The United States Finally Lifts COVID-19 Travel Restrictions on Friends and Allies

The United States recently announced that it will lift COVID-19 travel restrictions for fully vaccinated foreign travelers on November 8. On that day, the United States will permit air travelers from the European Union and the United Kingdom, among other countries, as well as travelers from Canada and Mexico crossing the U.S. land borders to enter the U.S. with proof of vaccination. The illogical travel restrictions, which have been in place since early 2020, irritated America’s European allies, who were frustrated by the lack of reciprocity. Similarly, the restrictions caused tension with the governments of Mexico and Canada, who lobbied for the U.S. to remove the restrictions.

For many months, U.S. allies have been expecting this announcement. While the Biden administration looked into gradually relaxing the travel restrictions, the Delta variant “significantly changed the president’s calculus.” As more and more countries vaccinate their citizens, the United States finally decided to begin relaxing the restrictions. Yet, the administration’s decision to allow fully vaccinated citizens traveling by air from the European Union and United Kingdom and across the land border from Canada and Mexico – many of the United States’ closest friends – was long overdue.

Across the Pond

The United States announced in September that the travel ban would be lifted for fully vaccinated international travelers, including those coming from the European Union and United Kingdom, without specifying a date for the change in policy. The Trump administration instituted the ban in January 2020 in hopes of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 into the United States. The Biden administration continued the travel ban upon taking office, noting that the restrictions were necessary after the surge of the Delta variant.  

However, the continued ban was angered America’s European allies due to the lack of reciprocity. Many across Europe anticipated that the Biden administration would lift the ban shortly upon taking office. After all, the United Kingdom allows fully vaccinated Americans to enter. Similarly, in June, the European Union began admitting fully vaccinated U.S. citizens. However, the Biden administration did not take such steps until September, further straining transatlantic ties that are currently in turmoil after the recent AUKUS alliance announcement and the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan.

British and EU officials have long argued that the travel bans were not necessary based on the fact that COVID-19 vaccination rates in Europe are higher than those in the United States. Many European countries have more vaccinated citizens when compared to the United States. According to the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project, nearly 65 percent of all adults in the European Union are fully vaccinated. Similarly, 67 percent of the United Kingdom’s population are fully vaccinated. This compares to 57 percent of Americans who are fully vaccinated. European and British vaccination totals surpass those of the United States. Thus, based on vaccination data alone, the United States should have lifted the travel ban on its European friends much earlier.

The Border Lands

For the first time since March 2020, vaccinated travelers from Mexico and Canada may enter the United States by crossing the land border, aligning the requirements for crossing the border by land with those of air travel. The Trump administration first implemented the travel restrictions on its land borders with Canada and Mexico in March 2020, just a week after placing travel restrictions on much of Europe. Since the restrictions went into place, those traveling to the U.S. by land were only permitted to enter for essential reasons.

The travel restrictions strained U.S. relations with its closest neighbors. One kicker for Canada was the fact that the Canadian government, much like the European Union, had reopened its border to the United States in August, allowing U.S. citizens to travel into Canada. Yet, much like in Europe, Canada’s vaccination rates are higher than those of the United States: approximately 74 percent of Canada’s population was fully vaccinated, compared to 57 percent of America’s population.

According to the Our World in Data project, 41 percent of the Mexican population are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. While Mexico’s total count of fully vaccinated citizens is lower than that of Canada and the United States, Mexico’s total percentage of citizens with at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot, 54 percent, is not much lower than the total of U.S. citizens with at least one shot, totaling 66 percent. The Biden administration can no longer use the rise of the Delta variant and lack of vaccinated populations as an excuse to maintain travel restrictions. In fact, the Biden administration should have opened cross-border travel of those coming from Canada and Mexico who are fully vaccinated months ago.

Conclusion

On November 8, fully vaccinated international travelers, coming by air or land, will be able to enter the United States for the first time in almost two years. Instituted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the United States by the Trump administration, the Biden administration continued these efforts. The continued travel restrictions on travelers coming from the European Union and the United Kingdom, as well as border closures to travelers coming to the U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico, frustrating some of its closest allies and causing tension with its only two neighbors, with whom the United States typically maintains close ties. The United States should have eased pandemic-implemented travel restrictions to fully vaccinated travelers from these countries much earlier.

