Why Can’t We Be Friends?

Biden pledged to restore the United States’ alliances. It’s been a bigger headache than he anticipated.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders have a virtual meeting.
Quadrilateral Security Dialogue leaders have a virtual meeting.
Appearing remotely (from left), Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison participate in a virtual meeting with leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Washington on March 12. Alex Wong/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden faced a turbulent world during his first year in office, with violence wracking the globe—from Ethiopia’s raging civil conflict to the haphazard and deadly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. But if there’s one constant refrain from Biden and his administration, it’s this: Foreign policy is easier with your friends. 

Biden started his tenure with a nearly nonstop telethon of calls to NATO allies and partners on China’s periphery in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, offering a velvet-gloved hand after former U.S. President Donald Trump treated the United States’ longstanding friends with a tiny iron fist. 

“America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again,” Biden said in his first visit to the U.S. State Department in February. 

U.S. President Joe Biden faced a turbulent world during his first year in office, with violence wracking the globe—from Ethiopia’s raging civil conflict to the haphazard and deadly U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. But if there’s one constant refrain from Biden and his administration, it’s this: Foreign policy is easier with your friends. 

Biden started his tenure with a nearly nonstop telethon of calls to NATO allies and partners on China’s periphery in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, offering a velvet-gloved hand after former U.S. President Donald Trump treated the United States’ longstanding friends with a tiny iron fist. 

“America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again,” Biden said in his first visit to the U.S. State Department in February. 

Yet restoring the United States’ alliances has been tricky in a time when Biden faces pressure from both the left and the right to be more restraint-minded, even with China on the rise and Russia again threatening Ukraine. 

Priority No. 1 has been Asia, where Biden has tried to thread together an alphabet soup of U.S. partners in a region with no multilateral defense pacts by hosting so-called mini-lateral groupings. The administration built on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue that also includes Australia, Japan, and India to distribute millions of vaccines and hold military exercises to counter Chinese muscle-flexing. In September, Biden entered into the trilateral so-called AUKUS deal to provide nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, with the help of the Brits—nullifying a French deal. 

It hasn’t been all smiles and hugs between the Biden administration and Europe either, where many officials and diplomats fretted about the state of U.S. democracy after a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. in a bid to overturn the election. European officials complained they found out about Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan through media reports, and France withdrew its ambassador to Washington to protest the AUKUS submarine deal just days before Biden debuted on the world stage at the United Nations General Assembly. 

Here are some of Foreign Policy’s best articles on Biden’s up-and-down year with allies. 


1. Getting the Quad Right Is Biden’s Most Important Job

by James Mattis, Michael Auslin, and Joseph Felter, Mar. 10

With the Asia-Pacific region front and center, former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and his colleagues at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Michael Auslin and Joseph Felter, argued that nailing the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, would be Biden’s top job, especially with China threatening growing maritime claims and weaponizing Chinese Coast Guard vessels in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. And Biden, to some extent, has delivered.


2. Turnbull: AUKUS Subs Deal Is an ‘Own Goal’ 

by Jack Detsch, Oct. 6

The mini-lateral AUKUS partnership between the United States and the United Kingdom to help Australia field nuclear-powered submarines—negotiated privately among the three governments due to political sensitivities—nixed a multibillion-dollar French contract and caused a big diplomatic kerfuffle. 

Some in Australia are worried the deal, which the United States is hoping will give it more access to military bases in Australia and opportunities for technology transfer, won’t survive. Count former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull among the skeptics. He’s worried that the AUKUS grouping did nothing to improve relations between the United States and Australia, and it could poison France from working with Canberra in the future. “You can’t deny that the French were deceived,” Turnbull told Foreign Policy


U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit via video link from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on October 26, 2021 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the annual U.S.-ASEAN Summit via video link from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on October 26, 2021 in Washington, DC.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the annual U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit via a video link from the South Court Auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Oct. 26. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

3. The Glitch That Ruined Blinken’s ASEAN Debut

by Colum Lynch, Jack Detsch, and Robbie Gramer, May 27

All of Biden’s attention on the Quad left erstwhile U.S. friends in Asia feeling a bit left out. That included foreign ministers from the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which had their first call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken derailed by a technical glitch, as Foreign Policy first reported.

U.S. officials insisted the snub was unintentional, but the anger on the other end of the line was palpable. Diplomats waited for Blinken for 45 minutes, and Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi was so upset by the suggestion that the State Department’s No. 2 official Wendy Sherman might call in instead that she turned off her video feed. Sherman did eventually travel to the region for a makeup visit, but experts worried the damage was done, pointing to China’s energetic courtship of ASEAN countries as a sign the United States couldn’t take Southeast Asia for granted. 


4. NATO Chief on Afghan Legacy: ‘Have To Ask Some Difficult Questions’ 

by Robbie Gramer, Sept. 23

The haphazard U.S. withdrawal from Taliban-occupied Afghanistan left 13 U.S. service members dead and caused a ripple of anger within the NATO alliance. It also left the leaders of the 30-country security bloc in soul-searching mode after 20 years of conflict. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told Foreign Policy that ensuing chaos from the end of the war showed that Western nations should focus on conflict prevention instead of intervention.


5. Biden’s Summit for Democracy Will Include Some Not-So-Democratic Countries 

by Amy MacKinnon, Oct. 19

Biden spent most of the year trying to turn the page from Trump’s personal affection for dictators, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to promote rising democracies. But Biden’s big-tent approach appeared to include some countries that had questionable democratic scorecards.

Invites to Biden’s virtual Summit for Democracy, set for December, went out in October to countries such as Poland, Mexico, and the Philippines, which have been seen as “backsliding” by many government officials, nongovernmental organizations, and independent monitors. Biden administration officials defended the moves as a broad effort to “galvanize democratic renewal worldwide.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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