Biden’s Midterm Report Card

We asked 20 experts to grade the administration’s foreign policy after two years in office.

An illustration shows US President Joe Biden surrounded by the foreign-policy issues he has faced in his first two years in office.
An illustration shows US President Joe Biden surrounded by the foreign-policy issues he has faced in his first two years in office.
Klawe Rzeczy illusratration for Foreign Policy/Getty Images photos

In only his first two years in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has presided over the most transformative phase in U.S. foreign policy in decades. His administration has led a massive effort to push back against Russia after it unleashed the most horrific war of aggression in Europe since 1945, built and expanded new alliances to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, and rejoined global efforts on climate policy and other issues. Biden and his team have brought a renewed seriousness to U.S. foreign-policy making that stands in sharp contrast with the chaos of the Trump era.

But not all of Biden’s efforts have been successful. The U.S. pullout from Afghanistan in 2021 was a disaster, even if it finally ended a 20-year war. After the Biden team’s early emphasis on democracy and human rights, geopolitical realities have forced uncomfortable compromises.

To help us assess the highs and lows of Biden’s term at the halfway mark, Foreign Policy asked 20 experts to grade his performance across 10 foreign-policy topics. You can scroll down or jump to each topic using the buttons below.

Stefan Theil, deputy editor

An illustration shows Russian President Vladamir Putin, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, and other scenes from the war in Ukraine.
An illustration shows Russian President Vladamir Putin, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, and other scenes from the war in Ukraine.

Russia: No Guardrails for Putin


By Angela Stent, author of Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and With the Rest

The Biden administration came into office saying it wanted a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, seeking to create “guardrails” so the United States could focus on its main adversary, China. That worked for a time in 2021, with a U.S.-Russia summit that June and cooperation on a number of issues, including strategic stability, cyberattacks, and climate change. But once the U.S. intelligence community saw the massive Russian military buildup around Ukraine later that year, the administration realized that an invasion was in the cards. Washington shared this information with skeptical U.S. allies and warned Moscow that it knew what was happening. When the Kremlin presented its list of demands to the United States and NATO in December 2021, the administration was willing to negotiate and even make some concessions—all to no avail.

Since Russia’s invasion, U.S. President Joe Biden has successfully created a robust trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific coalition to support Ukraine and sanction Russia. Washington has provided the lion’s share of military equipment to Kyiv, enabling the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to succeed on the battlefield and push the Russians back. However, the administration has imposed restraints on what weapons it will supply Ukraine out of what are probably excessive concerns about Russian escalation, which has made it more difficult for Ukraine to achieve its objective of restoring control over its territory. A Patriot air defense battery and Bradley anti-tank vehicles will be sent, but this should have happened months ago. The Biden administration has also maintained some high-level channels of communication with the Kremlin, sending repeated warnings about the repercussions of Russia’s possible use of tactical nuclear weapons. Today, the U.S.-Russian relationship is unstable and unpredictable. It has been impossible to establish guardrails around Russian President Vladimir Putin.


By Liana Fix, Europe fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

Biden wanted stability and guardrails in the United States’ relationship with Russia. But when Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to overturn the chessboard with his war against Ukraine, Biden managed to—abruptly and successfully—change course.

Biden remained firm on principles and did not fall for Russian negotiation traps in the run-up to the war. His strategy of making intelligence on Russia’s war preparations public was a crucial and creative innovation. And he rightly recognized alliance management and unity as the West’s greatest asset. Biden was not able to deter Putin from starting the war—but that would be a very high bar for measuring success, especially if the objective was to keep NATO out of the war.

What is needed going forward is decisive action to decide on and implement a Western theory of victory in 2023—and to develop a long-term strategy toward Ukraine and Russia beyond the war. After former U.S. President Barack Obama’s underestimation of Russia as a power and his successor, Donald Trump’s, infatuation with Putin, Biden’s Russia policy is arguably the most successful in more than a decade.

An illustration shows China President Xi Jinping surrounded by images affecting US foreign policy such as trade, Zero COVID protests, and human rights abuse of Uyghur minority population.
An illustration shows China President Xi Jinping surrounded by images affecting US foreign policy such as trade, Zero COVID protests, and human rights abuse of Uyghur minority population.

