The Biden Agenda
News and analysis about the administration’s policies—and the people putting them into practice.
U.S. President Joe Biden came into office during a time of global and national crisis. He brought with him an ambitious agenda to address challenges including the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and a rising China.
Scroll down for Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of the Biden presidency. FP subscribers can sort articles by topic using the drop-down menu at the top of this page.
To read FP’s 100-day report card grading the Biden administration’s start on foreign policy, please click here.
Biden at Six Months: How Successful Is His Foreign Policy?
Foreign Policy asked nine global experts for their takes on the administration’s agenda.
Since taking office in January, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has unleashed foreign-policy initiatives at a breathtaking pace. We won’t list them all here, but the gist will be familiar to Foreign Policy readers: From rejoining multilateral organizations and reinvigorating alliances to donating vaccines, the Biden team has been the antithesis of its predecessor. In other areas, such as strategic competition with China, there appears to be little daylight between the two.
Writing in FP, Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry recently argued Biden’s foreign-policy activism amounts to nothing less than a “revolution”—a wide-ranging reimagining of Washington’s global role not seen since the wartime presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The reality may be a little more circumscribed, but the Biden team has undoubtedly kept busy, surprising many who expected a less frenetic pace.
We wanted to get a sharp sense of how the Biden foreign-policy agenda has evolved at the six-month mark of his term. The last time we went to our stable of experts to evaluate the new administration, it was for our Biden 100-Day Progress Report. Now that the outlines of Biden’s policies have become clearer, we asked another high-powered panel of foreign-policy thinkers for their takes. This time, we included a few Americans, but our focus was on global contributors looking at how the Biden agenda is impacting different parts of the world. You can scroll down and read their takes below. Subscribers can use the drop-down menu to reach each writer and topic.
To Win Friends and Influence People, America Should Learn From the CCP
Beijing’s development projects are flashy, fast, and relevant. Why aren’t Washington’s?
Why is China winning the race for global influence? After all, the United States has almost twice as many diplomats stationed worldwide, spends 10 times as much on foreign assistance, and its contributions to international organizations—such as the United Nations—are 20 times larger. Yet Beijing is gaining new economic and security allies (especially in the developing world), increasing its influence in the international system, advancing key national security priorities, and growing the Chinese economy. Nearly 140 countries have signed on to China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure-development strategy to link the world to Beijing and control global flows of data. And at the U.N., Chinese nationals now hold the top position in four of the organization’s 15 major agencies.
So how does the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) do it, and what can the United States learn? Beijing’s global efforts are fast, flashy, and relevant. At every turn, the CCP is building international support and increasing its influence and reach. Washington needs to do the same—and beat Beijing at its own game.
Free Trade Is Dead. Risky ‘Managed Trade’ Is Here.
The old trade order has gone out the window at breathtaking speed. What comes next is very slippery.
For three quarters of a century, the growth of world trade—which has spread prosperity to much of the planet, including hundreds of millions of people in the developing world—has been underpinned by a simple commandment: Thou shalt not discriminate. In the years after World War II, most nations agreed, for the first time in history, they would treat foreign-made goods the same from almost every country. The United States would, for example, charge the same tariff on a sweater imported from Italy as on one imported from Bangladesh and impose no additional discriminatory regulations. First, this powerful principle allowed many poor countries, such as Bangladesh, to grow by exporting goods. Later, when advances in communications and logistics pushed globalization forward, it allowed companies to spread production around the globe, confident they could make goods in almost any country and export them to any other under identical rules.
But the nondiscrimination principle is now under the most sustained assault it has ever faced. On issues from national security to labor rights to the environment, the world’s largest economies are deciding that nondiscrimination—the bedrock principle of free trade and globalization—must take a back seat to more pressing concerns. The most dramatic abandonment is about to hit: Last week, the European Union unveiled its “Fit for 55” plan to reduce carbon emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels by the end of this decade and to reach carbon neutrality by 2050—which will require the most sustained economic upheaval since the Industrial Revolution. Central to the EU’s plan is a carbon border tax, under which Europe plans to charge higher tariffs on imports of products made in ways that generate higher emissions than European producers will be permitted to generate for the same goods. The scheme will start by targeting carbon-intensive sectors such as concrete, steel, aluminum, and fertilizer. The U.S. Congress is developing a similar plan to tax carbon-intensive imports as part of the coming budget reconciliation package—although the details are still murky. Other new trade restrictions being imposed or considered on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are based on compliance with labor protections, human rights, and other criteria. For many traded goods, nondiscrimination will become a quaint relic.
Mexico’s López Obrador Is Pulling an Erdogan on Biden
By reducing U.S.-Mexican relations to migration, Biden is letting himself be played—and ignoring a crisis south of the border.
Mexico was never a priority for U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy agenda—and still isn’t. But the border and immigration have been Republican priorities for years. Inheriting a so-called border crisis—largely a fabrication of the Trump administration—the Biden White House finds itself forced to devote more time and energy to the United States’ southern neighbor than it expected at the beginning of its term. A long list of Biden officials have visited Mexico, including Vice President Kamala Harris, the secretary of homeland security, the deputy CIA director, the U.S. trade representative, and the White House drug enforcement team. Virtual encounters have included Biden, his secretary of state, and the energy secretary. The outcome of this diplomatic blitz is uncertain, and prospects aren’t very encouraging—at least for now.
The issue is not so much whether U.S.-Mexican relations are cruising along or in crisis. In fact, most of the U.S.-Mexican bilateral agenda isn’t even visible, with the Biden administration—just like its predecessor—single-mindedly focused on the border and immigration.
Biden Needs an International Organizations Strategy
A U.S. State Department czar should lead a campaign to stop China and Russia from gaining control of multilateral agencies.
When U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the U.S. intelligence community to dig deeper into the possibility that COVID-19 might have spread from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, he underscored a basic truth: Multilateral agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) are frequently blocked or manipulated by authoritarian regimes and increasingly incapable of protecting either U.S. or global interests. The Biden administration and U.S. Congress face a fundamental question: What is the United States’ strategy to counter the systematic exploitation of international organizations by hostile countries while defending U.S. sovereignty, national security, allies, and democratic values?
Every year, Congress appropriates billions of dollars to the United Nations and related bodies, yet neither Congress nor the executive branch exercise sufficient oversight. This funding is also devoid of a comprehensive strategy to advance U.S. interests and counter manipulation by China, Russia, and other adversaries. It’s not a partisan issue: Republican and Democratic administrations have proven equally shortsighted.
A Confused Biden Team Risks Losing Southeast Asia
If the region continues to drift toward China, Washington has only itself to blame.
May 25 was hardly a bravura day for U.S. diplomacy in Southeast Asia. Foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathered for their first virtual meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Having waited the best part of an hour, they learned a technical snafu would stop Blinken from participating in the call, which he had been due to join from his airplane as he flew off to the Middle East. A few weeks later, the same group of ASEAN ministers flew off to enjoy red carpet treatment and a productive, snafu-free, in-person meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The contrast between the two episodes was not hard to spot.
Southeast Asia is an important front line in a new era of geopolitical competition between China and the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden took office with plenty of goodwill across the region. Its leaders hoped Biden would be less erratic than former U.S. President Donald Trump and more willing to commit time to economic and diplomatic engagement. Yet six months into Biden’s tenure, and that goodwill is ebbing away. In its place, a sense of disappointment is taking hold amid talk about a lack of U.S. focus and confused objectives. If Biden cannot soon find that focus again, Washington risks damage to its credibility in the region—and further creeping Chinese influence.
Biden’s Afghanistan Pullout Could Make the China Problem Harder
No, a complete withdrawal will not ease the U.S. pivot to China.
There are several strategic and political rationales for why U.S. President Joe Biden decided to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan and end the United States’ role in the conflict. Shifting away from overemphasized counterinsurgency operations is logical, it’s self-evident that nation-building as once conceived is unachievable, the costs of maintaining current operations seem high to many, and, perhaps most notably, U.S. public opinion has soured on the war. If there is a single thing Biden and former U.S. President Donald Trump agree on, it is withdrawing from Afghanistan. Trump even put out a press release praising Biden for the decision.
However, there is one argument for a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan that is just plain wrong: the idea that retreat will somehow enhance U.S. strategic competition with China. It won’t. On the contrary, it will complicate that problem.
In Historic Shift, Biden Aligns Allies on China
But can he get them to act, too?
U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Europe last week was rightly heralded as a success. Biden played the role of a national symbol more than U.S. presidents usually do: A long-lost friend returned to the global stage, just as he promised his country would do. And who could ignore the expressions of relief—even joy—on the faces of global leaders. It was the return of the prodigal superpower.
But Biden’s trip was more than just a family reunion. At the G-7, then at NATO, and finally at a summit with the European Union, Biden made a coordinated and consistent push on some key policy objectives: tackling the coronavirus pandemic, laying the foundations for a fair economic recovery, addressing cyberattacks and emerging technology challenges, and dealing with the challenges to democratic values, economic fairness, peace, and security that increasingly emanate from China. That last theme—how to handle China—was the most politically sensitive and likely the most difficult to negotiate with partners.
Bidenomics Is ‘America First’ With a Brain
Trump’s economic revolution is alive and well—and continuing in abler hands.
If former U.S. President Donald Trump had not been so incapable of governing, and felt so threatened by his own civil servants, his administration might have done what his successor, President Joe Biden, did last week: Create a blueprint for an “America first” economic policy that consigns decades of liberal internationalism to the ash heap of history.
With a 250-page White House report on “supply chain resilience,” and the U.S. Senate’s approval of a $250-billion bill to compete with a rising China, the administration is trying to launch the United States on a new path toward rebuilding economic self-sufficiency, jump-starting innovation, and spreading economic benefits more broadly among Americans. Trump promised in his first speech as president to “remove the rust from the rust belt and usher in a new industrial revolution,” and then accomplished nothing of the sort. Biden may usher in that revolution.
What Putin Wants From His Summit With Biden
With expectations low in Moscow, the Kremlin is looking for limited deescalation.
As Wednesday’s first summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin approaches, Moscow—like Washington—is in no rush to project optimism about any potential breakthrough between the two countries.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set the tone last week: “We are not setting our expectations high, nor do we entertain any illusions about potential ‘breakthroughs.’ But there is an objective need for an exchange of views at the highest level on what threats Russia and the United States, as the two largest nuclear powers, see in the international arena.”
The Kremlin is, of course, pleased about the summit, especially since the initiative came from the U.S. side. Putin is the first leader of a major adversarial power with whom Biden is meeting since his inauguration. This plays to the Russian leadership’s ego, and to the Kremlin’s narrative at home that under Putin’s leadership, Russia is once again a great power at eye level with the United States.
Asia’s Stakes in the Biden-Putin Summit
Geopolitical shifts have put a U.S.-Russian detente in the interest of much of Asia.
If Beijing is likely to watch next week’s summit meeting in Geneva between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin with a bit of concern, New Delhi is cheering the two leaders on, hoping they find a way to get along. Better relations between the United States and Russia will certainly make it easier for India to balance an increasingly aggressive China. And while India might be especially enthusiastic about a U.S.-Russian detente, it is not alone in Asia. Many others in the region believe that an independent Russian role will create more wiggle room for themselves in the emerging confrontation between China and the United States.
Skeptics, however, point out that both Washington and Moscow are downplaying expectations for the summit and that multiple difficult issues continue to hobble the U.S.-Russian relationship. If China’s fear of the United States drawing Russia away from its influence are far-fetched, it may be similarly unrealistic for the rest of Asia to hope for an early and significant reset of the triangular dynamic between Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.
Even a mere loosening of this great strategic triangle, however, could have significant consequences for Asian geopolitics. The immediate effect of a U.S.-Russian detente would be on Europe, which in turn would have significant fallout on Asia.
The Biden-Putin Summit Can Kick-Start a Deal on Syria
Only Washington has the carrots and sticks to steer the conflict towards resolution.
