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Is Biden’s Foreign Policy Failing?

The U.S. president’s intentions might be good, but the results so far are another matter.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Joe Biden and Anthony Blinken participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries March 12, 2021 at the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.
Joe Biden and Anthony Blinken participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue countries March 12, 2021 at the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Alex Wong/Getty Images

When Joe Biden became president, many assumed his administration would manage America’s relations with other countries in a disciplined, predictable, and sophisticated way. The era of self-defeating swagger and diplomacy-by-tweet would be over, and responsible public servants would be back in charge. Biden’s mantra—America is back—suggested that diplomacy would replace military power as the preferred instrument of U.S. foreign policy, which is exactly what the American people say they want. Biden’s team is an experienced group of mainstream figures, in sharp contrast to the neophytes and oddballs who initially staffed former President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy team. Given all the above, there was every reason to expect a smoothly functioning foreign-policy operation.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. To be sure, Biden & Co. can claim some number of initial successes: rejoining the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, restarting talks with Iran on its nuclear program, spearheading a global agreement to crack down on offshore tax havens, committing more vaccines to the global effort against COVID-19, and mending fences with key NATO allies at the Brussels summit in July. Plus, Biden has done more to actually make a pivot to Asia than either of his two predecessors, which is no small thing in itself. Nobody in Biden’s inner circle had to resign in disgrace after three weeks in office—as Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick for national security advisor, was forced to do—and the Biden White House hasn’t committed the embarrassing gaffes (such as getting the names of foreign leaders wrong in official communiques or releasing statements filled with spelling mistakes and factual errors) that were a frequent occurrence in the “snake pit” of the Trump White House.

And to be fair, diplomatic successes rarely happen overnight; making genuine and lasting progress on big issues usually requires sustained and patient effort over many months, if not years. By this time in George W. Bush’s presidency, he had done essentially nothing for which he is now remembered (except to be president when the 9/11 attacks occurred), and Trump’s main achievements nine months in were almost entirely negative. Reaching useful agreements with both allies and adversaries almost always requires some degree of give-and-take (to ensure that all participants have a stake in the outcome), and even a powerful country like the United States rarely gets everything it wants. Bottom line: No serious person should expect foreign-policy miracles in a president’s first year in office.

When Joe Biden became president, many assumed his administration would manage America’s relations with other countries in a disciplined, predictable, and sophisticated way. The era of self-defeating swagger and diplomacy-by-tweet would be over, and responsible public servants would be back in charge. Biden’s mantra—America is back—suggested that diplomacy would replace military power as the preferred instrument of U.S. foreign policy, which is exactly what the American people say they want. Biden’s team is an experienced group of mainstream figures, in sharp contrast to the neophytes and oddballs who initially staffed former President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy team. Given all the above, there was every reason to expect a smoothly functioning foreign-policy operation.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. To be sure, Biden & Co. can claim some number of initial successes: rejoining the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, restarting talks with Iran on its nuclear program, spearheading a global agreement to crack down on offshore tax havens, committing more vaccines to the global effort against COVID-19, and mending fences with key NATO allies at the Brussels summit in July. Plus, Biden has done more to actually make a pivot to Asia than either of his two predecessors, which is no small thing in itself. Nobody in Biden’s inner circle had to resign in disgrace after three weeks in office—as Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick for national security advisor, was forced to do—and the Biden White House hasn’t committed the embarrassing gaffes (such as getting the names of foreign leaders wrong in official communiques or releasing statements filled with spelling mistakes and factual errors) that were a frequent occurrence in the “snake pit” of the Trump White House.

And to be fair, diplomatic successes rarely happen overnight; making genuine and lasting progress on big issues usually requires sustained and patient effort over many months, if not years. By this time in George W. Bush’s presidency, he had done essentially nothing for which he is now remembered (except to be president when the 9/11 attacks occurred), and Trump’s main achievements nine months in were almost entirely negative. Reaching useful agreements with both allies and adversaries almost always requires some degree of give-and-take (to ensure that all participants have a stake in the outcome), and even a powerful country like the United States rarely gets everything it wants. Bottom line: No serious person should expect foreign-policy miracles in a president’s first year in office.