China & Indo-Pacific: Sustained Focus Despite War


By Bonnie S. Glaser, Asia program director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States

The Biden administration deserves high marks for sustained focus on China and the Indo-Pacific despite Russia’s war in Ukraine. It has begun to deliver on what it calls its “invest, align, and compete” strategy toward China, including by channeling billions of dollars into U.S. semiconductor manufacturing and science research, retaining most of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s restrictions on China, and going a significant step further by restricting semiconductor exports in an attempt to thwart China’s development of high technology.

Little progress, however, has been made in putting guardrails around intensifying Sino-U.S. competition, such as risk reduction measures between the two countries’ militaries. Cooperation on climate change, global public health, and even narcotics trafficking has stalled. Beijing has either set unworkable preconditions or suspended talks due to U.S. policies toward Taiwan.

Biden officials have taken welcome steps to strengthen Taiwan’s security (including almost $3.8 billion in arms sales approvals), bolster economic ties, and cooperate on semiconductor supply chains. U.S. allies have been persuaded to warn Beijing against the use of force to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. But Biden’s suggestion that Taiwan can declare independence if it chooses to do so, along with other gaffes and decisions, have undermined the credibility of U.S. support for the “one China” policy, thus increasing the risk of war. The U.S. military still hasn’t addressed its dependency on large, fixed bases and vulnerable aircraft carriers to defend Taiwan, which could tempt Chinese President Xi Jinping to try to seize the island. A plan to transform the U.S. force posture in the region is in the works, but it’s unclear whether it can restore a more favorable military balance.

The administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, released in February 2022, makes a strong case for a bigger U.S. role in the region. Its implementation is a work in progress. Achievements have been most significant in the diplomacy bucket, including two presidential trips to the region, annual Quadrilateral Security Dialogue summits, a U.S.-Pacific Island Country Summit, and the launch of the U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.

The economic pillar of Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy remains weak. The Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is better than nothing, but its lack of market access and tariff reductions limits its appeal. Rejoining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership remains the best way to boost U.S. economic competitiveness and geopolitical influence.

Alliances and partnerships that frayed in the Trump administration have been restored and strengthened, although concerns persist among Washington’s closest friends over what they see as its proclivity to act alone to advance its interests.


By Michael J. Green, CEO of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney

Biden has brought greater coherence to strategic competition with China. He has empowered a team of Asia hands with strong alliance credentials and worked to align the region’s maritime democracies with a series of initiatives, including the so-called AUKUS pact with Australia and the United Kingdom as well as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue bloc with Australia, Japan, and India. Biden has also taken bold steps to secure the United States’ lead over China in emerging technologies through a combination of export controls, industrial policy, and so-called friendshoring of supply chains among allies. These policies enjoy bipartisan support.

But for much of Asia, real competition with China is in the economic sphere, and to Washington’s closest allies, Biden’s progressive-left protectionism looks little different from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s hard-right economic nationalism. Since Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, major trade agreements are advancing in the region without Americans at the table, and Biden’s proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is only barely filling that embarrassing gap.

An illustration shows Tony Blinken renewing alliances such as those with NATO and its chief Jens Stoltenberg.
An illustration shows Tony Blinken renewing alliances such as those with NATO and its chief Jens Stoltenberg.

Alliances: Test of Leadership


By Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former NATO secretary-general and founder of the Alliance of Democracies

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the biggest foreign-policy challenge to face any U.S. president since the end of the Cold War. On this, Biden has proved more than up to the task, and he has demonstrated that Washington can still lead the democratic world. Under Biden’s leadership, the United States has provided vast military aid to Ukraine, allowing its forces to stop Russia’s initial advance and turn the tide of the war. Biden and his team have also taken a strong and clear line with Moscow, spelling out clearly the consequences of any nuclear escalation.

Biden has taken a similarly firm approach with Beijing over Taiwan, repeatedly committing the United States to helping the island if China were to invade. Strategic ambiguity has been replaced by strategic clarity.

