“History is just one damned thing after another.”
— Various attributions
Joe Biden won election in 2020 in part because he was the anti-Trump. Much of this was a simple matter of character. Biden — steady, even stolid, and with decades of governmental experience — stood in stark contrast to Donald J. Trump, a man of erratic behavior and incendiary speech who retained a strangely amateurish quality even after four years in the presidency.
There were also substantial policy differences between the two. These included foreign policy, where Biden promised a return to the status quo ante — the approach of President Barack Obama and, to an important extent, Obama’s predecessors. In particular, Biden claimed that he would end Trump’s often rancorous relationship with Washington’s traditional partners and reclaim U.S. leadership in the international arena.
As president, Biden has moved to reverse a number of Trump policies. He has returned the United States to the Paris Accords on global climate change. His administration launched an effort — as of this writing, still teetering between success and failure — to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. And he has moved to strengthen ties with partners in Europe, the Far East and the Middle East. The last required Biden to eat very public crow by embracing the leaders of Saudi Arabia, which he once deemed a “pariah” state.
During Biden’s tenure, two major external events have consumed much of his administration’s attention. The first was the shocking collapse, a year ago, of the Afghan government in the immediate wake of the U.S. (and allied) military withdrawal from that country. Biden had called for withdrawal during the campaign; even as Obama’s vice president he was skeptical about the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The U.S. departure, however justified, was marred by a massive miscalculation of the speed at which the Taliban would seize Kabul. The result was a hurried, ugly departure that left thousands of Afghans who had worked with U.S. forces abandoned to the Taliban. Biden assured Americans that our “over the horizon” intelligence and military capabilities would ensure that Afghanistan would not become a safe haven for anti-U.S. terrorism.
Afghanistan returned to the headlines in late July, when a U.S. drone strike killed Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. This marked an unalloyed success for the United States, which has targeted al-Zawahiri since the September 11, 2001 attacks. The strike is also proof — for now — that the United States' “over the horizon” strategy is working.
The second major foreign policy crisis that rocked the Biden administration was the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This was and is an event of huge importance to Ukraine, Europe and, indeed, the global geopolitical landscape.
Biden’s approach to the Ukraine crisis reflects a careful balancing act. From the beginning of the conflict, he has been strongly supportive of Ukrainian efforts to thwart Russian aggression. His approach has included the direct provision of substantial arms and munitions to the Ukrainian military. But perhaps even more importantly, he has led an international effort to create a powerful anti-Russian coalition. This has included encouraging military transfers to Ukraine by other NATO countries and coordination of a series of unprecedented economic sanctions against Russia. In general, Biden has proven to be an effective practitioner of alliance politics.
Even as he pursues a strongly pro-Ukraine policy, Biden has been careful to avoid steps that would inject the United States into the war. Early on in the conflict, his administration firmly rejected a “no fly zone” over parts of Ukraine, fearing that any such effort might lead to confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces.
Biden has managed this balancing act well. He has been supported by excellent U.S. intelligence during the period leading up to Russia’s invasion and since it began. Biden has also been aided throughout by the alarm in Europe triggered by Russia’s invasion. Indeed, in many ways NATO today is more relevant and resolute than at any time since the end of the Cold War. A number of countries — notably Germany — have signaled that they will increase defense expenditures. And two new members — formerly neutral Sweden and Finland — are poised to join the alliance.
The final judgment on Biden’s performance on the Ukraine crisis is still to be determined. The war, after all, continues, with its final outcome still very much in doubt.
Russia’s original military plan — to seize Kyiv and install a puppet government — was a fiasco. But Moscow took substantial Ukrainian territory in the southern part of the country. Russia’s recent efforts to expand its foothold there have been costly and largely unsuccessful.
Since the war began, Russia has sustained huge losses in personnel and equipment. Morale is reportedly poor. Ukraine — sustained by good tactics, strong popular support and a flood of Western weaponry — may well be in better battlefield condition. But that does not necessarily translate into a successful effort to sweep Russia from Ukrainian territory. The war could easily grind on in an ugly stalemate. Despite some mediation efforts, no cease-fire, much less agreement, is in sight. And as long as the war continues, the risk of escalation between NATO and Russia remains a matter of grave concern.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine created a confluence of the realist and idealist impulses in U.S. foreign policy. On one hand, Biden’s policy reflects a stalwart defense of a democracy against aggression from an authoritarian neighbor. But it has also fostered a proxy war that has substantially weakened a geopolitical rival and materially strengthened NATO, a key instrument of U.S. influence in Europe. This stands in stark contrast to the Afghan evacuation, where Biden’s approach was grounded in starkly, even ruthless, assessments of the U.S. interests at stake: he decided that the survival of the Afghan government was not worth the lives of U.S. soldiers and Marines. Concerns about democracy and human rights took a back seat.
In other words, Biden’s foreign policy retains the usual mix of high ideals and pragmatic self-interest that has been a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy since the Republic’s founding. And like many previous presidents, he confronts unexpected events that shape his foreign policy agenda, for better or for worse. Biden should expect more shocks before the end of his term. Both the Far East and the Middle East represent sources of potential conflict. There’s always going to be another “damned thing.”
This material may be quoted or reproduced without prior permission, provided appropriate credit is given to the author and Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed herein are those of the individual author(s), and do not necessarily represent the views of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.