Nonetheless, certain aspects of Biden’s performance are worrying, leading more than a few observers to make unflattering comparisons to his undistinguished predecessor. The talks with Iran have gone nowhere—due to a combination of mutual suspicion, Iranian prickliness, and the administration’s own timidity—and the safe bet now is that no new agreement will be forthcoming. Indeed, Biden seems to be moving toward his own version of “maximum pressure,” a strategy that has been tried repeatedly and has never worked. I’m not as critical of the administration’s handling of the Afghanistan disengagement as some observers are—especially many overwrought Europeans—but a team as sophisticated and skillful as this one was alleged to be could have done a better job of defusing allied concerns while implementing a sensible and entirely predictable withdrawal. The new AUKUS partnership could be an important step toward maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, but was it really necessary to blindside France in the process? Awkward acronyms aside (try adding an “F” to AUKUS and see what you get), it appears little effort was made to assuage French feelings beforehand. An omission likethat amounts to diplomatic malpractice in anyone’s book.

Moreover, for an administration that says it wants to put diplomacy front and center, Biden’s team has been slow to fill key diplomatic posts. Some of these delays are due to unpatriotic grandstanding by self-interested politicians like Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who have held up key appointments in order to indulge their own desire to appear important. But the problem goes beyond a couple of “show pony” Republican senators—to use David Rothkopf’s apt label for Cruz and Hawley—insofar as Biden has been slow to nominate people for key ambassadorships and other policy positions. He has been president for nearly nine months now—close to 20 percent of a presidential term—and he still doesn’t have his full team on the field yet. That’s partly due to the cockamamie nature of the appointments and confirmation process in the United States but not entirely.

Make no mistake that Biden’s less-than-perfect record to date is a far cry from the actively destructive diplomacy of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Some of Trump’s failures resulted from elementary policy blunders, such as leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership, abandoning the Paris climate agreement, and tearing up the nuclear deal with Iran and adopting “maximum pressure” instead. Other failures occurred when Trump had decent instincts but pursued them ineptly, as in his various trade wars or the amateurish reality-show summit meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. In Biden’s case, by contrast, we see sensible policies being pursued carelessly by a team that was supposed to be a lot better at managing relations with friends and foes alike.

What ultimately matters are the results, however, and even stalwart supporters of the Biden administration should not hesitate to hold it accountable when it falls short. At the same time, the gap between the administration’s aspirations and its performance reveals a lot about the inherent difficulty of conducting a successful foreign policy, especially given the vaunting ambitions that U.S. administrations find nearly impossible to resist.

For starters, the unipolar moment is over, and we now live in a lopsided multipolar world. As international relations theorists have long understood, relations among the major powers in multipolarity are inherently more complicated, contingent, and hard to manage than relations in bipolarity or unipolarity. With more than two major powers, the interests of significant actors are less likely to line up in a consistent and predictable fashion, and the twin dangers of abandonment and entrapment loom larger. Instead of the clear “us versus them” alignments typical of bipolarity (e.g., NATO versus the Warsaw Pact), one expects looser arrangements where partners agree on some issues but not others.

Germany’s somewhat ambiguous position today is a case in point. On the one hand, Berlin is firmly committed to NATO, and German leaders still place a high value on having solid relations with the United States. Trump’s rude bluster and personal disregard for Chancellor Angela Merkel were alarming for precisely this reason. But on the other hand, Berlin refuses to line up fully behind the U.S. position toward Russia and China because building the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia and preserving its export markets in China are in Germany’s particular national interest.

One sees a similar dynamic with countries like Turkey or India. Although each shares a number of strategic concerns with the United States, both are also happy to buy arms from Russia and to hedge their bets in other ways. The existence of several great powers gives other states more options and increases their ability to drive harder bargains or to stand up to U.S. pressure, as both Venezuela and Iran have demonstrated. Countries that don’t want to rely on assistance from the United States or the World Bank can always explore what Beijing or Moscow might be willing to provide them instead.

