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.
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.
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
foreign aid and began to rebuild a State Department devastated by
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
there have been three major problems with the Biden approach.
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
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.
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
Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Barbara Lee (D-CA).
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
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.
greatest foreign policy achievement has also been his most profound
blunder: the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan.
the blunder is not all his fault. As Steve Coll and Adam Entous make
abundantly clear in an
article last month in The
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
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
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
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.
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
the talks break down and Iran ends up in the nuclear club, that too
is on Trump’s shoulders.
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
the behest of two court decisions,
the first by a Trump-appointed judge, the second by an appeals court
of Republican appointees.
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).
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.
can’t blame everything on Trump. The current president’s
reluctance to take bold decisions has also compromised his foreign
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
for a 21 percent rate.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.