Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Biden’s Biggest Foreign-Policy Headaches

The U.S.-Saudi relationship and increased Chinese pressure on Taiwan are just two of the and other vexing problems for the new president.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Then President-elect Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden step off their airplane after arriving at Joint Base Andrews the day before he was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States January 19, 2021 at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.
U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden step off their airplane after arriving at Joint Base Andrews ahead of Inauguration Day on Jan. 19 at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. We hope everyone is having a better week than the hedge fund managers who shorted GameStop stock.

What’s on tap today: A rundown of some of Biden’s most vexing foreign-policy headaches, Republican lawmakers hammer Biden’s nominee for U.N. envoy over China, and what’s next for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

If you would like to receive Security Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. We hope everyone is having a better week than the hedge fund managers who shorted GameStop stock.

What’s on tap today: A rundown of some of Biden’s most vexing foreign-policy headaches, Republican lawmakers hammer Biden’s nominee for U.N. envoy over China, and what’s next for former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

If you would like to receive Security Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Biden’s Foreign-Policy To-Do List 

U.S. President Joe Biden has been in office just over a week, but his to-do list on the world stage is already getting a little more complicated. Biden is facing down a resurgent China, as well as pressure from Congress to rein in ties with Arab partners that grew closer under Trump—while scaling back the presence of U.S. troops around the world.

A sampling of some of the biggest challenges Biden will grapple with over the next few months:

Taiwan. China has been buzzing Taiwan’s air defense zone for the better part of a year. But after a convoy of Chinese bombers and fighter jets entered the area for two straight days last weekend, the Biden administration was prompted to respond. “We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Elsewhere, Biden administration officials insisted that U.S. support for Taiwan remained “rock solid.” That hasn’t stopped the tough talk from China, which insisted today that the show of force was a response to Taiwanese provocations. Biden’s new national security team will have to quickly decide if it wants to keep up arms sales to Taiwan after the Trump administration approved $5 billion worth of purchases of U.S. weapons in 2020.

Saudi Arabia. The State Department turned heads by pausing arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Wednesday. Progressives who have opposed the deals were quick to jump on the victory. While that might not mean a cancellation of all arms sales—the United States is still likely to want to stop China and Russia from becoming the weapons sellers du jour in the Middle East—it’s clear that the Biden administration is likely to take a tougher posture toward Riyadh after four years of Trump’s embrace.

While the smart bomb sales to Saudi Arabia and sparkling new F-35 fighter jets to the UAE are on hold, there could be another shock to the relationship. Newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has pledged to release U.S. intelligence on the details of of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s involvement in the 2018 killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But the public accounting for Saudi Arabia’s alleged misdeed will be counterbalanced by U.S. military posture, with a new deal with Saudi Arabia that will allow the Pentagon to use Saudi bases and seaports. The Defense Department has also continued bomber flights to the region to send a signal to Iran.

Forever wars. If it sounds like the new administration is already neck-deep in strategic reviews, here’s another one: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will review U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan after the Trump administration rapidly pulled out forces. Biden also appears committed to seeing through some version of the dialogue with the Taliban that began during Trump’s last year in office, keeping Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in place for the time being.

But there is growing congressional pressure on the new administration to bring U.S. troops home. Democrats have asked Biden to kill the 2002 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which preceded the 2003 Iraq War, and rein in the 2001 version, which gives the U.S. the ability to track down terrorists from Southeast Asia to Northern Africa.


What We’re Watching

Beijing blues. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, appears poised to sail through Senate confirmation—but not before some Republican lawmakers give her grief over China. During her confirmation hearing on Wednesday, Thomas-Greenfield, a seasoned and respected former career diplomat, vowed to take a tough stance on China and roll back Beijing’s influence in multilateral organizations.

“I see what they’re doing at the United Nations as undermining our values, undermining what we believe in. They’re undermining our security. They’re undermining our people. And we need to work against that,” she said.

But the nominee faced criticism from Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio for giving a paid speech at a Confucius Institute event in 2019 at a university in Georgia. (Confucius Institutes are funded by the Chinese government.) “This is one speech in my 35-year career. And I do regret that speech,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “But if you look at what I have done prior to that, there is no question that I understand, I am not at all naïve about what the Chinese are doing.”

Consider this exchange yet another indicator that the Biden administration, like Trump’s, isn’t going to back off of confrontations with Beijing.

Re-START. The Russian parliament this week approved an extension of the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty between the United States and Russia, fast-tracking the agreement’s five-year extension just weeks before it is set to expire. The Trump administration tried and failed to renegotiate the so-called New START treaty, and one of Biden’s first moves in office was to simply offer up a five-year extension, which Russia agreed to immediately.

Arms control advocates cheered the move, while critics, including former Trump officials, said that Biden effectively cast aside all the negotiating leverage they had built up for months as the clock wound down.


The Week Ahead

Joe Biden’s and Donald Trump’s national security advisors will share a stage with one another at a U.S. Institute of Peace event on Friday, Jan. 29. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, and Robert O’Brien, Trump’s former national security advisor, will discuss top U.S. foreign policy challenges in an event moderated by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.


Movers and Shakers

The Blob is back. Hordes of think tankers, academics, and consultants who have sat on the sidelines of policy for the past four years are now flooding into government. Policy advisor, senior advisor, and deputy assistant secretary slots across the national security bureaucracies are being filled as lower-level political appointees flock in. This seems to be the natural byproduct of Biden’s massive wonk army of volunteer foreign policy advisors during the election campaign.

What room, one might ask, does this leave for apolitical career civil servants to assume higher-level roles at the State Department, Pentagon, and elsewhere?

Stay tuned to FP’s continuing coverage of Biden’s first 100 days, where we’ll highlight all the important players and policies that will define the new administration’s role in the world.

Pompeo’s next home. Mike Pompeo joins a time-honored Washington tradition of senior administration officials landing a role as a “distinguished fellow” at a think tank after said administration is voted out. The former secretary of state announced he will join the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, giving him at the very least a fancy title and business card while he maps out his 2024 presidential ambitions.

Here’s hoping he left some swagger back at the State Department after he departed.

Another soft landing. Mark Green, Trump’s former U.S. Agency for International Development chief, has been named as the president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, another influential Washington think tank. He succeeds former Rep. Jane Harman, who is stepping down after a decade of leading the Wilson Center.


From the Vault 

The long(er) telegram. In 1946, U.S. diplomat George Kennan wrote a 5,000-word telegram from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to Washington outlining what the Soviet Union and communism meant to the United States and how to respond. It became the basis of U.S. Cold War strategy: containment.

So why read it now? Because of China. Depending on who you ask around Washington, it’s the dawn of a new Cold War or new era of great power competition, but this time it’s with Beijing instead of Moscow. Foreign-policy bigwigs in the Beltway are trying to channel their inner George Kennan and sort out what an enduring China strategy might look like. Here’s one attempt, via Politico Magazine. Expect a lot more.


Odds and Ends

Do as I say, not as I do. Via the Guardian: “Paris police accused of breaking curfew after Macarena at party.”


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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