Next week’s summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva is the optimal setting for Washington to begin to broker a deal on Syria. Russia has been craving U.S. recognition of its rise in geopolitical status, partly gained through its intervention in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Biden’s initiation of the summit is a nod to Russia’s ego, which can pave the way for future U.S.-Russian engagement on Syria beyond the ministerial-level talks that have been taking place behind closed doors. Only Washington can steer the Syrian conflict towards resolution—if it steps up bilateral talks with Moscow.
U.S.-Russian relations are strained on several fronts—including Ukraine, human rights, and allegations of meddling in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Yet despite taking opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, there is potential for a U.S.-Russian compromise. To achieve it, the United States must pursue a carrot-and-stick approach capitalizing on Russia’s weaknesses, as well as on those Russian wants that do not hurt the U.S. national interest.
Can Biden Keep the Peace in Southeast Asia?
The region has complex relations with both Beijing and Washington. It does not want a new conflict.
“America is back,” U.S. President Joe Biden has announced to the world—but in Southeast Asia, the United States is playing catch-up again. And it has much to recover. The last four years witnessed Washington’s dwindling diplomatic and political capital in the region.
The United States has no regional initiative of significance. It has excluded itself from two economic groupings: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. In 2017, then-President Donald Trump did attend a special Manila summit between the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but missed out on all four meetings of the East Asia Summit during his term. U.S. embassies in four ASEAN countries (Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, and the Philippines) have been operating without ambassadors, and the United States is the only major country that does not have a permanent representative to the ASEAN Secretariat. In the Philippines and Indonesia, getting too close to Trump was seen as a political liability—which explains why Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the leader of Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, never visited Trump at the White House. U.S. support for the region during the COVID-19 crisis has been modest at best.
The Biden administration is now undertaking steps to reverse course, repair the damage, and restore U.S. credibility. His first step in foreign policy, Biden has said, is to win back allies and partners while pushing back adversaries. Policies are being recalibrated across the board.
ASEAN countries would certainly welcome a robust U.S. engagement in the region—but in the right way.
Biden Looks to the Future in First Defense Budget
But Biden’s planned cuts to current generation U.S. jets and ships and his makeover of the nuclear arsenal are likely to meet criticism in Congress.
For the Biden administration, the U.S. Defense Department needs to start shifting away from outdated weapons systems and vulnerable platforms to keep up with the Chinese military’s leap forward in military technology.
That’s according to the Pentagon’s $715 billion budget request released on Friday, which calls for paring back the Army’s budget and purchases of existing fighter jets, tanks, and ships while developing unmanned ships and sweeping modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“You’ll see a significant investment in our naval forces, long-range fires, and probably the largest ever request for RDT&E for development of technologies,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers on Thursday, using an acronym to describe the Pentagon’s research and development efforts.
By slightly favoring the future over the present, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley put it to Congress in the same budget preview hearing yesterday, U.S. President Joe Biden’s first budget is also a notable departure from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies, which called for a 355-ship U.S. Navy and projected a long-term decrease for researching and developing future platforms.
Biden Can’t Take Peace in Europe for Granted
After punishing Belarus, Washington should support the Three Seas Initiative to win the region back from Russia.
The Belarusian government’s hijacking of a flight from Greece to Lithuania is a reminder that Europe’s peace is precarious. Less than a decade after Russian forces shot down a passenger plane over Ukraine, killing 298 people and setting off a broader Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the Kremlin’s allies in Minsk have endangered civilian air travel again. Russia and Belarus pose an ongoing menace to their neighbors. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is still developing its strategy toward U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe, but its needs to take the region more seriously. Part of the response must be to punish Belarus for the hijacking. But the United States can do more to support stability in Central Europe. Supporting the Three Seas Initiative would bolster U.S. allies while locking out rival powers.
The Biden administration has promised to work more effectively with European allies, but it doesn’t have a strategy for doing so in Central Europe. Its main effort so far has been to improve relations with Germany, notably by declining to sanction Matthias Warnig, a former Stasi agent who leads the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The main opponents of Nord Stream 2 are countries in Central Europe, which have not been reassured by the Biden administration’s decision on Nord Stream 2 or the upcoming summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
So Washington has work to do in Central Europe. There’s an easy way to help. Twelve countries in Central Europe have banded together to create the Three Seas Initiative, which seeks to improve its members’ infrastructure and connectivity, stretching from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Adriatic and Black Seas in the south. All Three Seas participants are members of the EU, and all but Austria are members of NATO. Their Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund is already raising private sector funds to build infrastructure in the region.
Biden’s Democracy Agenda Faces First Big Test in Gaza
To break the cycle of violence, the United States could try to make both Israel and Palestine more responsive democracies.
“We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict,” wrote former U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner two months ago in the Wall Street Journal. Kushner said the Abraham Accords, a series of peace agreements he helped negotiate between Israel and several Arab states, “exposed the conflict as nothing more than a real-estate dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”
His victory lap might have been a tad premature. Since May 10, more than 200 people have been killed in the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has seen Hamas fire a blizzard of rockets at Israel and Israel level much of the Gaza Strip. The two sides might reach a cease-fire as early as Thursday—after Israel has degraded Hamas’s arsenal and inflicted all the damage it wants—but that won’t make much of a difference to the underlying problems defining this Groundhog Day scenario.
Saying the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been less clueless than what came before is clearing a low bar. But diplomats in the region view the United States’ diplomacy during the latest conflict in Gaza as feckless, saying the administration’s role—while “supportive”—has been “minimal.” U.S. President Joe Biden’s declaration earlier this week that he “supports a cease-fire” without explicitly calling for one—let alone spearheading a diplomatic campaign to get one—was viewed by Israel as nothing more than a green light to finish the job as quickly as possible. Even Biden’s admonition to Israeli leaders on Wednesday only urged de-escalation as a “path” to a cease-fire.
It’s Time for Biden to Ratchet Up the Pressure on the WHO
Washington and its allies have several levers for reforms.
U.S. President Joe Biden made the right decision for the United States to remain engaged in the World Health Organization (WHO), reversing former U.S. President Donald Trump’s misguided plan to withdraw from the global health body. This diplomatic U-turn provides Washington with an important platform to advocate for improved global health standards—as well as increased accountability for China and other WHO members with a history of rogue behavior that has exacerbated the spread of pandemics. The move also allows Washington to lead a multilateral movement aimed at streamlining the WHO’s sprawling operations and core functions, which have strayed significantly from the organization’s original mandate.
That’s the good news.
The downside is China and Russia are already undermining efforts aimed at restoring the WHO’s international credibility. This includes joining forces to derail a European Union-led proposal designed to address the organization’s flawed pandemic response by strengthening internal accountability and establishing institutional guardrails to neutralize pandemic disinformation. The EU’s proposal, intended for discussion during the WHO’s annual agenda-setting meeting beginning on May 24, would also mandate a fixed timetable for releasing the WHO’s final report on the origin and initial spread of the COVID-19 virus, a topic of keen interest not just to the Biden administration.
The Colonial Pipeline Crisis Is a Taste of Things to Come
Biden must act now to protect the energy system from the rising threat of cyberattacks and natural disasters.
The Colonial Pipeline system, which supplies nearly half the fuel consumed along the Eastern Seaboard, resumed full operations this weekend after a ransomware attack eight days earlier. Following days of higher pump prices, panic buying, and gas stations running out of fuel, the system is beginning to return to normal. But the lasting significance of Colonial Pipeline’s outage—the largest attack on the U.S. energy system in history—needs to be recognized. History will repeat itself with potentially far more severe consequences unless key lessons from the Colonial Pipeline attack are learned to boost the energy system’s resilience in the face of rising risks from cyberattacks and severe weather.
Colonial is one of the nation’s most critical fuel arteries, moving around 2.5 million barrels per day of gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel from Houston to New York, with branches serving southern states along the Atlantic Coast. As numerous economically struggling refineries shuttered along the East Coast in the past two decades, the entire region became even more dependent on Colonial for fuel.
On May 7, Colonial Pipeline shut down its pipeline as a precaution following a ransomware attack by a criminal group called DarkSide, which hacks into computer systems to hold data hostage until the victim pays a ransom. In response, gasoline prices surged in several southeastern states, and many stations ran out of fuel as people rushed to fill up their tanks. In Georgia and South Carolina, for example, the price of regular gasoline was up 8 percent this past weekend, and roughly half the stations reported having no gasoline. By Friday, the shortages had spread north; almost 90 percent of stations in Washington had “no gas” signs up. It was reported that Colonial Pipeline paid a $5 million ransom to DarkSide to unlock its system and began to restart operations several days later.
How to Boost the United States’ Most Important Partnership
Biden’s first 100 days show India is a crucial part of the new administration’s foreign policy.
When U.S. President Joe Biden took office, he made clear he would prioritize domestic challenges, particularly the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, his administration has advanced at least some of its foreign-policy goals, including strengthening ties between the United States and India. As Washington and New Delhi look to deepen collaboration, Biden’s first 100 days present important lessons for how both countries can enhance their partnership—from positive momentum on climate change to the delayed U.S. response to India’s COVID-19 crisis.
The Biden administration has engaged in a flurry of activity around U.S.-India relations. Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have spoken on the phone on two occasions. U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and climate envoy John Kerry both visited India during the administration’s first 100 days while Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval spoke with their U.S. counterparts multiple times. Some key administration appointments were already familiar to Indian officials, from Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell to senior director for South Asia Sumona Guha aiding these early conversations.
The United States and India have also taken major steps to advance cooperation on shared goals, particularly countering China’s rise and addressing climate change. As part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, both countries have expanded strategic cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, along with Australia and Japan. On March 12, the leaders of all four countries virtually joined the first ever leader-level Quad summit. The summit offered a public commitment to collaborate on pressing issues, including COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, and emerging technologies.
Can Kamala Harris Resurrect the Alliance for Prosperity?
The vice president’s plan for Central America depends on tackling rising corruption.
It was noteworthy that when U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris laid out the Biden administration’s broad plans this week to tackle both the “acute” needs of the Southern migrant crisis as well as its “root” causes, she didn’t have anything bad to say about Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, known as AMLO.
Harris was blunt in criticizing the authoritarian abuses of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and other Central American strongmen, but López Obrador was given a pass despite his own authoritarian rhetoric and worrisome human rights track record. That’s probably because Harris plans to meet him next month following their virtual chat Friday, and the United States badly needs AMLO if it is to have any hope of solving the problem. And there’s the rub: Experts say the battle against corruption that is critical to success in Central America comes down to a grim choice of partners who rank from bad to worse.
“That’s the root of the tragedy. Who are you going to work with? You have to have allies,” said Richard Feinberg, a Central America specialist at the University of California San Diego and former senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs.
Why Did Washington Let a Stolen Election Stand in the Congo?
If the Biden administration wants to advance democracy around the world, it needs to fix U.S. diplomacy first.
The Biden administration has arrived with some grand promises for its foreign policy, among them to “rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally” and “empower” U.S. diplomats who were “politicized” under the previous administration.
But a controversial recent election in one of Africa’s largest countries raises a fundamental question. Is the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus even capable of exploiting opportunities to assist potential democratic breakthroughs? How and why U.S. diplomats—mainly veteran career officers rather than Trumpian outsiders—decided to spurn such an opportunity in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2018 has important implications for the Biden administration.
It suggests that to fulfill his pledge, Biden will need to take steps to ensure his top foreign-policy appointees are strongly invested in democracy promotion and that career foreign service officers are not only empowered but also incentivized to think beyond short-term accommodations with local leaders.
Don’t Just Make Foreign Policy for Working Americans. Engage Them in It.
The Biden administration’s new mantra falls one step short.
U.S. President Joe Biden and his national security team, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have promised to deliver a “foreign policy for the middle class” that will complement the administration’s domestic focus on protecting jobs and delivering benefits to working people. In addition to instructing senior policymakers to use the interests of workers and the middle class as a lens to guide foreign-policy decisions, the Biden administration has an opportunity to engage middle-class Americans on foreign policy directly.
