On January 20, President Joe Biden will mark two years in office. The moment will be celebrated by his supporters for the many purported successes of his administration — and mourned by his detractors for its many purported failures.
What can we say about Biden’s conduct of foreign policy? Any such assessment is subject to revision. The ultimate success or failure of any foreign policy is often revealed only years later; even then, we might find ourselves in a thicket of ambiguities. For instance, our support for the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s was both a success and a failure. It helped lead to the end of the Soviet occupation of the country and represented a major blow to the USSR’s international standing. But it was also a failure, insofar as it contributed to the rise of al-Qaeda. American foreign policy — and, indeed, all foreign policy — is strewn with such ironies. Any assessment of Biden’s handling of foreign affairs must, by definition, be partial and provisional.
Like many American presidents before him, Biden has had to face his share of foreign policy crises. And like most of those presidents, he would have preferred to focus on his domestic agenda. That agenda was ambitious — and Biden, despite foreign policy distractions and political opposition, has scored notable successes in pushing his domestic policies, including a giant COVID-19 economic stimulus package, a historic infrastructure bill, significant climate legislation and major expenditures to bolster the U.S. semiconductor industry. However much of a distraction foreign policy has posed, the Biden administration has maintained a focus on its domestic agenda. This itself is testimony to the professionalism of the president’s foreign policy team.
This professionalism should come as no surprise. Biden, a fixture of the Senate for decades and Barak Obama’s vice president for eight years, was the most known of known quantities when he assumed office on January 20, 2021. He had lived and breathed U.S. foreign policy, in Congress and the executive branch, for four decades.
He campaigned in many ways as the anti-Donald Trump, assuring a steady hand in stark contrast to the previous president’s erratic, hyperactive style. In Biden’s own way, he promised a “return to normalcy.” There have been sharp policy differences on foreign policy between the two presidents; for instance, Biden soon initiated a return to the Paris Agreement on climate change and the resumption of negotiations aimed at restoring the nuclear agreement with Iran. On becoming head of state, he recruited old associates for key positions, many of whom had served in the Obama administration.
But the differences between Biden and Trump have transcended the sharp policy divides. They also reflect broad differences of approach. Biden, for instance, stressed early on that he would cultivate close relations with traditional allies. This put distance between his approach and Trump’s often confrontational stance. Biden also promised to raise the profile of democracy and human rights in his administration’s foreign policy. Again, this stood in juxtaposition to Trump’s general disdain for these issues. Broadly, Biden promised a more traditional approach to U.S. foreign affairs, one more in the style of Obama.
But Biden has been no Obama 2.0 on foreign policy. On the matter of Afghanistan, for example, he distinguished himself from his former boss by ordering a full withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country in 2021. Even as vice president, Biden was highly suspicious of Obama’s decision to increase the U.S. troop presence (the so-called “surge”) in 2009-2010. He campaigned on a pledge to end the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and he was as good as his word. The military withdrawal prompted the swift collapse of our allied Afghan government and military forces; the evacuation itself was ragged at best. Biden’s decision to withdraw was pragmatic, even ruthless: He believed that a Taliban victory was a price the United States should be willing to pay to end its 20-year intervention in Afghanistan.
Elsewhere, it is true, Biden did try to return to Obama’s policies. As noted, he returned the United States to the Paris Agreement on climate change and also resumed talks with Tehran aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which was repudiated by Trump. In this last case, he has signally failed, at least to date. Talks are moribund and Iran continues to expand its nuclear enrichment program. Meanwhile, Biden has, in fact, heightened our rhetorical commitment to human rights and democracy — but this commitment has had its limits. In dealing with Saudi Arabia, for instance, he has helped rehabilitate the image of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, heavily implicated in the assassination of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Such hypocrisy has long been a staple of U.S. foreign policy, where interests routinely trump values. In this instance, Biden is merely hewing to long tradition.
In his approach to China, Biden has by and large continued the staunchly anti-Beijing line of the Trump administration. Under Biden, for instance, the U.S. Department of State has formally labelled China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, a Chinese ethnic minority, as genocide. He has also maintained most of the tariffs on Chinese goods that Trump imposed. Indeed, with new controls on Chinese high-end chips, he has upped the anti-Beijing ante. In the face of rising tensions over Taiwan, he has on several occasions broken with long-established U.S. policy and declared that the U.S. would intervene were Taiwan to be invaded by China. Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping put oil on troubled waters at an amicable meeting in Bali last November, but U.S.-Chinese relations remain poor. Biden’s strong line toward China, it should be noted, reflects an emerging consensus in the U.S. foreign policy establishment — among Democrats and Republicans alike — that China represents the chief long-term challenge to Washington’s preeminent position in world affairs.
The most urgent foreign policy challenge confronting Biden during his first two years in office was, of course, the war in Ukraine. Here he has struck a careful balancing act. The president has been forthright in his support of Ukraine against Russian aggression from the very beginning, and under his leadership, the United States has provided substantial weaponry and intelligence to the Ukrainian military and encouraged other NATO allies to do the same. He has also assiduously assembled a coalition, centered in the European Union, to punish Russia for its invasion by draconian economic sanctions.
Despite this support for Ukraine, Biden has been careful to avoid steps — notably a no-fly zone — that would put U.S. military forces into direct conflict with their Russian counterparts, potentially triggering a general Russian-NATO war.
Ukraine’s success in thwarting Russian aggression thus far is primarily attributable to the skill of Kyiv’s military, the deftness of its political leadership and the morale of its citizens. But U.S. support has played, and continues to play, an important and perhaps decisive role in bolstering the Ukrainian military. The war is not over. Ugly fighting continues. A major Ukrainian offensive is expected in the spring. It may lead to a breakthrough or merely the continuation of a bloody stalemate. Any settlement — or even ceasefire — seems remote. But Biden’s calibrated approach has much to commend it.
The next two years — the balance of Biden’s term — will pose the usual series of lingering problems and sudden crises; this is the nature of foreign policy in an uncertain world routinely beyond the control of a country even as powerful as the United States. Any grade for the foreign policy of an incumbent president will always be an “incomplete.”
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