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U.S. Foreign Policy Is About to Get Boring

The presidential election is around the corner—and that means “Scranton Joe” is about to take the international stage.

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.
Chris Smith of Mill Hall, Pennsylvania yawns while sitting in the grand stands before his uncle, U.S. Army Spc. Joe Mosser, returned home from Iraq along the 24th Corps Support Group, July 6, 2003 in Ft. Stewart, Georgia.
Chris Smith of Mill Hall, Pennsylvania yawns while sitting in the grand stands before his uncle, U.S. Army Spc. Joe Mosser, returned home from Iraq along the 24th Corps Support Group, July 6, 2003 in Ft. Stewart, Georgia.
Chris Smith of Mill Hall, Pennsylvania yawns while sitting in the grand stands before his uncle, U.S. Army Spc. Joe Mosser, returned home from Iraq along the 24th Corps Support Group, July 6, 2003 in Ft. Stewart, Georgia.

U.S. President Joe Biden has officially announced that he intends to run for reelection. If you’re a regular reader here at Foreign Policy, you may have asked yourself what his decision to run means for U.S. foreign relations. If so, this column is for you.

U.S. President Joe Biden has officially announced that he intends to run for reelection. If you’re a regular reader here at Foreign Policy, you may have asked yourself what his decision to run means for U.S. foreign relations. If so, this column is for you.

Of course, it is much too early to speculate on what U.S. foreign policy will look like after the next election. Biden might not win, and his most likely opponent—former President Donald Trump—would almost certainly do things differently if he regains the Oval Office. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis might still catch fire and end up on top, but nobody has any idea how DeSantis will handle foreign policy if he manages to become president. (And I doubt he knows himself.) This level of uncertainty is a serious problem, because both allies and adversaries are less likely to make lasting adjustments to their behavior if they expect U.S. policy to shift every time the White House changes hands.

Furthermore, the world is full of surprises, and no president can anticipate all the challenges they are going to face. Biden took office intending to improve relations with Russia and focus on China, for example, and look what happened instead. A president’s second term often differs dramatically from the first, as key advisors are replaced and the results of the first four years create new problems or unexpected opportunities. Ronald Reagan’s first term was a caricature of Cold War hawkishness, but his second term produced an unlikely détente with Mikhail Gorbachev. George W. Bush made huge mistakes during his first term, but his performance improved once he stopped listening to Vice President Dick Cheney and the neoconservatives. Bill Clinton’s first term focused on domestic issues and contained some notable foreign-policy stumbles, but he grew more comfortable with foreign-policy issues as time wore on and racked up several noteworthy second-term achievements.

The bottom line is that nobody knows what the U.S. foreign policy will be like after November 2024. Let’s consider a more modest question instead: Given that winning reelection will take precedence over just about everything else, how will the Biden administration handle foreign policy between now and Election Day?

#1: Staying the Course in Ukraine. The administration has been all-in on Ukraine since the beginning of the war and repeatedly said it will back Kyiv “for as long as it takes.” Barring an unlikely military breakthrough by Kyiv’s armed forces or an even less likely change of heart in Moscow, I expect the Biden team to maintain that position. U.S. arms and aid will continue to flow, allies in Europe will be pressured to follow suit, Biden’s rhetoric will not waver, and there won’t be public pressure on Ukraine to cut a deal, even if some insiders believe a negotiated compromise of some sort is inevitable.

Why will the administration do this? Because even if Ukraine can’t win the decisive victory most of us would like to see, Biden won’t want to acknowledge that unhappy reality in the run-up to an election. If he did, it would allow Trump or other MAGA-types to accuse Biden and his administration of squandering billions of taxpayer dollars in an unsuccessful crusade, and will invite others to scrutinize their handling of the prewar diplomacy with a more critical eye. At the same time, any sign of wobbling would also encourage Ukraine’s advocates to go after them for not having done enough. Like previous presidents facing an unpromising military situation, therefore, Biden will crank up what Daniel Ellsberg called the “stalemate machine”:  he’ll do enough to prevent a decisive Ukrainian defeat, but not enough to deliver a ticker-tape style victory. He’ll just kick the can into a second term and decide what to do about it then.

#2: On Autopilot in the Middle East. It’s been obvious from the beginning that neither Biden nor Secretary of State Antony Blinken have any new ideas for dealing with the Middle East. They aren’t happy with human rights conditions in Egypt, the looming internal threats to Israeli democracy, the possibility of a new intifada, or Saudi Arabia’s increasingly independent behavior, but they haven’t done anything significant about any of these concerns to date, and they are unlikely to do anything important in the near future. Nor will there be a new nuclear deal with Iran. No incumbent president wants a Middle East war in an election year, and though the Israel lobby may have lost some of its previous clout, Biden won’t want to be knocking heads with Israel in public while he’s running for reelection. He and Blinken will just cross their fingers and hope the region stays quiet until the votes are cast.

