Argument

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Biden Needs Architects, Not Mechanics, to Fix U.S. Foreign Policy

As the U.S. midterms near, Washington is plagued by groupthink and a lack of vision that prevents creative solutions to the problems of a new era.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L).
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L).
U.S. President Joe Biden (C) flanked by Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan (L). BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

I’m just back from vacation, and U.S. President Joe Biden is off to the Middle East. This struck me as an opportune time to assess the administration’s foreign-policy performance. I voted for Biden in 2020 and was relieved when he was elected, but I worried that Biden and his team of nonrivals wouldn’t be up to the task of designing a foreign policy and grand strategy for the 21st century. The obvious danger was that they’d fall back on the various nostrums, sound bites, and policies that may have worked well during the Cold War but have mostly failed ever since.

Remember what the administration said it would do? It was going to revitalize the United States’ alliances and unite the democratic world against the rising tide of autocracy. It was going to focus laser-like on China and win that competition for primacy. Climate change was going to be a top priority. The United States would also rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran, make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah,” end the “forever wars,” and give Americans a foreign (economic) policy for the “middle class”—whatever that means. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that human rights would be “at the center” of the administration’s foreign policy.

So how’s all that worked out so far?

I’m just back from vacation, and U.S. President Joe Biden is off to the Middle East. This struck me as an opportune time to assess the administration’s foreign-policy performance. I voted for Biden in 2020 and was relieved when he was elected, but I worried that Biden and his team of nonrivals wouldn’t be up to the task of designing a foreign policy and grand strategy for the 21st century. The obvious danger was that they’d fall back on the various nostrums, sound bites, and policies that may have worked well during the Cold War but have mostly failed ever since.

Remember what the administration said it would do? It was going to revitalize the United States’ alliances and unite the democratic world against the rising tide of autocracy. It was going to focus laser-like on China and win that competition for primacy. Climate change was going to be a top priority. The United States would also rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran, make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah,” end the “forever wars,” and give Americans a foreign (economic) policy for the “middle class”—whatever that means. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that human rights would be “at the center” of the administration’s foreign policy.

So how’s all that worked out so far?

To be fair, Biden & Co. delivered on some of those early promises. He did end the war in Afghanistan, and the admittedly chaotic ending probably could not have been avoided. Biden has mollified allies alienated by his predecessor’s shenanigans, and the war in Ukraine has given NATO a new lease on life for the moment. The United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement. And although the Biden team has scored a few own goals since taking office (such as the amateurish rollout of the so-called AUKUS submarine deal with Britain and Australia as well as the repeated need to walk back the president’s verbal slips), there have been fewer gaffes in 18 months under Biden than in any random two weeks of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s show.

But overall, there is little sign that the administration has a clear, convincing, and successful strategy in place. If one looks at the range of initiatives and responses they’ve pursued over the past year and a half, the record is unimpressive.


On Ukraine, Biden’s team did a good job orchestrating the trans-Atlantic response to Russia’s invasion, beginning with the adroit and politically effective use of intelligence in the run-up to the war. The (mostly) united European response and the (mostly) helpful reaction of countries such as Germany owe much to Biden’s efforts (and to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s canny public diplomacy)—and have undoubtedly been a rude shock to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Americans shouldn’t lose sight of the United States’ mishandling of the larger situation, a series of mistakes that began under former U.S. President Bill Clinton and continued under every subsequent leader. It’s become toxically controversial to raise this issue, with the architects of these missteps going to unnatural lengths to deny that Western policy had anything whatsoever to do with this tragedy. But it is hard not to see Putin’s invasion as a classic preventive war: an illegal invasion undertaken to derail the accelerating U.S. effort to arm Ukraine and bring it into the Western orbit.

When Putin mobilized his army and made it clear he’d invade if his concerns were not met, the administration’s repeated refusal to even consider ending NATO’s “open door policy” guaranteed that war would come. Having convinced Ukraine to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited from the former Soviet Union back in the 1990s—thereby removing a powerful deterrent to a future Russian attack—the West’s failure to acknowledge Russian concerns or anticipate how Moscow might respond was an extraordinary strategic miscalculation.