The Uighurs, Allies, and China

Since 2017, China has clamped down on the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Xinjiang region of China. Beijing justifies such actions as concerns about terrorism, extremism, and the Uighur independence movement. In what many in the United States and Europe have labeled as genocide, China rejects the notion that that the Uighurs are subject to any human rights abuses.

However, estimates predict that more than 1 million Uighurs were detained in Chinese re-education camps. Some former Uighur detainees reported that, during their time in detention, they were forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and to be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Others have shared that China is using torture as well as “forced sterilization…and family separations to destroy Uighur identity.” These unspeakable state-sanctioned actions certainly constitute genocide.

The U.S. and Its Allies Act

On March 22, in response to the genocidal conditions that the Uighur ethnic group and others are suffering at the hands of the Chinese government in the Xinjiang province, the United States, in concert some of its closest allies – the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada – imposed sanctions on China for its human right violations. What is the significance about the United States and its allies’ recent imposition of sanctions against China? It fits in neatly with what President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. announced as the fundamental features of his administration’s foreign policy..

On February 4, Biden delivered the first foreign policy speech of his new presidency. In this speech, Biden spoke of several themes that would guide his foreign policy, including placing re-establishing diplomacy at the core of U.S. foreign policy, restoring American leadership, repairing U.S. alliances, and returning to multilateralism. The imposition of sanctions on China for its human right abuses against the Uighurs embodies almost every facet of Biden’s vision for his foreign policy.

Diplomacy and American Democratic Values

In his February 4 speech, Biden remarked, “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” He further asserted that the United States’ return to diplomacy must be “rooted in American’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” By announcing the imposition of new sanctions against China for its human rights abuses against the Uighurs, the United States has done exactly what Biden promised: placed diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Imposing sanctions on China for its genocidal treatment of the Uighurs also secures Biden’s pledge that American democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy. By taking a stand against Beijing for these human right abuses, the United States is making clear not just to China, but to the world, that its foreign policy will be driven by its democratic values, including human rights, and that the United States will call out those who are violating its values.

Coordination with U.S. Allies and A Return to Multilateralism

On February 4, Biden emphatically stated that “America’s alliances are our greatest assets, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.” After several years of angering and alienating America’s allies under the Trump administration’s America First motto, Biden noted the importance of rebuilding relationships with the United States’ key allies to counter global challenges. “We can’t do it alone,” Biden further emphasized, signaling the importance of rebuilding the United States’ alliances in order to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy.

And this is exactly what the Biden administration accomplished when coordinating with the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union to impose sanctions on China. Not only did the United States pursue this action through diplomatic channels, but the United States also coordinated with some of its closest allies in order to address a mutual threat to their security and values. By imposing sanctions on China for its genocidal behavior toward the Uighurs, the United States capitalized on what the Biden administration recognizes as its greatest assets – its alliances – and this will only help in his quest of restoring those relationships.

The United States’ imposition of sanctions on China in concert with some of its closest, like-minded allies also indicates how important multilateralism is to the Biden administration’s foreign policy. Though the United States did not work directly through an international organization, like the United Nations, the Biden administration pursued a course of diplomacy through the imposition of sanctions, using a well-deliberated and well-orchestrated action in concert with its closest allies instead of acting impulsively, ineffectively, or unliterally. This action was the epitome of multilateral cooperation.

Conclusion

The horrendous treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province at the hands of the Chinse government is undoubtedly a massive violation of the Uighurs’ human rights. By imposing sanctions on the Chinese government in coordination with the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada, the Biden administration is fulfilling its promises of returning diplomacy and American values at the center of U.S. foreign policy, restoring American leadership, recalibrating its strained relationships with its closest allies, and resuming its commitment to multilateralism.

The Neighbors

*This post is the first in a series on what America’s allies can expect from the Biden administration. This post explores the United States’ relationship with its neighbors, Canada and Mexico.*

One of the central themes driving President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is that he will work to “repair America’s alliances.” During his first official foreign policy speech given at the State Department on February 4, Biden emphatically stated, “America’s alliances are our greatest asset.” In fact, in his first few weeks in office, President Biden has reached out to the United States’ key allies around the world, highlighting his commitment to proving to its allies that they can rely on the United States. This outreach effort began with the United States’ neighbors: Canada and Mexico.