#3: Husbanding Biden’s Time and Energy. I’m with David Rothkopf here: Pundits spend too much time discussing Biden’s age and not enough examining his actual performance. That said, he’s hardly a youngster, and running for president takes a lot of time and energy. This means no more dramatic railway journeys to Kyiv, and fewer trips anywhere outside the campaign trail. To the extent that Biden needs to burnish his foreign-policy credentials (which aren’t that important to most voters anyway), he’ll invite foreign leaders to visit Washington—as South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. recently did—and sing his praises (along with old Don McLean songs). That’s how a president uses incumbency to his best advantage.

#4: It’s Still the Economy, Stupid. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently gave parallel speeches summarizing the administration’s domestic and foreign economic policies. The two speeches describe a dramatic departure from the neoliberal vision of globalization that has driven U.S. foreign economic policy for most of the past 30 years. Indeed, one might even see these policies as a step away from the broadly liberal approach to the world economy that has (with occasional exceptions) guided U.S. policymakers since World War II. In Yellen and Sullivan’s view, overemphasizing market forces and prioritizing globalization ultimately weakened U.S. national security, undermined the middle class, and delayed the urgently needed transition away from fossil fuels.

Instead of giving primacy to market forces and working to lower barriers to foreign trade and investment, the administration has set forth what Sullivan called a “modern American industrial strategy.” Government initiatives and subsidies will be used to accelerate the green transition, create more good jobs in manufacturing, develop more resilient and reliable supply chains, and preserve U.S. dominance in certain “foundational” technologies, such as semiconductors. Although the administration says it wants to achieve these goals in partnership with other like-minded nations, it did not coordinate this new approach with key partners in advance, and allies in Europe and Asia are upset by the Inflation Reduction Act’s protectionist elements. The economic benefits remain to be seen, but the political payoff is obvious: Biden has insulated himself from Trumpian accusations that he has let foreigners “steal” American jobs and let China gain the high ground in key technologies. Instead, he’ll argue that Trump made a lot of empty promises about helping American workers, but Biden delivered real results. Don’t expect that position to waver between now and November 2024.

#5: Walking a Tightrope with China. Lastly, Biden will want to avoid a major blowup with China—if only because the economic consequences could be severe—while at the same time avoiding any hint that he is soft on Beijing. Yellen and Sullivan’s recent speeches sought to thread this needle too, with both officials insisting that the export controls placed on advanced semiconductor exports to China were narrowly focused, intended only to address obvious national security concerns, and not designed to crash the Chinese economy. In Yellen’s words, “even as our targeted actions may have economic impacts, they are motivated solely by our concerns about our security and values. Our goal is not to use these tools to gain competitive economic advantage.”

On the face of it, therefore, the administration wants to keep the rivalry with China within bounds. U.S. Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns made this same point a few days ago, telling an online audience at the Stimson Center that “we’re ready to talk” and expressing the hope that China would “meet us halfway.” The administration understands that a more far-reaching decoupling would be economically damaging, and that is the last thing any incumbent wants during a reelection campaign.

There are two obvious problems here. First, although Yellen and Sullivan may have been completely sincere when they said U.S. actions were limited in scope and purpose, Chinese officials probably don’t believe them for a second. After all, whatever the motivation may have been, these measures are going to slow China’s technological progress and economic growth, and there’s no guarantee that the United States won’t impose additional restrictions in the future.

Second, these economic measures are not occurring in a vacuum, but in a period where U.S.-China relations have been getting steadily worse. Yellen and Sullivan may want to cool things down, but there are plenty of hawkish pundits and members of Congress who would like to keep raising the heat. Biden and co. are betting that extending an olive branch will keep things quiet for the time being, and my guess is that they are right. Chinese President Xi Jinping has his hands full already, and China’s interests are better served by a long-term effort to build influence and create an attractive alternative to U.S. primacy than by a short-term confrontation with the United States. U.S.-China relations aren’t going to get better in the next year or so, but they won’t get dramatically worse, either.

Put all these things together, and they fit perfectly with Biden’s broader campaign message. He will present himself to the voters as a faithful steward of the national interest and a steady hand at the helm of the ship of state. “Scranton Joe” may not be exciting, but he can be trusted to do his best for the good of all Americans. The contrast with his most likely opponent could not be sharper.

If Biden and co. get their way, therefore, U.S foreign policy over the next year and half is likely to be as boring as they can make it. All they need is for the rest of the world to play along.

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

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