden’s first steps in reversing Trump’s foreign policy moves, which CFR President Richard N. Haass defined as the “Withdrawal Doctrine” after Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, the Iran nuclear agreement, and many other pacts and institutions. 

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Some of these will be harder to rejoin than others, particularly those that require congressional approval. Biden could also face hurdles diplomatically. “The major question is how much damage has been done to the credibility of U.S. leadership, especially in that the United States has shown that its policy can turn on a dime when administrations change,” CFR’s Stewart M. Patrick says. 

What has Biden pledged to rejoin?

Paris Agreement

On his first day in office, Biden signed a letter to reenter the United States into the Paris Agreement, the most significant global climate pact to date, which requires nearly all countries to set emissions-reduction pledges, though commitments are not legally binding. Reentering the agreement requires only one month’s notice, so the United States will be back in by March. After that, the United States could strengthen its commitments to cut emissions and serve as an example for other countries in the lead-up to a major conference on climate change, known as COP26, in November. Biden has released an ambitious climate plan, pledging to work toward achieving net-zero emissions in the United States by 2050, and some of his proposed actions would require congressional approval.

Biden signs a document in the Oval Office of the White House.
President Biden signs executive orders in the Oval Office after his inauguration. Tom Brenner/Reuters

World Health Organization (WHO)

Also on day one, Biden rejoined the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN agency that coordinates international health efforts. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump announced his intention to withdraw the United States from and cut funding to the WHO, limiting U.S. engagement with the body over its failure to reduce Chinese influence. (The withdrawal wouldn’t have taken effect until this July.) Already, Biden directed top U.S. medical expert Anthony Fauci to speak to the body. Fauci confirmed that the United States will also join COVAX, a WHO-led initiative to distribute two billion COVID-19 vaccine doses around the world by the end of the year. 

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Iran Nuclear Deal

Biden has promised to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but resurrecting the deal won’t be easy. After exiting the JCPOA in 2018, the Trump administration ratcheted up sanctions on Iran. Tehran responded by exceeding limitations on its nuclear program set under the agreement. Biden has said that he will reenter the deal if Iran returns to compliance, which Iranian officials have indicated they’re willing to do. But he has also signaled that he wants to negotiate a successor agreement that addresses Iran’s missile program and support for regional armed partners, an idea Iranian officials have rejected so far. A renegotiated agreement could require congressional approval. 

UN Human Rights Council

Biden said during his campaign that he would rejoin the UN Human Rights Council, a body the Trump administration pulled out of due to alleged anti-Israel bias and a membership that included human rights abusers, such as China and Venezuela. The United States is not eligible to run for a position on the council until later this year, so Biden will likely use the next few months to build the case that it is worth rejoining, CFR’s Patrick says. 

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What are other areas of potential reengagement?

Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

In 2017, Trump removed the U.S. signature to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement that was the centerpiece of former President Barack Obama’s policy toward Asia but was never approved by Congress. After the United States left, the eleven other countries forged ahead with a new version of the pact, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). As vice president, Biden backed the TPP and told CFR in 2019 that “the idea behind it was a good one.” During the Democratic primaries, he said he would potentially try to renegotiate the TPP and address concerns raised by some Democrats, including by adding protections for workers and the environment.

New START

Biden will likely pursue efforts to revive the last remaining arms control agreement with Russia: the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as New START. U.S. officials could negotiate with Moscow to extend the treaty, which expires in February. The Trump administration was in talks with Russia to extend the treaty but never reached an agreement. (Trump did withdraw from another arms control agreement with Russia, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.) 

Treaty on Open Skies

The United States withdrew from the Treaty on Open Skies, which allows signatories to fly unarmed aircraft over each others’ territory for surveillance. Russia followed the United States in pulling out of the pact. The Biden administration would likely have to seek Senate approval to re-ratify the treaty, though there could be legal shortcuts

Arms Trade Treaty

Trump also removed the U.S. signature to the Arms Trade Treaty, a pact that sets global standards for the international trade of conventional weapons. Trump’s announcement didn’t actually change much. Obama signed the treaty in 2013, but the Senate never voted to approve it, making the United States one of a handful of countries to sign but not ratify the treaty. Biden could re-sign it but would likely face Senate pushback against ratification.

UNESCO

The United States has not provided funding to the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—the agency best known for designating World Heritage sites—since 2011 over the body’s recognition of the Palestinian territories. Citing similar concerns, Trump fully withdrew the United States’ membership. Biden would need congressional approval to resume funding UNESCO.

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