Sanctions will weaken Russia over time but probably won’t dislodge Putin from the Kremlin or convince him to withdraw.

Here’s what worries me (and should really worry Biden and other Democrats). Ukraine’s heroic resistance and billions of dollars of Western military assistance have not prevented Russia from seizing a considerable portion of Ukrainian territory. Sanctions will weaken Russia over time but probably won’t dislodge Putin from the Kremlin or convince him to withdraw. The result will not be a decisive Western triumph but a protracted stalemate, and the cost to Ukraine (and to developing countries now facing food and energy shortages) will be frightful. There will be no way to spin this as a great foreign-policy success, even if Russia ends up in much worse shape too.

Moreover, the crisis has led the United States to revert to its old Cold War habits, once more acting as Europe’s first responder. Although Europe’s wealthy democracies have more than enough latent capacity to defend themselves—especially given that Russia is going to get a lot weaker over time—Uncle Sam is once again doing as much to defend them as they are doing themselves. NATO may have a shiny new Strategic Concept, but what its European members don’t have are the hard-power capabilities to match that concept’s lofty rhetoric. And with Washington sending more troops, money, and arms to the continent, does anyone seriously believe the Europeans will follow through on their pledges and rebuild their forces? If history is any guide, there’s little chance.

In Asia, the record isn’t much better. Biden took office vowing to focus anew on competition with China, but one searches in vain for a clear and coherent Asia strategy with real substance to it. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (consisting of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India) remains a forum for consultation but not an alliance, and the much-publicized AUKUS deal won’t affect the naval balance of power in Asia for a decade or more (if ever).

China continues to expand its economic footprint in the region, and the United States responds with limited initiatives like the recent Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity and stop-gap responses to Chinese inroads in places like the Solomon Islands. But because U.S. pledges are not embedded in formal, congressionally approved trade agreements, Asian partners rightly worry that a new president might reverse course. This problem isn’t really Biden’s fault, but Asian allies could eventually conclude that the United States simply cannot deliver the market access or investment opportunities that China can offer and that Washington is too easily distracted by events elsewhere to be a reliable guarantor.

With regard to China itself, the Biden administration has kept Trump’s export controls in place, moved closer to an overt commitment to defend Taiwan, and indulged in a lot of anti-Chinese rhetoric. What’s missing is any sustained attempt to develop an approach to China that tries to separate out areas where cooperation is essential (such as climate change) from arenas where competition is well-nigh unavoidable. China’s actions and rhetoric aren’t making this any easier, but the lack of a clear strategy for dealing with the second strongest country on the planet is striking.

In the Middle East, Biden took office pledging to restore the nuclear deal with Iran and take a tough line with rogue leaders like Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. He and Blinken also talked a lot about human rights and the need to rebuild the “rules-based order.” In practice, however, Biden and Blinken have been as transactional as Trump; indeed, the administration’s approach to the region is essentially “Trump-lite.” Having dithered on rejoining the nuclear deal while former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was still in office, the prospects for a new agreement have nearly evaporated, leaving Iran much closer to a bomb than ever before.

The United States continues to tacitly support the Saudi war in Yemen, and Biden’s vow to make Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” has been abandoned. Israel’s relentless efforts to absorb more of the West Bank gets the usual meaningless U.S. reaction, and the fatal shooting of distinguished Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh—almost certainly by an Israeli soldier, according to various investigations—doesn’t merit so much as a sharp word from the administration despite the fact that she was a U.S. citizen. Trump let the United States’ Middle East clients do pretty much anything they wanted; Biden and Blinken are following suit.

Biden’s decision to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia this week is also somewhat puzzling from a strategic point of view. His hosts will press him for new security commitments, which could easily drag the United States into the next regional conflict. Such a step could also provoke Iran to finally sprint for the bomb, which would force the administration either to wage a preventive war or accept the reality of a nuclear-armed Iran. If Biden resists the local powers’ blandishments, however, they’ll be annoyed and disappointed, and the trip will be rightly judged to have been a waste of time. So why go at all?

