In its first year in office, the Biden administration has done a reasonably good job of reversing the idiocies of its predecessor. It has failed, however, to establish a just, peaceful, and sustainable new U.S. approach to the world. Unlike the first year of Obama’s presidency, which included dramatic speeches on nuclear disarmament and U.S. relations with the Islamic world, Biden has not even gestured rhetorically in the direction of profound change.
Even the new administration’s signature phrase “America is back” suggests restoration rather than transformation. Like a corporate team scrambling to reestablish brand loyalty after a disastrous product failure, the Biden team has repeatedly emphasized reassurance. It has promised that the United States will once again shoulder its responsibilities as an ally in Europe and Asia, recommit to diplomatic solutions, and re-engage in transnational efforts to tackle global problems.
To a certain extent, the Biden administration fulfilled this promise. Over the last year, the United States rejoined the Paris Climate accord, restarted negotiations with Iran to save the 2015 nuclear deal, and sat down with Moscow to extend their last remaining bilateral arms control treaty, New START. The new administration reengaged with the United Nations, for instance rejoining the Human Rights Council, and demonstrated greater seriousness of purpose around global vaccine distribution. It froze arms deals with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners and pledged to stop cooperating with their offensive operations in Yemen. It boosted funding for foreign aid and began to rebuild a State Department devastated by Trump-era cuts.
All of this was to the good, and was reminiscent of how quickly Obama moved to rebalance U.S. relations with the world after two terms of Bush-era unilateralism.
But there have been three major problems with the Biden approach.
First, Donald Trump continued to cast a long shadow over the new administration’s policies, both in terms of what he set in motion in office and the political influence he maintains through the substantial Republican presence in Congress. Second, the slogan “America is back” carries with it much that was problematic about pre-Trump U.S. foreign policy. And third, the whiplash changes over the last three decades in how the United States deals with the world—especially in 2016 and 2020—have created a global perception of America as an erratic, unreliable superpower.
These three problems have combined not only to distract attention from the palpable achievements of the Biden foreign policy team but also to dilute some of the efficacy of those early efforts. Moreover, although the president has moved with decisiveness on certain fronts—for instance, in ending the war in Afghanistan—he has been hesitant on other issues where he has considerable leeway, such as pressuring Saudi Arabia and its allies to negotiate an end to the war in Yemen.
Now, heading into year two, Biden faces an urgent crisis over Ukraine, a simmering set of disputes with China, a global pandemic that has refused to go away, and a global economy hampered by supply chain challenges, rising prices, and a fatal addiction to fossil fuels. Given these circumstances, it will be difficult, though not impossible, to transform U.S. foreign policy along the lines laid out in a recent resolution from Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA).
Biden, with his instinct for bipartisanship and preference for incrementalism, is probably not up to the task. He early on floated the idea that he would be only a caretaker president. Unless he acts boldly—more on the domestic front with spending bills than on the foreign policy front—Biden will be warming the Oval Office seat not for a successor of his own choosing but for a president who will unravel whatever positive accomplishments he has managed to secure.
Trump’s long shadow
Biden’s greatest foreign policy achievement has also been his most profound blunder: the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan.
But the blunder is not all his fault. As Steve Coll and Adam Entous make abundantly clear in an article last month in The New Yorker, the Trump administration’s negotiations with the Taliban set into motion irrevocable changes: a haphazard framework for US. troop withdrawal, a loss of faith in the government in Kabul, and a perception throughout Afghanistan that a Taliban victory was inevitable.
There wasn’t much Biden could do once he had his hands on the wheel. He rejected the unpopular option (among U.S. citizens, at least) of increasing U.S. military presence to force a better outcome at the negotiating table. About all he could do was extend the deadline for troop withdrawal from May 2021, as negotiated under Trump, to the following September.
Knowing that it was going to be messy, Biden nevertheless bit the bullet. He could have handled the evacuation with greater diplomatic finesse and logistical muscle, but the transfer of 124,000 people out of the country in a very short period of time qualifies as an extraordinary accomplishment. He could have started the evacuation of U.S. personnel and Afghan allies earlier, but only at the risk of throwing the country into chaos before the Taliban had made its dramatic territorial advances. The scenes of desperation at the Kabul airport as the deadline for withdrawal approached—those are largely on Trump.
The Biden administration’s other major clean-up operation has been with Iran, where Trump not only withdrew from a mutually beneficial nuclear deal but also piled on additional sanctions against Tehran to poison any future attempts to restart negotiations. At this point, with Iran having already increased the purity of its enriched uranium to 60 percent on the way toward the 90 percent required for a nuclear weapon, there isn’t a lot of time left to revive the old agreement.
If the talks break down and Iran ends up in the nuclear club, that too is on Trump’s shoulders.
On a number of other issues, the Biden administration has only slowly moved away from Trump’s policies if at all. On trade, it has kept sanctions in place against China because Beijing hasn’t met the requirements of a deal reached during the Trump years while it has reduced but not eliminated tariffs against Europe on steel and aluminum. On immigration, the Biden administration ended the controversial Remain in Mexico program that requires asylum seekers to stay across the border as they make their cases to come to the United States. But it has had to reimpose the program at the behest of two court decisions, the first by a Trump-appointed judge, the second by an appeals court of Republican appointees.