The one major blot on Biden’s foreign-policy report card is the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. This departure was never going to be easy, but the failure even to coordinate with allies or engage the Afghan government meant that a lot of the progress made over the last 20 years was unnecessarily lost.

Luckily, U.S. Afghanistan policy seems to have been the exception rather than the rule. Overall, Biden’s approach has been the right one: firmness with adversaries while rebuilding alliances with traditional partners. As democracies face increasingly aggressive autocracies, they must work closer together. That is the purpose behind Biden’s Summit for Democracy, first held in December 2021 and reconvening later this year. It also echoes the work of the Alliance of Democracies, which will bring together leading politicians, business leaders, and democracy activists from around the world at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit in May.


By Stacie Pettyjohn, defense program director at the Center for a New American Security

The Biden and Trump administrations both identified allies and partners as a pillar of U.S. strategy. But unlike its predecessor, the Biden team is delivering. In Europe, it has led a revitalized NATO to support Ukraine. In the Indo-Pacific, it has deepened bilateral defense cooperation with Japan and Australia while strengthening ties among democracies through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States pact.

But existing institutional barriers—such as insufficient information-sharing, strict export controls, and glacially slow arms sales processes—could undermine these efforts. Biden’s strategy depends on making the whole of the U.S. alliance structure more than the sum of its parts. To overcome these obstacles and realize this goal, it needs to deepen strategic integration with allies and partners as well as outline a better division of labor for countering shared threats posed by China and Russia.

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4-Defense-military-biden-foreign-policy-report-card-1200x628 – 3

Defense: Mismatch of Threats and Budgets


By Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute

Most of the deficiencies of Biden’s national security policies, such as the United States’ disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal, are White House errors. Where the U.S. Defense Department has had policy latitude, it’s done reasonably well. Civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon argued against the rushed withdrawal, U.S. Cyber Command has shown conceptual and operational excellence, counterterrorism operations were sustained as those threats metastasized, and support for Ukraine hasn’t prevented progress on countering the China challenge.

The Pentagon has done an excellent job building and sustaining the international effort to arm Ukraine, commendably led by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He made the important executive decision to commit roughly 5 percent of the U.S. defense budget on an ongoing basis so Ukraine can decimate the Russian military, which the United States still assesses to be an “acute threat.”

The main failing in defense policy—and it is a serious one—is in matching identified threats with budgets and timelines. The gaps are huge: Congress needed to top up Biden’s military budget by $25 billion last year and $45 billion this year. The administration’s 2022 budget was based on a severely understated inflation figure—a willful underfunding that equates to a nearly 5 percent budget cut in inflation-adjusted terms.

Biden has committed the United States to fight to defend Taiwan several times. U.S. intelligence officials and military commanders believe that the greatest risk of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is between now and 2027, yet the military budget is cutting forces, ships, and aircraft. The current budget does not foresee adding any capacity until 2035.

Biden’s National Defense Strategy rightly emphasizes “our ability to withstand, fight through, and recover quickly from disruption.” But as the ammunition shortfalls from supplying Ukraine demonstrate, that’s not how the U.S. military has been spending its money. Tolerating such a yawning gap between stated goals and abilities risks tempting the United States’ adversaries. Bringing the defense budget into line with strategy should therefore be an urgent task for the Biden administration’s remaining two years.


By Bryan Clark, director of the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute

Prioritizing “integrated deterrence” in the 2022 National Defense Strategy was promising, but the Biden administration failed to follow through with actions and investments that suggest a new approach to deterring or containing aggression. Myopically focused on denying an invasion of Taiwan—which Chinese leaders already view as only a last resort—the U.S. Defense Department wants to shrink the U.S. fleet of smaller and amphibious warships, and it has been slow to field unmanned vehicles, ground-based missiles, electronic warfare systems, and sensor systems at the sort of scale that could help the U.S. military conduct campaigns against Beijing or other adversaries.

Instead, the bulk of defense investment has gone into the usual big-ticket items: sophisticated fighter aircraft, bombers, and large surface warships that are too expensive to buy in volume or sustain when deployed. By going all-in to stop an invasion of Taiwan and not much else, the U.S. military is increasingly ill-prepared to counter other challenges to U.S. allies or the rules-based international order.