FP contributors Aaron David Miller and Steven Simon are right: Biden is doing this largely for domestic reasons and to try to address the soaring energy costs triggered by the war in Ukraine. But the optics are terrible: A U.S. president is flying hat-in-hand to the Middle East in the hope of getting some undemocratic client states to pump more oil instead of acting like a true great power and telling them that they are welcome to fly to Washington to see him if they have issues they’d like to discuss. Any domestic benefits he does derive will be modest and short lived.

Finally, Biden and his team have repeatedly stressed the importance of the United States’ democratic values and their desire to unite the “free world” against autocracy. This is a worthy goal, but they don’t have much to show for it despite the unintended assistance they’ve received from people like Putin or Chinese President Xi Jinping. The administration’s online Summit for Democracy was long on blather and short on meaningful achievements, and the more recent Summit of the Americas was undercut when the leaders of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador refused to attend and some of the leaders who did show up used it as an opportunity to criticize the United States’ role in the region.

More importantly, why should the United States expect other countries to embrace “democratic values” when America itself is so deeply divided—lurching toward permanent minority rule—and when an increasingly illegitimate U.S. Supreme Court seems to think gunmakers and corporations have more rights than women do? If Biden wants to expand democracy abroad, the place to start is by doing a better job of defending it at home.


I’ve been trying to put my finger on why a smart and experienced team of foreign-policy gurus is making such a hash of things. Part of the problem is groupthink: Biden deliberately assembled a team of people who see the world the same way he does and who are supremely comfortable with all the tired tropes that have informed U.S. foreign policy for decades.

But catchphrases like “global leadership,” “shared values,” “a rules-based order,” and “the free world” are no substitute for strategy. Indeed, at some point, the ability to mouth all of these familiar cliches just gets in the way of real thinking. Strategy requires an underlying logic—a set of general principles that identify the central forces shaping international affairs—a clear set of priorities derived from that logic, and a set of policy steps designed to make the country more secure or prosperous (or both).

If the worldview on which your strategy is based is flawed—for example, if you ignore the tendency for states to balance threats, believe that economic interdependence as well as robust institutions make conflict impossible, or ignore the power of nationalism—your priorities will be out of whack and any initiatives you do take are likely to backfire.

Biden and his team are like experienced Ford or Chevy mechanics trying to service a Tesla.

The world is a complicated place, and actions taken in one arena will sometimes undermine efforts in others. Unless one has a clear and well-founded set of priorities, resolving these trade-offs intelligently becomes almost impossible. Without a clear strategy, it’s easy to get blown off course by unexpected events, and it becomes harder to resist pressures from domestic constituents, foreign lobbies, and allies who have mastered the art of appealing to the United States’ self-image as leader of the free world.

Biden and his team are like a set of skilled mechanics in the sense that they know how to make the foreign-policy machinery run. But the domestic and international institutions they are trained to operate are no longer fit for their purpose, and they end up like experienced Ford or Chevy mechanics trying to service a Tesla. Not surprisingly, the policy responses that the machinery generates aren’t giving the world the results it wants.

What Biden needs is not mechanics but architects: people with the imagination and vision to create new arrangements and approaches that are better suited to today’s challenges. Unfortunately, because today’s establishment places a high priority on conformity and remaining within a safe and increasingly nostalgic consensus, these are not the sort of people who rise to positions of power.

Is there any reason for hope? Certainly. Americans may take some comfort in the fact that some of their principal adversaries are making big mistakes too: Putin’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t working out as he had hoped, China’s zero-COVID policy is exacerbating some serious structural imbalances within the Chinese economy, and both states are facing more potent global opposition than they were just a few short years ago.

But counting on Moscow or Beijing to make more mistakes than Washington is hardly a promising long-term approach. Wise policies and effective implementation—rather than depending on others screwing up—is the only path to a successful future.

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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