A second challenge arises from global problems that transcend traditional great-power rivalry and that cannot be addressed without extensive cooperation across current geopolitical fault lines. Climate change is the paramount example of this problem, but one could easily add pandemic responses, global macroeconomic management, or international terrorism. Common concerns such as these have sometimes mitigated great-power conflict in the past (for example, the shared fear of revolution encouraged the European monarchies to cooperate during the Concert of Europe), but consequential global issues loom even larger today. Unfortunately, trying to counter a peer competitor is a far more straightforward task when you aren’t simultaneously trying to cooperate with it on expensive, complicated, and politically explosive issues such as reducing carbon emissions. Even a president or secretary of state who combined the best traits of Otto von Bismarck, Dean Acheson, Nelson Mandela, Jacinda Ardern, and Sun Tzu would have trouble walking this tightrope.

And then there’s the perennial problem of hubris. Biden may be pursuing a somewhat more realistic foreign-policy agenda than Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, or even Barack Obama did, but he’s hardly playing small ball. He has ended America’s fruitless crusade in Afghanistan and doesn’t seem interested in trying to fix the Middle East, but he wants to do a lot more in the Indo-Pacific, revitalize NATO, solve the climate problem, unite the world’s democracies against authoritarianism, and launch an ambitious social agenda at home that will inevitably affect America’s economic ties with the rest of the world. And didn’t Secretary of State Antony Blinken also say the administration was going to put human rights at the center of its foreign policy? Add it all up and you get a pretty breathtaking agenda, one that would be hard to pull off even if the foreign-policy establishment were united behind every item on the list and the Democrats had comfortable veto-proof margins in the House and Senate.

Which brings us to a fourth, closely related problem. Given America’s many commitments and still considerable ambitions, it is simply impossible to devise a foreign-policy strategy that is free from internal contradictions. As Robert Wright reminds us, steps taken to advance one cherished objective can make other goals harder to achieve; what one hand knits the other unravels. Getting out of Afghanistan freed up resources to balance China, but it complicated relations with other allies and undercut the administration’s human rights position. The new AUKUS deal heralds a stronger position in the Asia-Pacific, but it angered a longtime ally and could undermine nonproliferation efforts. Rallying the world’s democracies could strengthen the U.S. position at home and abroad, but it will also make it harder to cooperate with Russia and China on issues of mutual concern such as climate change. The more goals we try to achieve, the greater the danger that success in one area leads to failure somewhere else.

But wait, there’s more! As I’ve noted before, the U.S. political system remains remarkably open to all sorts of baleful foreign influences, whether via domestic and foreign lobbyists, special interest groups, or social media bots, each of them working to tilt U.S. foreign policy in the direction of their particular concern. Add to that the peculiar U.S. practice (unique among major powers) of giving more than 30 percent of all ambassadorial posts to wealthy campaign donors instead of trained professional diplomats, and a less-than-optimal foreign-policy performance is to be expected.

The United States is also unique in the amount of turnover that occurs whenever the White House changes parties (down to the level of deputy assistant secretaries and below). In practice, this leaves key positions unfilled for months and forces each new administration to do a lot of on-the-job training. To make matters worse, plenty of presidential appointees remain in office for less than four years, so the churn continues for the entirety of a president’s term. This situation is akin to having Apple, Ford, or Amazon replace its entire senior management team every four years (or less), with plenty of key management slots open every single day. Such pathologies might not be a problem if the United States had modest foreign-policy objectives, but they are a stifling liability for a country that aspires to far more.

None of these considerations absolves Biden or his team from getting some things wrong. On balance, I’d still rather have an administration that’s trying to do the right things instead of actively marching in several wrong directions at once, and I’m willing to give them a bit more time to show what they can do. It will help if they set clearer priorities and don’t try to do too much because they also need to reserve some excess capacity (including the scarcest commodity of all, time) for dealing with the surprises that every administration inevitably faces. In foreign policy, as in some other activities, trying to do less can help you achieve more.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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