An illustration shows trade and economic issues including inflation, affecting the Biden administration's foreign policy.
An illustration shows trade and economic issues including inflation, affecting the Biden administration's foreign policy.

Economy: Geopolitics Trumps Trade


By Edward Alden, FP columnist and visiting professor at Western Washington University

By the historical yardstick—which used to judge trade policy by the number and size of newly concluded trade and investment deals—Biden would get a D. By this measure, his administration has nothing to show after two years. Indeed, it quite proudly proclaims it is not seeking additional “market access” to help U.S. exporters. No U.S. president in 75 years, not even former U.S. President Donald Trump, has accomplished so little in terms of trade liberalization.

But Biden should be graded on what he is actually trying to do, which is to craft a different sort of trade policy for an era of geoeconomic competition and domestic economic anxiety. U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai calls this a “worker-centered” trade policy. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen favors “friendshoring,” in which critical supply chains will shift from China to reliable allies, while Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo wants next-generation technologies made in the United States and kept out of Chinese hands. These approaches have found expression in several new framework agreements: the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, the Americas Partnership for Economic Prosperity, and the Trade and Technology Council with Europe. The administration hopes these discussions will produce new kinds of bargains focused on climate policy, labor standards, and supply chain security. Already, however, European protests over new “America First” rules on electric vehicles as well as export controls on chip sales to China suggest this will be challenging.

A big question mark remains: Can trade policy succeed if it does nothing to expand trade? In Asia especially, U.S. friends are anxious about losing access to China’s market without gaining opportunities in the United States. The administration’s rather overt hostility to the World Trade Organization has many experts questioning its commitment to the trade rules Washington once championed. At home, officials are mired in increasingly outdated rhetoric about the harm trade can do to workers. The Biden team needs to find a balance between new approaches and what has worked in the past. It has yet to find that sweet spot.


By Eswar Prasad, professor of trade policy at Cornell University

The Biden administration’s approach to international trade has been a welcome change from that of the Trump era: less bluster, fewer threats, no mercurial policy changes, and a shift in focus away from bilateral trade balances. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has hardly been a forceful proponent of free and open trade. In the guise of preserving U.S. technological supremacy and promoting domestic investment in green and other technologies, the administration has put in place a number of policies that implicitly serve as barriers to free trade.

That said, even as the Biden team has kept tight restrictions on trade with China in place, it has taken a positive approach to trade relationships with the United States’ economic and geopolitical allies. The administration has also sought to preserve the rules-based system underpinning world trade—although it hasn’t done much to advocate for much-needed improvements in that system and the associated governance mechanisms.

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6-Climate-Energy-biden-foreign-policy-report-card-1200x628 – 2

Climate & Energy: Enviable U.S. Position


By Ted Nordhaus, executive director and co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute

In 2022, Biden followed the maxim that Americans will always do the right thing after all other possibilities have been exhausted. After placing a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on federal lands in 2021, Biden reversed course in the face of rising energy prices amid Russia’s war in Ukraine—and even pressed U.S. oil companies to increase production. He used the strategic petroleum reserve to buffer oil price swings and approved increased exports of liquefied natural gas to help Europe wean itself off Russian gas. And after a year of following the cues of the climate movement and his party’s progressive caucus, Biden finally cut a deal with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin—the Democrats’ swing vote in the Senate—to pass the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a $500 billion package to invest in clean energy technology and infrastructure.

The IRA probably resulted in less money for clean energy than what was on the table a year earlier. But Manchin also forced important concessions that made the package stronger, including technology-neutral tax credits, the extension of tax provisions until 2030, and the elimination of an expensive and convoluted Clean Electricity Payment Program. Biden also backed Manchin’s effort to reform and expedite the process for permitting and constructing the newly funded clean energy infrastructure.