Here are two outside-the-box ideas for Blinken and his team.
Why U.S. Cities and States Should Play a Bigger Role in Foreign Policy
Part of making foreign policy work better for Americans is empowering local leaders.
In a 2009 essay, I coined the term “formestic” to describe the inevitable intertwining of foreign and domestic policy and the fact that solutions to global challenges often lay at home—and vice versa. Although I’m not holding my breath for the word to catch on, the observation that foreign and domestic policy are inseparably connected is a core conviction of U.S. President Joe Biden’s team. He made the point repeatedly during the run up to the November 2020 elections and has kept making it since. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was one of the architects of a “foreign policy for the middle class.” If there is a Biden doctrine, breaking down the silos of foreign and domestic policy would be a fundamental element.
The reason why these realms are deeply connected is simple: The United States is only as influential abroad as the strength of its economy, institutions, people, and ideas at home. But if that fact has sunk in, the discussion has mostly revolved around what the federal government can do, such as repairing and building national green infrastructure, investing in research and development, and shoring up the day care system. Encouragingly, the Biden administration has vowed to measure foreign-policy success by what that policy delivers for everyday Americans. “Everything we do in our foreign policy and national security will be measured by a basic metric: Is it going to make life better, safer, and easier for working families?” Sullivan said in February.
So far, so good. But what has been missing in the debate so far is the crucial role that U.S. states, cities, and communities can play. Cities’ and states’ economic policy choices concerning infrastructure, innovation, and other areas create the economic strength that U.S. power rests on. When local governments invest in their residents—via education, health care, housing, and other basic needs—they are laying the domestic foundation of foreign-policy success. Local governments and communities raise and empower the workers, inventors, caregivers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and soldiers of tomorrow. When their programs and institutions are equitable, they help eliminate systemic racism and gender inequality, LGBTQ and religious bias, and other injustices. This aids foreign policy in two ways: Not only will the United States’ international reputation improve as it addresses its wrongs, but it will have the benefits of the full team it needs instead of leaving people behind and talents untapped.
‘Bring the Troops Home’ Is a Dream, Not a Strategy
A full withdrawal from Afghanistan is a costly blunder and failure of leadership.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw the United States’ remaining military forces from Afghanistan rests far more on domestic politics than on national security strategy. In 2020, he campaigned on the issue. He said last week, “It’s time to end the forever war.” We should “be focused on the reason we went in the first place: to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that. We accomplished that objective.”
Biden sounds like his predecessor, Donald Trump, whom I served as national security advisor. That’s no surprise, as Biden is carrying out Trump’s policy with only slight modifications. Media coverage of Biden’s April 14 announcement has noted widespread public support for bringing the troops home. The American people are tired of foreign military engagements, or so the pundits tell us; they’re tired of Afghanistan, tired of Iraq, tired of Syria, tired of terrorism, tired of the Middle East—just plain tired. The chattering classes agree, academics agree, Democrats almost unanimously agree, and even some Republicans agree.
They are all wrong.
Biden Just Made a Historic Break With the Logic of Forever War
But will he really end the United States’ other open-ended conflicts?
For two decades, the United States waged a war in Afghanistan that it could not win but would not quit. “I do not support the idea of endless war,” U.S. President Barack Obama declared in 2015—as he commanded U.S. forces to continue fighting one.
The United States’ post-9/11 wars have been long, but it was not mainly their longevity that gave rise to the objection, on both the left and the right, that they had become endless. The problem lay in the nature of the objectives U.S. leaders chose to pursue. Extravagant goals, unnecessary to secure the United States, could not be fulfilled. The United States continued fighting anyway. The so-called “war on terror” was endless by definition, “terror” being a sensation and a tactic that will always be part of human experience. For Americans, war came to appear normal, inescapable, eternal, even if its burdens fell on few of their own. Somehow the most powerful country on earth seemed incapable of being at peace.
U.S. Mounts All-Out Effort to Save Iran Nuclear Deal
Chief negotiator Robert Malley begins to forge a compromise with both Iran and hard-liners at home.
U.S. President Joe Biden is intent on restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and with talks resuming in Vienna on Thursday after a weeklong break, his chief negotiator, Robert Malley, is beginning to develop a road map on how to get there.
According to sources close to European and U.S. negotiators, Malley is expected to offer Tehran a Goldilocks-style deal: just enough sanctions relief so Iran will return to the pact but not so much that it would leave Biden vulnerable to attacks from hard-liners at home, including those in his own party who oppose any concessions at all to Iran.
“Until now, no specific sanctions were discussed, only the broad outlines of ways to establish trust,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group (ICG), who was senior advisor to Malley when the latter was head of the ICG. “What they’re doing this week is to finalize a list of measures on both sides to come back into compliance with the accord. The next step is to sequence these to allow both sides to save face.”
This involves what a senior U.S. official described as the “painstaking” process of separating out and agreeing to remove or ease some of the sanctions that former U.S. President Donald Trump imposed as “poison pills” to ensure that the 2015 deal, which Trump had repudiated in 2018, could never be restored. These include more than 700 sanctions imposed outside the nuclear pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that were levied at the end of Trump’s term to ensure Iran’s isolation and break its economy altogether.
Under the “maximum pressure” campaign, the Trump administration in particular sanctioned the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Co., and the National Iranian Tanker Co. for financing state-sponsored terrorism. The Trump team knew that even if the JCPOA were resurrected, such new sanctions would invalidate the deal’s effects because these companies would be banned from international commerce. Together, they oversee Iran’s oil industry, and the central bank controls most of Iran’s foreign exchange reserves and revenues from the country’s oil sales. And new energy revenues are what Iran most demands if it is to return to compliance with the 2015 pact.
As the Trump administration well knew, it would be politically risky for Biden to remove these sanctions, since Iran’s central bank “is in fact responsible for allocating the funds for Hezbollah and Hamas” and the other two companies “provide and ship oil for sale by the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard Corps,” which Trump designated a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019, said Brian O’Toole of the Atlantic Council.
The Summit That Can’t Fail
Japan’s prime minister visits Washington at a time when, thanks to Chinese aggressiveness, U.S.-Japan relations are critical.
This is the summit that can’t fail.
The United States’ new president, Joe Biden, and Japan’s recently minted prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, badly need to get along at their first meeting Friday, which is also the first visit to the White House by any foreign leader during Biden’s three-month-old administration. And they need this for mostly the same reasons: to counter China’s rising threat and prove their political mettle at home.
“Both Suga and Biden need to spin their meeting as a great success,” said Gerald Curtis, a long-time scholar of Japanese politics at Columbia University. Suga, who is unusual for a prime minister representing the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in that he does not run his own political faction, “cannot go home and hope to be reelected LDP leader if he doesn’t demonstrate an ability to manage the U.S. relationship. No prime minister since the end of World War II has been able to survive mishandling the American alliance.”
But Biden also can’t afford for the meeting to fizzle, not “when he has invested so much on making the restoration of relations with allies the centerpiece of his foreign-policy strategy,” Curtis said. No ally is more important than stalwart Japan—not after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently deemed China the United States’ “biggest geopolitical test.” It is almost certainly Japan’s too. At a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last month, Japanese Foreign Affairs Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said that between China’s aggressive military actions in the Taiwan Strait and its plan to deploy the Chinese coast guard to patrol the Senkaku Islands—under Japan’s administration but claimed by China—Japan’s strategic situation is more perilous than it was just a few short years ago.
Biden Faces His First Disasters in Yemen and Afghanistan
Unless it changes tack, the administration is about to make bad situations even worse.
If the Biden administration isn’t careful, it could soon find itself confronting at least two major disasters in the broader Middle East. The first: the permanent entrenchment in Yemen of an Iranian-backed Houthi regime—a version of Hezbollah on the Arabian Peninsula, armed to the teeth with long-range precision weapons capable of targeting U.S. partners and interests across the region from Egypt and Israel to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Monday’s reports of another barrage of lethal drones and ballistic missiles fired at targets across Saudi Arabia are just the latest reminder of how bad things can get.
The second disaster: the full-blown collapse of the U.S. and NATO position in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power, who remain in league with al Qaeda terrorists who helped Osama bin Laden perpetrate the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington nearly 20 years ago.
U.S. President Joe Biden certainly didn’t create the dire circumstances the United States now faces in both countries. They’ve been in the works for years. But the policies his administration has pursued in its first two and a half months in office have almost certainly made two bad situations even worse. Equally clear is if the scope and consequences of these pending defeats for U.S. policy be fully realized, Biden will inevitably be saddled with the bulk of the blame.
The Most Vital 100 Days Since FDR
Just like Roosevelt, Biden must show that government still works.
Did any U.S. president ever have a more ominous first hundred days? Fearing assassination, he slunk into Washington under the cover of night, in disguise, and registered without public notice at a hotel near the White House. No sooner had he taken the oath of office than he began to violate it, suspending habeas corpus and arresting dissidents without trial. Meanwhile, no matter what he tried, the nation literally fell apart around him.
Yet that president, Abraham Lincoln, is today considered one of America’s greatest—the greatest in the eyes of many historians. That in turn suggests that the first hundred days metric is hardly an accurate measure of presidential success. First used by Franklin D. Roosevelt three score and eight years after Lincoln’s death—when FDR rushed through emergency legislation in record time to defeat the Great Depression—many historians today disdain it as largely a media contrivance designed to conjure headlines.
But neither can we dismiss the hundred days standard entirely, especially now, with Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump at a time of multiple crises: a pandemic that has cost more than half a million American lives, a rolling cataclysm of natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, an economy still bleeding millions of jobs, and a foreign policy that remains inchoate and aimless as America’s global leadership is in doubt.
A number of prominent historians and political scientists who study the presidency suggest that this period is different: that Biden’s first hundred days have mattered a great deal, perhaps as much as Roosevelt’s did in fighting the Depression. (FDR coined the term in July 1933, when he gave a radio address reflecting on “the crowding events of the hundred days which had been devoted to the starting of the wheels of the New Deal.”) What the two share in common is the urgent need to show the American people and the world that, amid turmoil accompanied by widespread disillusionment with Washington, government can still work at the most fundamental level.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a president since Roosevelt who’s had a more important first hundred days,” said Sidney Milkis, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia. Milkis had in mind Biden’s many executive orders reversing Trump’s policies and his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, but he added that these actions also take place in a nation arguably “more divided now culturally, regionally, and on matters of American identity—who we are—than we have been since Lincoln and the Civil War.” In a way, Milkis said, Biden faces a more treacherous situation than Roosevelt: “There was no insurrection at the Capitol during Roosevelt’s tenure, and few people questioned whether he was the legitimate president.”
Sean Wilentz of Princeton University also pointed to Trump’s trampling of the U.S. Constitution and postwar global system. “The whole status of the executive branch is in shambles, and you need to rebuild that quickly,” he said. “Most salient is the mistrust in the Justice Department, given the events of Jan. 6 at the Capitol. No modern president has inherited this kind of situation institutionally.”
Against these high stakes, the consensus among nearly a dozen presidential experts interviewed for this article is that Biden’s first hundred days have been mostly successful, even as he has failed to bridge the partisan gap left over from the bitterly divisive Trump years. Starting on his first day in office, Biden signed at least 50 executive orders, about half of them reversing Trump policies, including his withdrawal from the Paris climate pact, immigration policies, border wall construction, and the travel ban targeting Muslims. “I’m not making new law. I’m eliminating bad policy,” the new president said bluntly. (In fact, in his first two weeks in office, Biden signed nearly as many executive orders as Roosevelt—who still holds the record—signed in his entire first month.)