Up North

The United States and Canada have longed enjoyed a very close ties, enjoying an extensive commercial relationship, totaling approximately $700 billion each year and maintaining mutual security commitments and close intelligence-sharing operations.

Politically and socially, the countries enjoy a shared history and values. The sheer proximity of the two countries allows for close relations: The two countries share a border that spans more than 5,000 miles, and that border is largely undefended. One could argue that the United States has no better friend in the world than Canada.

Conversely, under the Trump administration, relations with Canada were more strained. Former President Trump imposed arbitrary tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel exports in 2018 for national security reasons, angering the Canadian government. Trump hurled a series of insults toward Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, calling him “very dishonest and weak” at the 2018 G-7 summit. Trump also threatened to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), accusing Canada of taking advantage of the United States and threatening to leave Canada out of any new deal.

While it will likely take time to reestablish the trust lost during the last administration, the relationship will likely return to the friendly, cooperative relations between the United States and Canada. Biden and Trudeau are far more ideologically aligned, holding similar positions on issues like climate change, democracy and human rights, international institutions, and social justice. Indeed, Trudeau was Biden’s first phone call to a foreign leader, underscoring the importance of the relationship.  

There is one early area of tension: Biden signed an Executive Order that revoked the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, which was seen as a “boon for Canada’s in industry.” Trudeau expressed his disappointment at the move, which Biden acknowledged, but noted that he would not allow the cancellation of the pipeline to put pressure on the relationship.

It’s not always going to be a perfect alignment with the United States,” Trudeau acknowledged. “That’s the case with any given president,” he continued, further noting that “…we’re in a situation where we are much more aligned on values and focus. I am very much looking forward to working with President Biden.” In short, we can expect the relationship between the United States and Canada to return back to its more traditional, friendly state.

Down South

Overall relations between the United States and Mexico have been amiable. However, there were numerous territorial skirmishes after Mexico gained independence in 1810, and relations hit another low point during World War I when Germany asked Mexico to join the war against the United States for the return of some of its territory.

In more recent years, relations between the two countries have been much closer, cemented by the signing of NAFTA in the mid-1990s. Now close trader partners, the United States and Mexico work together to address crime, migration, and counternarcotics. The United States and Mexico share strong economic, social, cultural, and historical ties. Nevertheless, throughout the relationship, there has been a power imbalance skewed toward the United States.

During his campaign and into his presidency, Trump frequently criticized Mexico. He referred to Mexicans as “rapists” and accused Mexico of sending criminals and drugs to the U.S. During a trip to Mexico in 2016, he incensed his hosts by exclaiming that he was going to build a “great wall,” that Mexico would fund. He later knocked NAFTA as “the worst deal in history.” In 2019, in an effort to pressure Mexico into reducing illegal migration flowing from Mexico, Trump said he would slap punitive tariffs, to which Mexico’s leftist populist president sent National Guard troops to Mexico’s southern border.

When examining the usually cordial but sometimes strained relationship, one could observe that Mexico has played the more subordinate role and that President Andrews Manuel Lopez Obrador was willing to do whatever was needed to satisfy the United States, no matter the cost to Mexico. As Maureen Meyer, the Director for Mexico and Migrant Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America pointed out, “AMLO’s [Lopez Obrador] priority was to maintain the relationship with the U.S., and he was willing to accept [those] costs in Mexico.”

Biden, however, has signaled his plans to establish a positive relationship with Mexico. “I think the administration, and particularly President Biden, believes in letting bygones be bygones,” observed former Mexican ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukhan. “He wants to build a constructive relationship going forward.” The United States-Mexico relationship has been long been imbalanced, with the United States serving as the more dominant partner. However, as evidenced by how carefully he is approaching the relationship, Biden essentially wants to hit the reset button on the relationship.

Conclusion

President Biden has placed recalibrating the United States’ relationships with its allies at the center of his foreign policy. This starts with those geographically closest the United States: Canada and Mexico. With Canada, Biden aims to return the relationship back to traditional friendly, cooperative state that the two countries have long enjoyed. With Mexico, he seeks to basically reset the relationship, treating Mexico as more of a partner. One thing is certain: Biden understands the importance of good relations with the United States’ neighbors.