As a result, the United States enters 2023 in an enviable geopolitical position from an energy and climate perspective—blessed with abundant energy resources, technical capabilities, and a package of policies and investments designed to secure cheap and abundant energy while simultaneously accelerating U.S. decarbonization efforts. To truly make progress on the latter, however, will require Biden to take on the third rail of environmental politics and reform both the general permitting process and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which has presided over the decline of the U.S. nuclear industry despite the latter’s indispensable role in any serious decarbonization strategy. Both these reforms will be necessary if the United States is to actually achieve the deep emissions reductions envisaged by the IRA. In 2023, we will learn if Biden is willing to buck his anti-nuclear and “not in my backyard” green supporters to take the actions necessary to protect the climate.


By Alice C. Hill, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations

Biden has tackled the climate crisis like no other U.S. president before him. On his first day in office, he announced the United States would rejoin the Paris Agreement, quickly followed by a pledge to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. He then signed two historic laws: the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill, which directs billions of dollars toward clean energy and resilient infrastructure, and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which makes the single largest investment in climate action in the country’s history.

The Biden administration has also led global efforts to reduce methane emissions and jump-start climate resilience through historic contributions to the United Nations Adaptation Fund. Despite these accomplishments, the toll from climate-related disasters continues to mount at home and abroad. Climate change waits for no one, not even the president.

U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One before departing from the Saudi city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022, at the end of his first tour in the Middle East as president. Foreign Policy illustration/Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images
U.S. President Joe Biden boards Air Force One before departing from the Saudi city of Jeddah on July 16, 2022, at the end of his first tour in the Middle East as president. Foreign Policy illustration/Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Democracy & Human Rights: Selective Amnesia


By Kenneth Roth, former Human Rights Watch executive director

To his credit, Biden has stood firmly against the world’s two leading autocrats, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has gathered alliances against their military threats, joined multilateral efforts to condemn their atrocities, and imposed sanctions.

Sadly, those moves were not paralleled for autocratic leaders whose support the Biden administration believes it needs for other reasons. Abandoning concerns about the Saudi murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the bombing of Yemeni civilians, Biden traveled to Riyadh to unsuccessfully beg the Saudi crown prince to pump a bit more oil. As Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi presided over the worst repression in his country’s modern history, Biden withheld $130 million in military aid—but let the remaining $1.17 billion in U.S. assistance proceed.

Biden’s Africa summit excluded leaders who seized power in military coups but included others who use slightly more subtle ways to crush democracy, such as Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Biden even allowed himself to be photographed watching the World Cup with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed despite the mass atrocities that Abiy had just overseen in Tigray. In U.S. policies toward Vietnam, India, Mexico, and Poland, the defense of human rights also gave way to other preoccupations.

The danger of this selective approach is that it is so obviously unprincipled. Principles require taking a position even when it is difficult. Biden seemed to embrace human rights only when there was no cost.

That opportunism leaves many of the world’s human rights victims in the lurch. It also weakens Biden’s human rights pronouncements whenever he does make them. The sting of denouncing Putin’s war crimes or Xi’s repression is far less painful if these leaders can pass Washington’s statements off as a geopolitical ploy rather than the consistent application of global standards.


By Emma Ashford, FP columnist and senior fellow at the Stimson Center

The Biden administration has made human rights and democracy the rhetorical core of its approach to the world. And after four years of the Trump administration, it’s certainly refreshing to see an administration that believes in liberal values rather than empathizing with autocrats the way former U.S. President Donald Trump so often did.

But the administration’s implementation of this approach has been clumsy and self-defeating, most notably in the handling of its flagship project, the Summit for Democracy, which produced little of substance except months of diplomatic headaches for U.S. officials dealing with allies worried about making the cut for being included. Then there’s the administration’s strange resistance to criticizing U.S. partners with poor human rights records, from Israel to Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps most importantly, Biden’s emphasis on democracy and human rights in foreign policy isn’t working particularly well. Much of the global south has been hesitant to accept the framing of the war in Ukraine as a struggle of democracy versus autocracy. Even major partners like India are hesitant. Given this poor performance so far, the Biden team might be better off dialing down the democracy rhetoric and placing its focus elsewhere.