Then, on March 11, Biden signed into law the giant COVID-19 relief package, passed on party-line votes in the House and Senate. It was perhaps the biggest job creation and anti-poverty program since the New Deal. His administration has also dramatically expedited the distribution of vaccines and announced a $2.3 trillion infrastructure rebuilding agenda that the 46th president deftly called the “American Jobs Plan.” As Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in late February, “Now is the time to be aggressive.” At his first news conference, on March 25, Biden himself invoked the hundred days standard, vowing “200 million [vaccine] shots in 100 days.”
A Global Minimum Corporate Tax Is a Bad Idea Whose Time Hasn’t Come
Janet Yellen’s proposal has all but zero chance of success.
Some ideas are so absurd, the adage goes, that only an intellectual could believe them. The global minimum corporate tax outlined by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is one of them. The proposal will not only embarrass U.S. President Joe Biden because of its likely failure, but could also empower countries seeking to undermine the liberal international order, especially China and Russia.
The underlying concept’s resonance with liberal politicians like U.S. President Joe Biden is as unsurprising as its appeal to a liberal intellectual like Yellen. The world’s governments would start approaching multinational corporations like they approach the labor market—only instead of a global minimum wage, they would collectively demand a global minimum tax. The intended effect: more money for governments and less money for corporations. To its proponents, an equal minimum tax has an appealing moral clarity. And it’s an elegant concept in economic theory.
In practice, however, the policy’s odds of success are slim.
A Chance to Stop Syria and Russia From Using Chemical Weapons
Moscow and Damascus have evaded all accountability, but Biden can build a coalition to change that.
The battle for the future of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction is underway within an obscure but important international organization based in The Hague. The looming showdown at the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) will determine whether the world returns to the norm of zero chemical weapons use or if countries follow Russia’s example of poisoning dissidents and Syria’s of gassing its own citizens.
So far, Moscow and its client regime in Damascus have successfully delayed the work of the OPCW, and they are determined to stop any effort to impose consequences for their misconduct.
In February, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted: “We must preserve international law against the use of chemical weapons—or we risk normalizing their use,” adding that Russia and Syria must have “no impunity.” The OPCW is a sluggish organization, however, and unless the United States builds a coalition against impunity for Moscow and Damascus, this is likely to remain the norm.
Big Talk on Big Tech—but Little Action
In both the U.S. and EU, antitrust and regulatory efforts against Facebook, Google, and Amazon are gaining traction. But no one’s about to break them up.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar didn’t mince words about Mark Zuckerberg.
The Facebook founder was effectively a hypocrite, Klobuchar said in March, as she opened her first hearing as chair of the Senate subcommittee on antitrust. Zuckerberg and his fellow tech titans talk a good game about the need for “disruptive” new technologies and companies to keep capitalism fresh and vital. But during his time as Facebook CEO, Zuckerberg has crushed or simply purchased any start-up that might disrupt Facebook’s dominance, said Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat. And she trotted out Zuckerberg’s own emails to prove it—in one he lamented that if new brands “grow to a large scale, they could be very disruptive to us.” In another, Zuckerberg wrote that when one is building market dominance, “it is better to buy than compete.”
That is what he’s done, carefully buying out potentially competitive platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp. Nor have Zuckerberg and his fellow multibillionaires had to worry much about solidifying their dominance as Washington mostly looked the other way for the past few decades. Instead, Klobuchar said, legislators have typically responded by “holding hearings and throwing popcorn at a screen.”
That era of indulgence is now over, Klobuchar said in an interview, and many antitrust experts as well as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree. In both the United States and Europe, there are fresh efforts to rein in Big Tech, especially the companies that have come to dominate social media, e-commerce, and even politics in America: Facebook, Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft. Though Republicans and Democrats disagree on the how, there is an emerging consensus that at the very least they need to beef up antitrust enforcement at the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which are “a mere shadow of what they were even in [former President Ronald] Reagan’s time,” with something like half the lawyers they had then, Klobuchar said.
Problem is, that’s just about where the consensus ends. And even if you add more lawyers, antitrust cases move glacially, and federal judges are extremely cautious about punishing behavior deemed anti-competitive, especially in an era when antitrust experts disagree vehemently about remedies. Plus, now every case faces the prospect of being squelched by a very conservative Supreme Court.
Despite the documented actions of Facebook and other companies in crushing would-be competitors, there is also good reason for judicial caution. Consider the irony that Microsoft—itself the target of a major antitrust action a quarter century ago—now considers itself the aggrieved party in the recent Department of Justice case against Google, since it is trying to raise the profile of its Bing search engine, which has a meager 2.5 percent of the market. Or that Facebook’s own dominance may someday fall victim—without any help from government at all—to new blockchain technology that could allow users to run their own web services and applications. (Ironically, among the key innovators pushing for that are Zuckerberg’s old antagonists from Harvard University, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, who famously claimed that he stole the social network idea from them.) Even today, many antitrust experts say it’s probably a judicial and legislative bridge too far for the government to try to proactively promote competition in the tech world; let the markets take care of that instead.
How Liberal Values Became a Business in Afghanistan
Washington promised to bring liberal democracy to Kabul. It created a bloated and ineffective sector of artificial NGOs instead.
Over the last two decades, the United States injected millions of dollars and deployed over 700,000 troops aimed at counterinsurgency and planting the seeds of liberal values and democracy in Afghanistan. But liberal values did not blossom in the society, nor did democratic processes take root in U.S.-funded institutions, including the Afghan government.
This legacy has put the Biden administration in an awkward position: It must decide whether to support the liberal values in the proposed political settlement or ignore them and get out. Because Afghanistan lacks both an organic civil society and institutions that could shape the political settlement in favor of a democratic dispensation, the United States—if it chooses not to cut and run—now has the chance to push for a democratic sphere that would actually allow Afghans to shape their political fate.
Biden Needs to End His Staff Travel Ban Now
Only three top State Department officials have been allowed to travel abroad. That’s no way to preserve U.S. interests.
In 1604, the British envoy Sir Henry Wotton famously quipped that “an ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Today, while U.S. ambassadors and foreign service officers remain at their posts around the world, U.S.-based senior diplomats—with very few exceptions—are not traveling overseas to advance the country’s interests. Indeed, a senior administration official told me that in response to the pandemic, the Biden administration has limited official travel to matters of “war and peace.” Accordingly, since the inauguration on Jan. 20, only three senior State Department officials—Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his special envoys for Yemen and Afghanistan—have traveled abroad.
The prohibition, which is expected to continue at least through May, relegates most of Washington’s highest-level diplomatic discussions to Zoom, Webex, and WhatsApp. For senior officials who already know their counterparts, these discussions can be productive. But for the dozens of acting officials and newly minted political appointees filling the State Department’s top slots, the absence of rapport with their foreign equivalents complicates already challenging diplomatic engagements.
Biden Team’s Embrace of Europe Falls Short on Content
Outcomes, not optics, should be the measure of U.S. policy in Europe.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s inaugural trip to Europe last week is being hailed as a soothing restoration of the trans-Atlantic alliance. As conventional wisdom has it, after four years of abuse and neglect under President Donald Trump, the new administration must make resuming warm relations with allies its highest aim in Europe.
And therein lies the problem. Strengthening alliances with Europe is necessary and right—indeed, given the scale of the challenge posed by China, a deepening of U.S.-European ties is urgently needed. But the Biden administration risks mistaking the optics of improved relations for strategic success. In fact, what the United States needs in Europe is not good vibes but specific outcomes in allies’ policies in order to strengthen the strategic position of the West as a whole for the unfolding era of intensified competition with China. Acting as if trans-Atlantic bonhomie were the goal rather than concrete results could jeopardize progress on that larger aim for three reasons.
Russia and China Seek to Tie America’s Hands in Space
Biden should avoid the treaty trap set by Moscow and Beijing.
Saying one thing and doing the opposite is, unfortunately, common in international diplomacy. Beijing and Moscow, however, seem to have a unique proclivity for the practice.
Consider the actions of the United States’ two great-power adversaries when it comes to anti-satellite weapons. China and Russia have sprinted to develop and deploy both ground-based and space-based weapons targeting satellites while simultaneously pushing the United States to sign a treaty banning such weapons.
To protect its vital space-based military capabilities—including communications, intelligence, and missile defense satellites—and effectively deter authoritarian aggression, Washington should avoid being drawn into suspect international treaties on space that China and Russia have no intention of honoring.
Biden Can Help Armenia and Azerbaijan Make Peace. Here’s How.
Four steps Washington can take to facilitate a lasting end to the conflict.
The first 100 days are not even over, and the Biden administration’s national security and foreign-policy team has already dealt with major fires around the world—from the Saudi-backed war in Yemen to a military coup and brutal crackdown in Myanmar to calibrating the relationship with a bristling China.
Late last year, a war broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and although the bullets and bombs have stopped for now, the underlying conflict has not ended. It is an example of the kind of problem that slips out of the headlines and, therefore, away from the firefighters’ view. That’s too bad—not only because the smoldering embers could ignite further violence and human misery but also because firefighting is about preventing destruction, not about construction. If all one does is put out fires, one never builds anything. In other words, moments of relative calm, however tense and enduring the challenges might be, often present the opportunities—however difficult—for actual progress.
Biden Revives the Truman Doctrine
His call to wage a global war for freedom echoes the dawn of the Cold War.
On March 12, 1947, in a special address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, President Harry Truman laid to rest any hopes that the Allies’ victory in World War II would usher in a new era of international cooperation. Instead, Truman told the assembled lawmakers: “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life … One way of life is based upon the will of the majority [and] guarantees of individual liberty.” The other, he warned, “relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.” The United States, therefore, would “support free people resisting attempted subjugation.” That, in a nutshell, is what every student of international relations knows as the Truman Doctrine.
As a candidate, President Joe Biden gave the impression that he would be a kinder and gentler commander-in-chief. He would stop insulting allies and rejoin multilateral accords like the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. As he liked to say on the campaign trail: “We lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” He would be a healer and uniter at home and abroad.
But if we are now seeing a harder-edged Biden take an increasingly clear line on the challenge posed by a totalitarian China, it should not come as a surprise. There was always another thread running through his candidacy—one that sees the world divided between democratic nations and the aggressive dictatorships working to undermine them. Only the United States could lead the democratic coalition to victory. This worldview was not something Biden inherited from his tenure as President Barack Obama’s vice president. Rather, it grew out of Russia’s intervention in the 2016 presidential election and the deepening polarization of American domestic politics. It also drew on the emerging consensus that China’s rulers were determined to exploit the West while committing atrocities against dissenters at home.
In other words, Biden came to see the world in remarkably similar terms to Truman’s at the dawn of the Cold War.
Biden Must Follow the Law and Sanction Nord Stream Now
Why has the administration been so half-hearted on a malign Russian influence project?
New U.S. administrations are always tried and tested by the country’s adversaries. So it came as no surprise when, after having been halted in 2019, major construction resumed on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in January—activity that is subject to mandatory U.S. sanctions as set out by law.
What has been surprising, however, is the half-hearted response by the Biden administration.
Nord Stream 2 is not just a pipeline project to bring Russian natural gas to Germany and on to Western Europe via the Baltic Sea—it is a malign Russian influence project that poses a significant national security risk to the United States and to our European allies and partners. It threatens to deepen Europe’s energy dependence on Moscow and hand Russian President Vladimir Putin another tool to exert political pressure on Europe, particularly Ukraine. Russia has weaponized its gas supply before, cutting off deliveries to Ukraine—and thus much of Europe—in 2006 and 2009.
The U.S. Doesn’t Need China’s Collapse to Win
A misguided theory of great-power competition will only lead to grief.
I often think of the evolution of U.S.-China policy as the five stages of grief. The United States was too long in denial, unwilling to admit that Washington’s long-standing assumptions about Beijing had proved wrong. Then came former U.S. President Donald Trump’s reckoning and anger for unbridled strategic competition. And now, U.S. President Joe Biden mostly continues that, though he may be headed toward the bargaining stage. I suspect depression will soon follow, though I wonder about getting to acceptance.