On climate, Biden reentered the Paris agreement with relative ease. He has even issued some executive orders to shrink the U.S. carbon footprint, such as reducing emissions across federal operations. But substantial reductions require congressional legislation and the cooperation of states, and the Trump-dominated Republican Party is not playing along (indeed, even some members of the Democratic Party like Joe Manchin (D-WV) are balking).
There’s an old Boy Scout rule: leave the campground cleaner than you found it. The Republican strategy of running up debt, dismantling federal bureaucracy, and disrupting global diplomacy has consistently turned the campground into a toxic waste dump that plagues Democrats when they take office. Trump took this approach to the next level by turning Washington DC from a swamp to a Superfund site.
He who hesitates
Biden can’t blame everything on Trump. The current president’s reluctance to take bold decisions has also compromised his foreign policy.
Take, for instance, Yemen. The Biden administration pledged to end U.S. support for offensive operations led by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies against this tiny, impoverished country. Toward that end, the president froze all arms deals to the prosecutors of this war and removed the Houthis, the primary force battling the Saudi alliance, from the U.S. terrorism list.
But Biden’s actions came with a major asterisk. “Offensive operations” apparently didn’t extend to the Saudi blockade of Yemen’s airport and sea ports that was adding to the humanitarian woes of the country, for the Biden administration put no pressure on Riyadh to lift the blockade. Nor has Biden completely shunned the Saudis for their war effort and human rights violations. The U.S.-Saudi relationship, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken asserts, is “an important one, a vital one, and in terms of dealing with some of the most significant challenges we face, one that we are very appreciative of.”
More astonishingly, in November, the administration approved a $650 million sale of missiles to Saudi Arabia, which undercut all previous efforts to stand firm on the Yemen issue. After a recent exchange of missile attacks between Yemen and its Gulf foes, the Biden administration decided not to punish the Saudis and their allies but to threaten to put the Houthis back on the terrorism list.
On both China and Russia, Biden has failed to secure working relationships that can endure despite considerable disagreements. In both cases, this hesitancy has proven disastrous as the crisis in Ukraine threatens to spiral out of control and disagreements with China are moving toward a potentially explosive showdown over Taiwan or in the South China Sea.
On North Korea, Trump threw all of his foreign policy chips into the pot on a bet that he could work out a grand deal with Kim Jong Un. It was ultimately a bad bet, largely because Trump didn’t understand the rules of the game or the psychology of the players. But at least he tried something bold. The Biden administration has fallen back on the “strategic patience” policy of the Obama years, which is another way of saying that the president is ignoring Pyongyang and hoping that it doesn’t do anything dramatic. Needless to say, that’s a lousy strategy.
On the COVID front, the administration has anted up on providing vaccines to the rest of the world, early on promising $4 billion in assistance to the global vaccine alliance COVAX and pledging to purchase a billion Pfizer doses for distribution. A congressional letter this week argues, however, that it’s still not enough, and the administration should set aside another $17 billion for delivery and infrastructure to ensure truly global distribution of vaccines.
Back in May, meanwhile, the administration even supported a waiver for vaccine patents, which would allow countries to produce their own rather than await the generosity of richer countries. But European opposition has prevented the waiver from going through.
Opposition from key European countries also forced the Biden administration to scale back on one of its key victories last year: establishing a minimum 15 percent global corporate income tax. Originally the United States pushed for a 21 percent rate.
Biden is cautious by nature. Opposition from Republicans at home and more corporate-friendly governments abroad has also clipped its wings. But Biden had better figure out some way to make a bigger splash. Because we know what happens to presidents who don’t go big.
When you’re a quarterback on a winning team, almost everything you do gets good press. Interceptions and fumbles are dismissed as minor peccadilloes. Even if the wins are really the result of the work of other players—a strong defensive line, a couple of exceptional running backs—the quarterback inevitably gets most of the adulation.
Donald Trump kept insisting that he was a quarterback on a winning team. When it was so obvious that he wasn’t winning, particularly around COVID-19, voters turned against him.
America’s record at the moment is mixed. The economy is doing pretty well, though inflation dominates the headlines. On foreign policy, the Biden administration has tried to lead, for instance with the recent Democracy Summit, but the rest of the world is reluctant to follow. Even where the administration is pushing hard—to get Americans vaccinated, to pass a transformational economic package, to secure voting rights—it has encountered nearly insuperable resistance from the blitzing Republican Party.
It’s tough to be a quarterback on a team with a record of dropped passes and internal squabbling. But it’s doubly difficult to show up in bilateral meetings, regional security discussions, and international fora and project confidence with a record like that. The United States is a hot mess when it comes to reliability. Other countries are hedging their bets and keeping the United States at arm’s length. Only the truly desperate—Ukraine, Taiwan—remain hopeful about U.S. support.
Perceptions of U.S. unreliability make the task of restoring the nuclear deal with Iran, negotiating a compromise with Russia over Ukraine, or pressuring Saudi Arabia to end the war in Yemen all the more difficult. How can other countries trust that the United States will abide by any agreement when the next administration tears it up on its first day in office?
In the face of all this, Biden has tried to radiate trust. This was comparatively easy in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Donald. But now Biden is being judged in comparison to his own promises and the record of his first months in office.
The president still has some leeway to make bold actions on vaccine distribution, global inequality, and climate justice. To do this, however, he needs the cooperation of the Chinese and the Russians. For 2022, then, the immediate task for Biden is to find compromises to exit the Ukrainian crisis and the myriad disagreements with China. Let’s just hope that Moscow and Beijing are more amenable to compromise than the Republicans back home.
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