U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with the President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso during the group photo at the U.S-Africa Leaders Summit in. Washington on Dec. 15, 2022.
U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with the President of the Republic of Congo Denis Sassou Nguesso during the group photo at the U.S-Africa Leaders Summit in. Washington on Dec. 15, 2022.

Global South: Less Ideology, More Engagement


By C. Raja Mohan, FP columnist and senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute

Whereas his predecessor, Donald Trump, called parts of the global south “shithole” countries, Biden has made important efforts to reengage with these nations. When he began his term two years ago, it appeared that Biden would make the situation worse by replacing Trump’s ignorance with liberal condescension: the temptation to impose current ideological fashions on the developing world to remake it in America’s image.

Despite its humbler tone, the Biden administration’s initial idea of global democracy promotion was ill-equipped to deal with the many shades of gray in the global south’s complex politics. Washington’s impulse to scrutinize political processes in non-Western societies for democratic compliance had little credibility after Biden abandoned Afghanistan in 2021 to the Taliban’s medieval rule.

The conflict between democracy promotion and the pursuit of U.S. interests became evident in Biden’s moral grandstanding against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. If it looked as if the Saudis and their oil did not matter to U.S. foreign policy in 2021, then it was clear by 2022 that Saudi support in the oil market was critical to raise the costs on Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

If Biden’s efforts to correct course with Saudi Arabia have been unsuccessful, then he has done a better job checking his administration’s ideological impulses and productively engaging with other parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Putting U.S. interests above ideology was part of the policy discipline needed to isolate Russia and effectively compete with China.

To win support for the West against Russia, the administration sensibly began to highlight Ukraine’s national and territorial sovereignty rather than framing the war as a contest between democracy and autocracy. On China, the Biden team moved from convening a democracy summit at the end of 2021 to an intensive outreach to the Pacific Islands, Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America in a series of summits—without making too much of various countries’ internal politics. Despite the widespread narrative that Ukraine and the West have found little support in the global south, there has been significant support from developing countries in the United Nations General Assembly. Under Biden, U.S. strategic competition with China for the global south has finally begun.


By Kamissa Camara, senior visiting expert at the United States Institute of Peace

The Biden administration has made significant moves to renew its relationship with Africa and other regions of the global south. Toward Africa, the administration has demonstrated its commitment to a policy that promotes African countries’ agency and allows them to determine their own paths.

However, the 2022 U.S.-Africa summit in Washington was a testament to the difficulty of applying these principles to actual practice: While the military leaders of coup states—such as Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Mali—did not receive an invitation to attend, other controversial leaders did—including the presidents of Chad, Uganda, and Cameroon. Steering away from rhetoric and focusing on an action-oriented policy toward Africa could save the Biden administration from losing its credibility on the African continent.

An illustration shows Iran's Hassan Rouhani surrounded by planes and nuclear weapons, the foreign-policy issues facing the Biden administration.
An illustration shows Iran's Hassan Rouhani surrounded by planes and nuclear weapons, the foreign-policy issues facing the Biden administration.

Middle East: One of the Least Remarkable Administrations


By Lina Khatib, Middle East and North Africa program director at Chatham House

The Biden administration’s most tangible achievements in the Middle East have been the killing of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and the brokering of a long-awaited Israel-Lebanon maritime border deal. Unfortunately, there is little to report other than that. There has been no resurrection of the Iran nuclear deal despite Washington’s efforts, and U.S. attention to conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya has been modest at best. A visit by Biden to Saudi Arabia elicited only lukewarm commitments from Persian Gulf allies to increase oil production, and it is difficult to imagine U.S.-Saudi relations becoming truly functional for as long as Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are in power. In response to mass protests and a violent regime crackdown in Iran, Washington issued strong words and additional sanctions—but paid little attention to Tehran’s destructive regional role in the Middle East.