But what, exactly, is the goal of current U.S. strategy toward China? Is there a 21st century Cold War-Kennan approach? This month in Foreign Policy, Zack Cooper and Hal Brands argued that “Washington has accepted the reality of competition without identifying a theory of victory.” Perhaps. But maybe that is good, given their idea of victory.
The United States Returns to Africa
After Trump’s insults and detachment, the Biden administration is crafting a new, more engaged approach to the continent.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.
This week’s highlights: After four years of insults and indifference, the United States is taking a hands-on approach to Africa, why Tanzania’s new president may not be a breath of fresh air, and Botswana’s “Butterfly” spy case.
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Biden Breaks from Trump on Africa Policy
From expletive-laden rants at the start of his presidency to allowing corruption to run rampant as one of his last foreign-policy acts, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s relationship with the African continent was characterized by detachment.
While he hosted leaders considered important to his administration’s security ambitions, Trump himself never set foot on the continent. A new administration with a new foreign-policy strategy under President Joe Biden is already showing a marked shift toward African priorities.
Will Biden’s Approach to China and Russia Work?
The new administration’s interim national security guidance gets many things right—but it has its shortcomings.
Matthew Kroenig: Hi Emma! The big news this week is an unclassified U.S. intelligence community report about foreign election interference. Russia and Iran meddled in the 2020 U.S. election—and I don’t know whether Americans should have their feelings hurt—but apparently China didn’t think it was worth the effort. What is your take on this news?
Emma Ashford: Yes, the Russians interfered in U.S. elections. Again. I doubt anyone is surprised. And they apparently used similar tactics as they did in 2016: no direct interference in the voting process but instead, a lot of mudslinging and disinformation. The intelligence community concluded that, just like 2016, the Russians were trying not just to elect Donald Trump but to sow distrust in the U.S. political system.
Not surprising, but my takeaway was pretty simple: The policies adopted after 2016—some sanctions, a hardening of diplomatic relations with Russia—have done nothing to stop this from happening again.
Why Washington Is Fed Up With Beijing
Decades of failed efforts to woo China explain the Biden administration’s tough talk ahead of Alaska meeting.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as seasoned a diplomat as one can find in Washington, was about as undiplomatic as he could be when asked about his planned first meeting with Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday. “This is not a strategic dialogue,” Blinken said bluntly, contradicting Beijing’s own description of the event. “There’s no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements.”
Instead, Blinken told Congress last week, Washington would be mostly laying down demands. Only evidence of “tangible progress” by China would lead to more talks, he said. Or as a senior administration official said in a briefing, “We don’t want them to be operating under illusions about our tough-minded approach to their very problematic behavior.”
Behind those stark statements—something close to ultimatums—lay more than two decades of frustration on the part of Blinken, President Joe Biden, and many other senior officials from both parties. Starting with the Clinton administration, which brought China into the World Trade Organization, and on through the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Washington was eager to engage in a strategic courtship with China. In 2006, the Bush administration started a “strategic dialogue” with China, optimistically calling both nations “responsible stakeholders in the international economic system.” President Barack Obama upped the stakes with his much-touted pivot to Asia, which was ultimately stillborn, and broader high-level talks with China called the “Strategic and Economic Dialogue.”
Climate Offers a Glimmer of Hope for U.S.-China Cooperation
As relations worsen on other fronts, the Kerry-Xie relationship could make a difference on climate change.
As Chinese strategists pored over foreign-policy papers this week to prepare for a key Sino-U.S. meeting in Anchorage, Alaska on Thursday, outside their windows, a howling sandstorm enveloped Beijing. The sandstorm revived Chinese anxieties about creeping desertification—but it also offered up a small measure of hope for what has been until now a serious worsening of U.S.-China relations.
The eerie orange cloud of Gobi Desert sand—Beijing’s worst sandstorm in a decade—was a wordless reminder that both sides face a common challenge they say they are determined to confront: global climate change.
In recent weeks, the Sino-U.S. relationship has been dominated by strident disagreements over trade, human rights, and Pacific security, as evidenced by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit this week to two key U.S. allies: Japan and South Korea. But in both Washington and Beijing, the climate portfolio is edging back into the limelight after a four-year-long hibernation. In Beijing, hints of something positive peeking through the distrust and disputes began last month when Beijing announced that Xie Zhenhua would come out of semi-retirement to be China’s new climate change guru.
Blame Iran for Rocket Attacks in Iraq
Tehran is directly responsible for the violence carried out by its proxies and must be held accountable.
Iran-aligned groups are continuing to attack U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq, including an attack on March 3 that involved launching at least 10 rockets at a base housing military personnel and civilians; the most recent strike occurred on Monday.
The attacks come amid a series of other rocket attacks Iranian-backed militias have undertaken against U.S. personnel since U.S. President Joe Biden came into office, including a Feb. 15 attack on Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, that killed one civilian contractor and wounded nine others.
The Erbil attack was a major escalation and constituted the first serious attack by Iran-aligned groups under the Biden administration’s watch, one that 10 days later prompted the U.S. decision to strike the groups responsible for the attack in Syria, where they were also deployed to support the Bashar al-Assad regime.
One of the focal points of the debate over rocket attacks and other forms of aggression by Iran-aligned groups is whether they can be attributed to the Iranian regime, an attribution that could potentially shape the contours of U.S. engagement with Iran over the nuclear program and possible retaliatory responses (military and nonmilitary) against Tehran and its interests in the region. Iran has a long track record of creating and using militia groups to attack its rivals and relies on its proxies to diminish its culpability for atrocities committed and to create a degree of plausible deniability.
Although the U.S. government may have some difficulty establishing a precise chain of command that links the Iranian regime to these attacks, Iran’s involvement over the past four decades in creating, mobilizing, and managing the proxies undertaking these attacks to shape a favorable geopolitical environment indicates the regime is complicit and directly responsible.
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.
If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.
At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.
Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.
The Time for a Green Industrial Policy Is Now
The Biden administration can restore U.S. leadership by building the clean energy economy.
Now that U.S. President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan for economic stimulus and pandemic relief has become law, his administration will turn its attention to a multitrillion-dollar plan to rebuild the United States’ ailing infrastructure. Its scope goes far beyond roads and bridges. Viewed in combination with other parts of Biden’s economic agenda, it reflects a new openness on both sides of the aisle to what has traditionally been known as industrial policy. Critics deride industrial policy as protectionist and as the government picking “winners,” but when it comes to clean energy—a top priority for Biden—a push by his administration to build new and innovative clean energy sectors using industrial policy may actually be the greatest contribution it can make to combating climate change.
Industrial policy, long anathema to mainstream economic policymakers in Washington, is back in vogue. The Biden administration’s Build Back Better economic plan includes targeted support for specific industries to make them more competitive with Asia and Europe and government procurement provisions to boost domestic manufacturing with “Buy America” requirements. As White House economist Jared Bernstein wrote in Foreign Policy, “the rationale for industrial policy is as strong as ever.” Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, similarly wrote in Foreign Policy that “advocating industrial policy … should be considered something close to obvious.” Even Republicans, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, have been willing to deviate from the free-market’s gospel by endorsing industrial policy.
Biden Team Engaged in ‘Rigorous’ Debate Over Ending Forever War
With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, the president wants to declare success. But military and CIA careerists are said to be resisting.
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, U.S. President Joe Biden is working to wind up the United States’ longest war—now often known as the “forever war.” But he and his top political appointees are facing stiff opposition from career military and intelligence officials who are wary of doing so prematurely, according to administration and human rights sources.
It’s not just Biden’s desire to get out of Afghanistan or his curtailment of drone strikes or his desire to once and for all close Guantánamo Bay. The big question is whether al Qaeda and its offshoots, which justified the “war on terror” in the first place, still pose a strategic threat to the United States. Some senior administration officials want to turn a page; some senior officials in the U.S. Defense Department and the intelligence community beg to differ.
Biden, like his top aides, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, are intent on closing as much of this two-decade-long chapter as they can and fulfilling the president’s campaign pledges. “The United States should not, and will not, engage in ‘forever wars’ that have cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars,” Biden said in his recently released interim national security guidance, while stressing his desire to finally focus on Europe and the Indo-Pacific rather than the Middle East.
Quad Summit’s Vaccine Deal Is Biden’s Bold First Move in Asia
It’s a smart step to counter China, but the next ones won’t be as easy.
On Friday morning, U.S. President Joe Biden is hosting the first-ever Quad summit with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The deliverables are set to be impressive: In addition to the maritime security cooperation usually associated with the Quad—short for Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—Biden and his counterparts will agree on a major initiative for the region on COVID-19, officials familiar with the discussions say. With U.S. biotechnology, Japanese funding, Indian production, and Australian logistics, the four leaders will commit to providing 1 billion doses of vaccine to Southeast Asia, the region most directly exposed to Chinese pressure and expansionism.
After months of Beijing’s self-congratulatory “wolf warrior” diplomacy leveraging its successes in handling the pandemic, the maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific will thereby deliver a stunning coup that is likely to permanently reverse the vaccine diplomacy wars. The four leaders will also agree to strengthen cooperation on securing supplies of rare-earth metals, driven by wariness of dependence on China for these critical inputs to technology and defense production at a time when Beijing is slapping boycotts on any country that displeases it.
Officials Blame Election Drama for Biden’s Slow Staffing
Lawmakers want Biden to speed up filling senior diplomatic posts.
Lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with delays in reviewing U.S. President Joe Biden’s slate of nominees for senior foreign-policy posts, a trend that administration officials attribute to rigorous security background checks and knock-on effects from former President Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the election results.
Nearly two months into office, Biden has yet to formally name nominees for many senior posts at the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and other federal agencies. In several cases, he announced nominees in January, but the White House either hasn’t yet formally submitted the names to Congress to kick-start the confirmation process or didn’t do so until the past week.
During the Trump administration, Congress routinely criticized the president for leaving senior positions at the State Department vacant for months or years on end, saying the empty posts hampered effective U.S. foreign policy and sapped morale in the ranks. Biden and his team vowed to reverse those trends, announcing efforts to restore morale at the State Department and elsewhere, but if senior posts remain empty for long, those efforts could hit a snag.
Friday’s Quad Summit Will Show if It’s Just a Talking Shop
The fledgling Indo-Pacific alliance needs a mission—and its only meaningful one is maritime security.
When presidents and prime ministers get together for a group meeting, what do they talk about? Only the fly on the wall knows for sure—or in the case of the upcoming Quad leaders’ summit, maybe the hackers. On Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden will hold a virtual meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. The online teleconference of the group—which some consider a fledgling security alliance against China—is bound to be a tempting target for Chinese, North Korean, and Russian cyber-espionage.
Or is it? Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters that the Quad leaders would focus on issues including “the threat of COVID,” “economic cooperation,” and “the climate crisis.” Pressed for further details, she reiterated these three core issues. There seems no reason not to take the stated agenda at face value. But if that’s all the Quad leaders will be talking about, the spies might as well sit this one out. Even if it were a public Zoom event, there would be little intelligence value in dialing in.
The COVID-19 pandemic, trade, and climate are all important issues, but they’re not Indo-Pacific issues. There’s nothing about them that requires high-level cooperation among the region’s leading democracies. There’s only one issue that affects the Indo-Pacific region as a region—the one issue that even makes the Indo-Pacific a meaningful regional concept—and that’s maritime security. China, North Korea, and even Russia threaten the secure integration of the Indo-Pacific region on, over, and under the seas. As an alignment of powerful regional democracies, the Quad can effectively counter regional revisionism by these powers. Indo-Pacific maritime security is the one issue that makes the Quad the Quad.
President Biden Must Follow the Advice of Candidate Biden on Iran
Despite criticizing the maximum pressure campaign, the new administration is continuing Trump’s policies—and sending the wrong message to Tehran.
The United States is already nearly two months into Joe Biden’s presidency. Yet despite his campaign promise of returning to the Iran nuclear deal, the United States has still not returned to the agreement—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—former President Donald Trump’s so-called maximum pressure sanctions have remained in place, and tensions with Iran have not de-escalated. Meanwhile, Iranians are soon heading to the polls for presidential elections in June, with the next Iranian president most likely shifting the political direction of the country. If Biden fails to take swift action to return to the JCPOA, this golden window of opportunity to revive diplomacy with Tehran will soon close and the path forward will get much more complicated.
Although Biden’s supporters have patiently waited for his administration to settle in over the past seven weeks, reviving diplomacy with Iran does not seem to be a priority. Instead, renewed airstrikes in Syria—in response to militia rocket attacks in Iraq—have raised concerns over further escalation with Iran, the prospect of more military confrontations in the region, and a permanent unraveling of the historic diplomatic achievement that was the Obama-Biden administration’s foreign-policy legacy.
More alarming are actions and statements by senior administration officials that appear to run counter to what Biden and his team had been saying for years in their outspoken criticisms of Trump’s Iran policy. On Feb. 18, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said the United States is ready to talk, but without any substantial steps or sanctions relief for Iran, the offer is little different than Trump’s own attempts at talks.
To Face Off Against China, Copy Its Playbook
Biden should unite allies with a giant “Made in the Free World” project.
U.S. President Joe Biden is right to make China his first foreign-policy priority. But his proposed first step of talking to U.S. allies before doing anything is very much the wrong way to start. While it’s generally better to have help from allies to achieve objectives, that principle only holds if the help is genuine and the objectives are shared.
Washington’s European Union allies, such as Germany and France, have already disrespected Biden by completing an investment agreement with China—ignoring his team’s polite request that they delay at least until after speaking with him following his inauguration. Even more disturbing is the fact that the EU-China deal is of questionable value for Europe. On paper, it offers expanded opportunities for investment in both directions. But the reality of the deal became clear when EU negotiators claimed success in pursuading Beijing to make “sustained efforts” to sign the International Labour Organization’s protocol against forced labor. One wonders if EU leaders are going to hold their breath until that signature appears.
This smacks of failed approaches by past U.S. presidents from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, whose advisors presumed that melding China into the global economy would lead it to become a responsible stakeholder in the liberal, rule-based global system. Instead, what Biden and his allied counterparts must urgently do is reduce the West’s dependence on China’s economy and technology.
Biden’s Stimulus Is the Dawn of a New Economic Era
The United States’ massive relief package is more than a technocratic policy. It’s a democratic triumph.
There is a lot of debate right now about the meaning of U.S. democratic leadership on the world stage. In light of recent events, any pretension to that role on President Joe Biden’s part can easily seem hollow. Former President Donald Trump refuses to leave the stage. The shadows of the disputed election and Jan. 6 still hang over Washington. Republicans are as obstructive as ever. The battle to protect U.S. voting rights will have to be fought one gerrymandered and voter-suppressed district at a time.
But democratic leadership requires not just the rule of law and the observance of constitutional propriety. It requires more than just reasonable behavior on the part of all the major parties. It also needs to be demonstrated, simply put, by enacting popular policies when they are needed. Democracy is measured by how rapidly and forcefully it responds to crisis, particularly when that crisis hits those with the least security and the least influence. The urgency of those who are most hard up must be visibly felt within the political system. There are moments when democracy consists precisely in ensuring that obfuscation and procedure do not stand in the way.
On this all-important metric, the Biden administration is delivering. The $1.9 trillion stimulus package to address the United States’ ongoing social crisis, forced through by means of reconciliation in the teeth of Republican opposition, is a true example of democratic leadership in action, one that Europe would be well advised to follow.
Meet Biden’s Middle East Team
Brett McGurk, who served under Bush, Obama, and Trump, is bringing aboard a Middle East team to the National Security Council that includes several former staffers from the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State.
President Joe Biden has begun staffing up his White House with experts to deal with renewed volatility in the Middle East, even as the administration looks to pivot Washington’s main focus to China and extricate the United States from costly ongoing wars that have dominated U.S. national security for two decades.
Seven new officials have joined the National Security Council’s Middle East team since Biden took office, officials familiar with the matter said. NSC spokesperson Emily Horne confirmed the appointments in an email response to Foreign Policy. They will report to Brett McGurk, Biden’s czar for the Middle East, who previously served as counter-Islamic State envoy under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
The new officials, including some who served under McGurk in his last role, will manage U.S. policy on some of the toughest crises around the world, even as the Biden administration looks to shift Washington’s focus to an era of so-called great-power competition with Beijing after nearly two decades of involvement in the Middle East. But the Middle East is likely to continue to suck up oxygen, especially as Biden’s team hustles to bring Iran back to the table for fresh nuclear negotiations and tries to broker peace in war-torn Yemen.
Who’s to Blame for Stalling U.S.-Iran Negotiations?
Biden was expected to revive the nuclear deal quickly—but as pro-Iran militias attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Washington strikes back in Syria, direct talks aren’t on the horizon.
_Emma Ashford: Good morning, Matt. Did you know it’s our column’s birthday? It’s been one year since we started doing these debates. When we started, Joe Biden had yet to clinch the Democratic nomination, and we were all still working in offices! It’s been a pretty intense first year.
Of course, as parents of young children, you and I both know that the first birthday is usually where the trouble really starts.
Matthew Kroenig: Ha! The before times: I remember them well. I recall that our first column didn’t even mention COVID-19 because it wasn’t yet a major issue. My, how things change.
Opposing viewpoints on U.S. foreign policy in a post-Trump Washington, weekly.
Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center.
EA: Well, not everything has changed in a year. We’ve got attacks on U.S. service members in Iraq, U.S. strikes in Syria, mysterious attacks on freighters, Iran refusing to negotiate, tension over Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses, and Congress upset about war powers. In fact, it seems like almost nothing has changed in the Middle East since last year, even since Biden came into office. Shall we start with the situation in Iraq?
MK: Yes, but it is hard to treat any of these items in isolation. I see them as almost all related to the bigger standoff between the Biden administration and Iran. The Biden team thought that Iran would be eager to restart direct diplomacy. And Tehran assumed Biden would be desperate enough to return to the nuclear deal that he would provide upfront sanctions relief. Both have been disappointed.
As a result, I see Iran trying to dial up pressure on the United States. It has few tools at its disposal, so it is ramping up its nuclear program, curtailing cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and lashing out with military force against U.S. forces in Iraq and international shipping in the Persian Gulf.
Biden Can Engage Southeast Asia Without Compromising U.S. Values
To counter China in the region, the United States should fight corruption and abuses while increasing investment and security cooperation.
Southeast Asia is now ground zero in the U.S.-China competition that many commentators and policymakers consider Beijing to be winning. Much has been made of U.S. President Joe Biden’s need to refocus American attention on the region. Less discussed are the difficulties of deepening engagement with less-than-liberal allies and partners there, such as Thailand and Vietnam, without neglecting democracy and human rights. The Feb. 1 military coup in Myanmar poses a whole other set of challenges.
When they are mentioned, these two goals—engagement and the promotion of liberal values—are juxtaposed as if the United States must choose between them. But this is a false choice. The Biden administration can pursue a values-based strategy in Southeast Asia while increasing economic and security engagement by promoting good governance and anti-corruption measures and coordinating on liberal-minded projects with other regional partners. This agenda would allow the United States to provide Southeast Asian countries with an offramp from dependence on China, while also serving U.S. national interests.
Bad governance and widespread corruption undermine human rights throughout Southeast Asia. Last year, Transparency International reported that three-quarters of citizens in 17 Asian countries saw corruption as a major problem. More than half of the publics in Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam said their governments were doing badly in the fight against it. Yet Transparency International also found that nearly two in three people in Southeast Asia say they could make a difference in the fight against corruption, by reporting it, by refusing to pay bribes, and by other means. While many people in the region do not see their governments as legitimate or even responsible, some may trust the United States—presenting an opportunity for Washington.
Biden Can’t Claim ‘Moral Leadership’ While Sanctioning the ICC
Washington’s aversion to the court’s recent decision on Palestine is emblematic of a fundamental disconnect in U.S. foreign policy.
In his Feb. 4 foreign-policy address, U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to make human rights and multilateralism cornerstones of his approach to global affairs. But that’s a pledge he appears to have forgotten just a day later, on Feb. 5, when the pre-trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled that ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has the authority to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated in the West Bank and Gaza Strip—by Israeli and Palestinian personnel alike. Biden’s State Department immediately criticized the court’s scrutiny of Israeli activity—though it had commended its probe into an Ugandan warlord hours earlier. Now, Bensouda’s March 3 announcement that she will use her authority to open an investigation into the situation in Palestine promises to be another critical test of Biden’s commitment to human rights.
Restoring U.S. credibility around the world—which Biden says he will do—means resetting the United States’ relationship with the ICC, the premier body of international criminal justice. Ideally, Washington would join the court; at the very least, it should refrain from interfering in the ICC’s scrutiny of U.S. nationals and allies like Israel. But all signs indicate that Biden is reverting to the Obama-era modus operandi: selective support for the ICC, which undermines U.S. credibility and threatens the viability of the court itself.
The ICC’s Feb. 5 ruling was the latest move toward opening an investigation into the situation in the Palestinian territories, including the conduct of hostilities during the 2014 Gaza war and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which the Rome Statute—the ICC’s founding document—defines as a war crime. Bensouda opened a preliminary examination into “the situation in Palestine” in 2015 and concluded it in late 2019, but she chose to seek judicial approval to open a full investigation due to lingering questions about jurisdiction over Palestine.
The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes committed in the territory of a state party, by nationals of a state party, and those referred to the court by the U.N. Security Council. Until recently, Palestinians were unable to bring their case to the state-centric court because of doubts about Palestinian statehood. In 2009, the ICC prosecutor rejected a Palestinian bid to join the court, citing uncertainty about the status of Palestine and lack of guidance from the U.N. General Assembly on how to proceed.
In 2012, however, the U.N. General Assembly—over U.S. opposition—overwhelmingly recognized Palestine as a state, which paved the way for Palestine to join a number of international institutions, including the ICC. Key members of the global community, including the United States, continue to reject Palestinian statehood, and Washington continually uses its veto on the U.N. Security Council to prevent Palestine from becoming a member of the United Nations.
China Is Losing Influence—and That Makes It Dangerous
The best thing Biden can do is lighten up on China and let gravity take its toll.
Over the last two decades, China has moved from the periphery to the very center of the world’s international relations. Given that China’s economy is now more than five times as large as it was at the turn of the millennium, that transition is hardly surprising. But many of China’s new international relationships, initially hopeful, have now turned hostile. China still has some down-at-the-heel allies, such as Pakistan and North Korea, but it is increasingly isolated from the developed countries that alone can facilitate its continued economic growth.
For China, that means trouble. Its promises are no longer taken seriously, and its propaganda falls on deaf ears. Many of its Belt and Road Initiative projects have ground to a halt. Virtually no one supports its nine-dash line in the South China Sea, and Western countries have been lining up to offer immigration pathways to professionals fleeing Hong Kong after Beijing’s takeover last year. Many countries have banned China’s Huawei and ZTE from their telecommunications networks. And India, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan are all modernizing their armed forces in response to potential Chinese threats.
Under these circumstances, the best thing that U.S. President Joe Biden can do to stem the rising tide of Chinese expansionism is … nothing. China’s red tide is already rolling out all on its own. Biden can afford to pursue a policy of “masterly inactivity,” relying on China’s own aggressive foreign policy to further isolate the country from the rest of the world. Instead of increasing the pressure on China, now is the time for him to lighten up a bit.
Can Biden Finally Put the Middle East in Check and Pivot Already?
The new administration, like previous ones, has a Middle East quagmire. But it’s trying some nuanced moves to break free.