Unsure about the United States’ future relationship with the region, U.S. allies turned increasingly pragmatic toward Russia and China. The Abraham Accords brokered by the Trump administration may have been a step toward stabilization in the region, but they continue to stand in sharp contrast to Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

Even the Biden administration’s two achievements in the region faced challenges: The deal to demarcate the disputed maritime border between Israel and Lebanon was not accompanied by any push for political and economic reform in Lebanon. A similar critique applies to the U.S. stance toward reform in Iraq and Tunisia. Despite Zawahiri’s death, the United States and its allies have yet to win the so-called war on terrorism. Although no U.S. ally in the Middle East has shifted its foreign-policy direction entirely away from alignment with the United States, the general feeling among U.S. allies is that Washington’s role in the region is less active now and could be even more remote in the future. The Biden administration has not been a complete failure in the Middle East—but so far, it has been one of the least remarkable U.S. administrations in memory.


By Steven A. Cook, FP columnist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

Biden often said the right things about security and stability in the Middle East, but Washington’s most important partners there find it hard to believe him. To be fair, the lack of trust has been a thoroughly bipartisan effort. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, support for Arab uprisings, the Iran nuclear deal, and Washington’s unwillingness to respond to Iranian provocations convinced the region’s leaders that the United States was no longer interested in defending its friends.

Although Biden is not responsible for this state of affairs, he has made mistakes as well. His determination to get back into the nuclear deal when deterrence and containment are better options further eroded trust among Washington’s partners. Withdrawing Patriot air defense batteries from Saudi Arabia while Houthi missiles were falling on Saudis was unwise. Following similar Houthi attacks on the United Arab Emirates, it would have been appropriate for Biden to call the Emiratis and assure them of Washington’s support. It is therefore no surprise that U.S. friends are leaning hard on their ties with Beijing and Moscow.

U.S. Border Patrol agents keep watch as immigrants wait to board a U.S. Border Patrol bus to be taken for processing after crossing the border from Mexico in Yuma, Arizona, on May 18, 2022. Foreign Policy illustration/Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
U.S. Border Patrol agents keep watch as immigrants wait to board a U.S. Border Patrol bus to be taken for processing after crossing the border from Mexico in Yuma, Arizona, on May 18, 2022. Foreign Policy illustration/Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Immigration: Nothing, Zilch, Nada


By Jorge Castañeda, professor at New York University and former Mexican foreign minister

Biden has avoided an outright failing grade on immigration only because of two positive decisions he made early in his term: sending a comprehensive immigration reform bill to the U.S. Congress (it went nowhere, but at least he made the effort) and eliminating the Trump administration’s most odious policies, including family separation and the requirement for asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are reviewed.

Other than that, the Biden team has been unable to deter migrant flows—what it and the Republicans want—or channel them through legal, secure, and orderly channels. It made a mess of Title 42, the pandemic-era measure used to expel hundreds of thousands of migrants on supposed public health grounds, even if Republican governors and the U.S. Supreme Court take part of the blame. Biden has neglected every other issue concerning Mexico in exchange for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador doing Washington’s dirty work by stopping Central American migrants at Mexico’s southern border. Biden also helped provoke an immense increase in Cuban migration to the United States—more than during the 1980 Mariel boatlift and 1994 Balsero crisis together—in a foolish attempt to win Democratic votes in Florida.

Biden has done very little, and now the worst of both worlds are on his hands. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and powerful Democrats such as Sens. Chuck Schumer and Bob Menendez have lashed out at the administration’s policies from the left while Biden finds no support from Republicans on any immigration issue.


By Vivek Wadhwa, FP columnist, entrepreneur, and author

Biden came to power with incredible public support for reforming immigration and rebuilding U.S. competitiveness. But with a barrage of reports documenting illegal border crossings and migrants showing up across the country, practically all the goodwill has been lost. Biden has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

With control of both congressional houses for two years, the Biden administration could have passed comprehensive immigration reform and provided citizenship to millions of so-called dreamers. It could have cleared the backlog of millions of highly educated and skilled immigrants in line for green cards. Yet Biden has done nothing, and just when the country needs to bring manufacturing and semiconductor development back from China, it is accelerating an ongoing immigrant exodus.

Top foreign students are no longer coming to the United States because it is virtually impossible to get permanent residence after graduation. The millions of skilled workers on visas, such as the H-1B, are no longer starting companies—because their visas don’t allow it. Washington could not have created a bigger drag on U.S. competitiveness.