It’s been just under ten years since then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, to Foreign Policy, the U.S. pivot to Asia after a decades-long focus on the Middle East. It didn’t last long. Soon after, the Arab Spring uprisings forced the Middle East back into the center of U.S. foreign policy. Then came civil wars in Syria and Libya. Next was the eruption of the Islamic State. All the while, there were nuclear negotiations with Iran—a cascade of events that ensured that the Middle East, as it had for former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and certainly his son, would exert inexorable pull on the Obama administration.
Like former presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, U.S. President Joe Biden hoped to downgrade the Middle East in favor of finally waging a strategic competition with China, which Biden said would be the most consequential challenge of his presidency. But just when you think you’re out, they pull you back in.
The first test came in mid-February, when Iranian-backed Shiite militias fired rockets at a U.S. air base in northern Iraq, killing a Filipino contractor and injuring a U.S. service member. Since Biden’s inauguration, Iran has targeted not only U.S. forces in Iraq, as it has for years, but also launched attacks against Saudi oil fields, airports, and other facilities.
On Climate, Declaring ‘America Is Back’ Doesn’t Make It So
To make serious progress, bipartisanship will be needed.
“America is back,” U.S. President Joe Biden told the international community last week during the Zoom version of the Munich Security Conference, the annual confab of the world’s foreign-policy elite. As if to underline the promise, the United States formally rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change the very same day. But declaring to be back does not make it so. Delivering on Biden’s promise requires Washington to commit internationally to an ambitious carbon reduction goal—and making good on that pledge requires the U.S. Congress to act. At a moment when bipartisan cooperation on climate change seems a pipe dream, the new administration’s credibility depends on it.
While many world leaders celebrated Biden’s return to the Paris process, their expectations are high for what he must deliver, particularly after four years of climate obstruction under former President Donald Trump. The test will come in two months when the United States is set to announce its 2030 emissions target, known in climate diplomacy jargon as a “nationally determined contribution” (NDC)—part of the preparations for the next United Nations climate meeting in November. Under the Paris Agreement, each country agreed to set an NDC every five years. This framework is intended to enable countries to gradually ramp up their ambition and create transparency so that nations can be confident that others are following suit rather than free-riding on their efforts.
U.S.-Iran Talks Will Falter Unless Abdolnaser Hemmati Is at the Table
Unwinding sanctions will be central to reviving the nuclear deal. If the Biden administration wants a lasting solution, it must involve Iran’s central bank governor.
The United States and Iran may soon be sitting at the negotiating table once again. In just the last week, the Biden administration has offered to restart negotiations, and Iran has struck a deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency to slow moves to limit inspections of its nuclear program. A window of opportunity has emerged for the two sides to talk, likely in a format facilitated by the European Union. If and when the United States and Iran sit across from one another again, there is a key figure who ought to be present—Abdolnaser Hemmati, the governor of Iran’s central bank.
In many respects, Iran’s central bank was the primary target of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s economic war on Iran. Much of the economic hardship that Iran has experienced due to the reimposition of secondary sanctions can be attributed to the Trump administration’s success in limiting the central bank’s access to its foreign exchange reserves.
According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iran retains access to just $8.8 billion of readily available foreign currency, roughly one-tenth of its total reserves. Without access to its reserves held in countries like Iraq, South Korea, Japan, and Germany, the central bank has struggled to forestall the weakening of Iran’s currency, which is today worth less than one-fifth of its value prior to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This deep depreciation made imported goods more expensive, contributing to annual inflation rates of nearly 50 percent.
Biden Must Base Arms Sales on U.S. Interests—Not U.S. Jobs
Exporting advanced weapons systems to the Middle East will create very few jobs at home. Washington must base its decisions on national security strategy rather than domestic politics.
In the first major foreign-policy address of his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden stated the U.S. government will end all “relevant arms sales” that support offensive operations in the war in Yemen. This decision reflects an ongoing State Department review of weapons sales to Gulf Arab states that had been approved late in the Trump administration. Then-President Donald Trump justified these sales in part as a job creator, and legislators may understandably worry about the consequences of this review for their constituents who work in the defense industry.
But jobs are a bad rationale for arms transfers on both economic and policy grounds. These weapons sales actually do not create many jobs, and even if they did, that shouldn’t be a consideration when it comes to whether these sales are approved. An extra job doesn’t make a sale more or less strategically or ethically compelling. After all, the bombs in these transfers are the same types causing undue civilian casualties in places like Yemen.
Trump advisor Peter Navarro went to bat for a sale of Raytheon munitions to Saudi Arabia, a transfer now held up by the Biden administration with a memo titled “Trump Mideast arms sales deal in extreme jeopardy, job losses imminent.”
These new deals will create few U.S. manufacturing jobs. The Biden administration and Congress can therefore focus on the strategic consequences of these weapons instead of pandering to domestic constituencies.
As flawed as the justification is on ethical and strategic grounds, the link between arms sales abroad to jobs at home is a bipartisan assumption. As former Obama-era defense official Andrew Exum wrote, “surely even the moral calculus of arms sales gets more complicated when you think about the millions of American mouths that are fed by mothers and fathers who work in the aerospace and defense sector.”
Biden’s Pick for CIA Director Singles Out China as ‘Biggest Geopolitical Test’
Bill Burns, a veteran diplomat, will helm the spy agency in an era of renewed great-power competition.
William Burns, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the CIA, sailed through his nomination hearing Wednesday, outlining his main priorities—especially China, new technologies, and looking after agency personnel.
If confirmed, Burns, the first career diplomat tapped to head the spy agency, will take charge of the CIA as it pivots to address an era of renewed great-power competition when new technologies are challenging traditional modes of spycraft and after four years of politicization and demoralization under the Trump administration. A sign of that shifting focus: Counterterrorism, once a key CIA focus, got scant attention during the two-hour hearing.
Instead, Burns focused on new threats, saying that an “adversarial, predatory Chinese leadership poses our biggest geopolitical test.” But his challenge won’t just come from Beijing.
“Most of my white hair came from my service in Russia over the years,” said Burns, a 33-year foreign service veteran who served in the Middle East and as U.S. ambassador to Russia. “While Russia may be in many ways a declining power, it can be at least as disruptive under [Vladimir] Putin’s leadership as rising powers like China.”
Did Biden Wait Too Long to Engage Iran?
Held back by infighting and hard-liners on the Hill, the administration may have squandered precious time to save the Iran nuclear deal, critics say.
Following Tehran’s partial curtailment of nuclear inspections this week, the Biden administration finds itself in a desperate race to salvage the 2015 pact that the new president has pledged to rejoin. But some critics say internal debates within U.S. President Joe Biden’s team may have led it to wait too long to offer Iran confidence-building and humanitarian relief measures that might have brought Tehran back to the table sooner.
Despite increasingly hard-line statements from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Tehran’s moderates have been waiting for signs from Washington of some measure of relief for its sanctions-strangled economy since former President Donald Trump pulled out of the pact in 2018—especially when it comes to humanitarian aid.
But none has been in the offing. Some officials and nuclear experts say that, due to factional infighting within the administration and fears of opposition from hard-liners on Capitol Hill, the Biden team has hesitated to offer such measures—even though some of its own leaders, such as National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, were central to negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in the first place.
“I think the Biden administration missed an opportunity in the first week of its term to send a stronger, more concrete signal of its good faith intentions to return to JCPOA,” said Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association. “During the time it took for the Biden team to begin to be more proactive, positions hardened in Iran. I’m not surprised at the delay at this point. I think Iran expected swifter action. After all, because of Trump’s withdrawal, it’s the U.S. that is responsible for the crisis around the JCPOA.”
Can Biden Fix the U.N. Human Rights Council?
The administration insists it can succeed where two U.S. presidents already tried and failed.
Against the backdrop of crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and the imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in a video message this week—a first for an American diplomat since Washington withdrew from the council under the previous administration. But it will take more than a speech by Blinken to reform this deeply flawed body, which boasts perennial human rights abusers such as China and Russia among its members and devotes much of its time to castigating Israel. President Joe Biden’s team needs a plan. And failing that, the administration should push ahead at double speed to institute a new body backed by the world’s free and democratic states, not its worst human rights abusers.
In announcing the U.S. return to the council earlier this month, Blinken said he recognizes “that the Human Rights Council is a flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus,” yet he believes “the best way to improve the Council is to engage.” After his eight years in the Obama administration, Blinken should know that’s easier said than done.
NATO Needs to Deal With China Head-On
The Western alliance is unprepared to counter the direct and growing challenge from Beijing.
When the leaders of the 30 NATO countries meet this spring in Brussels, it will be no ordinary summit. The alliance’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, has put NATO’s future on the agenda. It will also be the first major international summit for U.S. President Joe Biden, who has said that strengthening alliances will be a priority of his foreign policy. The decisions reached at this meeting will determine NATO’s plans and priorities for a long time to come.
It is therefore vital that the summit directly address the one topic with the biggest geopolitical implications for the coming decade by far: China. Encouraged by Washington and other allied capitals, Stoltenberg has already been nudging the alliance to deal more comprehensively with this challenge. The trouble is that some allies do not see China as NATO’s business while others are afraid that putting it on the alliance’s agenda will antagonize a powerful trade partner.
America Needs a Supercharged Space Program
It could build entire industries, create new jobs, green the economy—and unite the country behind a common purpose.
President Joe Biden has declared that “America is back” on the global stage, and his first actions on this front look bold so far. He has rejoined the Paris Agreement, prioritized traditional U.S. allies, and returned to a more liberal approach to immigration.
But if Biden truly wants to re-establish U.S. global leadership while uniting a fractured country behind a greater common purpose, he must be bolder and go where no president has gone before: He must prioritize a dedicated and multilateral U.S. government approach to outer space. Indeed, the solutions to many of the United States’ terrestrial challenges—from rebuilding the economy to solving climate change—may be found in the cosmos.
So far, the Biden administration has ignored the Trump administration’s establishment of a new Space Force as an additional branch of the U.S. military. Arguably, Biden’s team has done so with good reason: Space needs to be managed and commercialized, not militarized. But it absolutely cannot be ignored.
Should Biden Ditch All of Trump’s Policies?
From Afghanistan to China, the new administration seems likely to hold on to some ideas from the previous one.
Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! One question on everyone’s mind this week is: Will President Joe Biden keep major elements of Donald Trump’s foreign policy or throw them out? Some progressives worry that the administration’s policies are too similar on China and too different in places like Afghanistan. What is your take?
Emma Ashford: I know one place where Biden should definitely keep Trump’s policies, and that’s in Afghanistan. Most progressives I know are quite keen on that, actually. It’s the Washington establishment that wants Biden to throw out Trump’s Afghanistan policy, as a slew of recent op-eds—and perhaps more importantly, the findings of the congressionally mandated study group on Afghanistan—all suggest.
Opposing viewpoints on U.S. foreign policy in a post-Trump Washington, weekly.
Emma Ashford is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center.
MK: I’m with the establishment on this one. Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban was conditions-based, and the Taliban are not meeting their promised condition to reduce violence—instead they are ramping it up.
Trump’s deal promised to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 1, but if the Taliban are not holding up their end of the bargain, then neither can Washington. Biden is reviewing Afghan policy, and I suspect he will conclude rightly that U.S. forces should remain past May 1 to support the Afghan government and stabilize the country.
EA: Let’s be honest, though. That’s just a pretext. Most of the people arguing for the United States to stay in Afghanistan would have argued for it regardless of what the Taliban did. Just take a look at the congressional study group’s report. The group actually ignored the recommendations of its own advisors, which advocated two options: withdraw by the May deadline, or negotiate a single, one-time extension to push for political settlement.
Instead, the study group, which included high-profile luminaries like former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford and former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, advocated for an open-ended contribution of U.S. troops until there is an “independent, democratic, and sovereign Afghan state.” That’s so unrealistic as to be laughable.
Biden Should End U.S. Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes
For decades, U.S. presidents have pledged not to talk about Israel’s nuclear arsenal despite pushing for nonproliferation in the region. It’s time for Washington to end the double standard.
Until Feb. 17, U.S. President Joe Biden had delayed making the usual post-inauguration ceremonial call to the Israeli prime minister. Washington insiders concluded that the apparent cold shoulder meant Biden had not yet signed “the letter,” which Israel routinely demands of U.S. presidents to ensure the United States doesn’t mention Israel’s nuclear weapons when discussing proliferation in the region or pressure the Israeli government to reduce its formidable atomic arsenal.
As described by Adam Entous in a 2018 New Yorker article, every U.S. president since Bill Clinton has, at Israeli insistence, signed a secret letter upon entering office that effectively pledges the United States will not “press the Jewish state to give up its nuclear weapons so long as it continued to face existential threats in the region.” Whatever policy the United States adopts toward Israeli nuclear weapons, it’s time it stopped this demeaning rite.
The consequence for U.S. policy has been that the United States does not press Israel to give up its nuclear weapons—when doing so would have been the only course consistent with U.S. nonproliferation policy. However, Washington actively assists Israel, both diplomatically by quashing discussion of its nuclear weapons in international forums and materially by looking the other way at nuclear-related Israeli violations of law, including some within the United States.
Signaling a New Willingness to Talk, Biden Scrambles to Save Iran Nuclear Deal
The new administration is looking for an interim road map—but insists it won’t be pressured by Tehran’s deadline to halt inspections next week.
In a flurry of quiet diplomatic discussions, the Biden administration is scrambling to find a way to salvage the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal renounced by former U.S. President Donald Trump, despite the worsening public standoff between Washington and Tehran over the issue in recent weeks, according to diplomatic sources.
And on Thursday, the Biden team publicly shifted their approach, signaling to Iran that they were willing to take part in negotiations to find ways in which both sides could return to the deal.
Having pledged to re-embrace the 2015 pact during the presidential campaign and to launch broader diplomatic efforts with allies to achieve this end, Biden directed Secretary of State Antony Blinken and special Iran envoy Rob Malley to engage key U.S. allies such as Britain and France, as well as the Chinese and Russians, who were also party to the deal. On Thursday, Blinken discussed the issue by videoconference with the three major European parties to the pact: France, Germany, and Britain.
The result was a statement rarely seen during the Trump era, presenting a unified U.S.-European front that “reaffirmed the centrality of the transatlantic partnership” and demanded that Tehran take “no additional steps” to breach the pact. But in a subtle shift, the Biden administration also agreed Thursday to “engage in discussions with Iran toward that end”—a change from its previous stark insistence that Tehran first return to compliance before any other actions are taken.
State Department spokesman Ned Price later issued a statement saying the administration “would accept an invitation from the European High Representative to attend a meeting of the P5 plus one [the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany and Iran] to discuss a diplomatic way forward.”
America Is Going the Same Way as the Soviets in Afghanistan
The Soviet withdrawal was a disaster. The U.S. version looks eerily similar.
The bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group report released Feb. 3 has painted a bleak picture of what will happen to Afghanistan if the United States withdraws its remaining 2,500 troops prematurely. It warns that transnational terrorist groups will rebuild capabilities that were destroyed following the U.S.-led invasion and be operational again to attack U.S. soil within two to three years.
Under the flawed 2020 Doha agreement, the Trump administration promised to remove all U.S. troops in return for the Taliban’s pledge to enter into meaningful peace talks with the Afghan government—but without any promises by the Taliban to cease violence. Ironically, even though Pakistan played a pivotal role in the Doha deal, the Afghan government was left out entirely from the discussions. The deal also required the Taliban to ensure Afghanistan would not be used by al Qaeda or other terrorist groups to target the United States or its allies.
Unsurprisingly, the Taliban flagrantly disregarded these conditions. The Taliban have not ended ties with al Qaeda, and the groups continue to collaborate. A United Nations Security Council report even indicates that the two were consulting during the Doha talks. Violent attacks are on the rise in Afghanistan, with an increase in targeted killings of government and military officials as well as an indiscriminate murder of journalists and civil-society activists. Almost two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban are stronger than they have ever been since their overthrow in December 2001.
Riyadh Seeks Biden’s Forgiveness
Saudi Arabia has freed activists and announced reforms, but must do more to win the new team’s favor.
Saudi Arabia is extending an olive branch to the Biden administration. On Feb. 10, the kingdom released women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul after 1,001 days in prison, a detention marked by allegations of sexual abuse and torture. Earlier this year, Riyadh released other political prisoners while announcing judicial reforms and revisions to state-approved schoolbooks that promoted martyrdom and anti-Semitism.
In Washington, Democratic control of both the White House and Congress has put the kingdom in a precarious position. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s jailing of dissidents, careless prosecution of the war in Yemen, and reported ordering of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi provoked bipartisan backlash, but the rift with Riyadh runs deeper on the Democratic side. As a candidate, U.S. President Joe Biden promised to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” knocked the crown prince as someone with “little social redeeming value,” and vowed to reassess the bilateral relationship.
Biden Mulls Special Envoy for Horn of Africa
The post, if created, would bring more diplomatic firepower to the brewing crisis in Ethiopia as members of Biden’s cabinet and other senior State Department nominees await confirmation.
The Biden administration is weighing plans to establish a new special envoy for the Horn of Africa to address political instability and conflict in the East African region, including a brewing civil war and humanitarian crisis in northern Ethiopia, current and former officials familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
The new special envoy post could fill a diplomatic leadership gap in the administration’s foreign-policy ranks as it works to install other senior officials in the State Department, a process that could take weeks or even months to complete, as they require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Special envoy posts do not require Senate confirmation.
A new Horn of Africa envoy would have their work cut out for them: Sudan is undergoing a delicate political transition after three decades under a dictatorship, South Sudan is wracked by chronic instability and corruption, and the fragile government of Somalia is grappling with ongoing threats from the al-Shabab terrorist group and political gridlock that has delayed national elections. An ongoing dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over a major dam project adds another layer of complexity to the tensions in the region.
The most pressing crisis in the eyes of many U.S. policymakers, however, is in Ethiopia. In November 2020, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed launched a military campaign against the ruling party in the country’s northern Tigray region, after accusing it of attacking a government military base. Conflict has ravaged the region since then, marked by thousands of deaths, millions in need of humanitarian assistance, and widespread reports of interethnic violence. U.S. officials fear that the conflict could turn into a full-blown regional crisis, with turmoil spilling over into neighboring Eritrea and Sudan.
America’s Supply Chains Are Foreign Policy Now
Why the push to bring home manufacturing won’t work—and what Biden should do instead.
In the face of growing calls to safeguard the supply of medical goods, vital technological and industrial wares, and critical resources such as rare earth minerals, the Biden administration is launching a review of the global manufacturing supply chains on which public health, crucial sectors of the economy, and national security depend. With the world now scrambling for limited supplies of reliable COVID-19 vaccines, supply chains have turned from an obscure concern of invisible logistics specialists to a life-or-death issue in the public spotlight—not only in the United States, but around the globe.
As the Biden team maps out the origin of various pieces, parts, and vital products, it has the opportunity to advance two of its most important promises: making the United States safer and more resilient, and revitalizing cooperation and coordination with like-minded allies. The United States cannot single-handedly reverse globalization, nor can it pursue North-Korea-style autarky for a host of complex goods. What it can do, however, is strategically tie together international supply chains, diversify and redirect production, and globalize the storage of critical goods. And that path will let Biden fulfill his promise to rebuild and repair Washington’s alliances.
Cross-border manufacturing and trade have become part of everyday life. They deliver the food that fills our kitchens, the components that go into our cars and trucks, and the phones, computers, and other electronics that connect us with the world. Companies—and even entire countries—now specialize in manufacturing particular parts or mastering specific industrial processes that are only part of the production chain. This division of labor, because it creates economies of scale and boosts innovation in clusters of expertise, has greatly improved living standards in dozens of countries and lowered consumer prices in many more. It has made the entire world vastly richer and healthier. It would be a folly to try to unravel it.
Biden’s Trade Plans Will Boost China’s Power in Asia
Supporting the middle class at home and reasserting leadership abroad may be mutually exclusive, especially in Asia.
U.S. President Joe Biden outlined his big new foreign-policy idea in a speech on Feb. 4: rebuilding the U.S. middle class. “There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” he said. “Every action we take … we must take with American working families in mind.” On the surface, this sounds exactly like the kind of sloganeering you’d expect from a Democrat, along with its sister promise of a “worker-centered” trade policy. Skeptics in the party’s left wing worry such pledges could amount to nothing given Biden’s heritage as a free trade enthusiast. But this agenda deserves to be taken seriously. It echoes traditional progressive concerns about trade’s impact on labor and environmental standards. At a deeper level it flows from a wide-ranging rethink, led by the likes of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, about the costs that two decades of hyperglobalization have imposed on U.S. society.
Worthwhile though this rethink is, it also presents Biden with a new foreign-policy dilemma. The U.S. president wants simultaneously to support workers at home and to reassert U.S. economic leadership abroad—especially in Asia. At the very least, these two aims are in tension, and in many ways they are mutually exclusive.
America’s India Problem Is All About Russia
Forget U.S. sanctions over arms deals. Indian-Russian alignment is in Washington’s best interest.
The United States has an India problem, and it’s all about Russia. In 2018, India agreed to buy five Russian S-400 missile systems for the whopping price of $5.4 billion. The highly advanced S-400 system is considered on par with the United States’ best air defense weapons system, the Patriot missile. It’s the same missile system that led the outgoing Trump administration to impose U.S. sanctions on Turkey in December 2020. Now, India is next in line for similar sanctions—and that prospect has seriously strained bilateral relations, threatened the United States’ own defense sales in India, and called into question President Joe Biden’s commitment to working with allies to confront China.
Of course, the sanctions issue is not really about India. It’s about Russia. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), passed by Congress in 2017 to punish Russia for interfering with the 2016 U.S. elections, comes very close to requiring the president to impose sanctions on any country that makes “significant” purchases of military equipment from Russia. But it would be a big mistake for Biden to impose sanctions on India.
Quite the contrary: The United States should actually welcome India’s purchase of Russian arms.
Reviving the Nuclear Deal Gives the U.S. More Leverage Over Iran
Maintaining maximum pressure to inflict more pain won’t bring Tehran back to the negotiating table or halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As officials in Washington consider returning to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, much of the debate has centered on whether the U.S. government will lose leverage. Some experts and officials argue that if the Biden administration rejoins the deal—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—the United States will squander the leverage built in recent years through former President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure strategy.
While U.S. sanctions have caused Iran’s economy major challenges and limited Iran’s access to financial resources, they have not succeeded in changing Tehran’s behavior regarding its nuclear program. Indeed, Iran has not offered additional concessions. Instead, it has engaged in its own leverage-building strategy by ramping up its nuclear activities, missile program, and regional activities. Iran is not only closer to having the capacity to build a bomb, but even the political discourse of key officials on whether to cross that threshold has been shifting.
Leverage is only meaningful if it can be effectively used to produce desired policy outcomes. Continuing to build leverage merely for the sake of inflicting pain or adding pressure is neither an effective nor sustainable negotiating strategy. It leads to a vicious cycle of chasing a perfect deal that does not exist and ignoring the opportunities for incremental progress as Iran inches closer to a nuclear weapons capability. By reviving the nuclear accord, the U.S. government will not squander any sanctions leverage, but if it plays its cards wisely, it could enhance its position for follow-on negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and regional activities.
Big Government Is Back
The pandemic has discredited decades of free market orthodoxy—but not all visions of state interventionism are progressive.
The coronavirus crisis has led to the unexpected return of the visible hand of government after decades of small government consensus throughout the West. The pandemic has demonstrated how the erosion of public services has made capitalist societies vulnerable to disruption, less internationally competitive, and ultimately less resilient.
From massive monetary and fiscal stimulus to benefits for unemployed workers, the public sector has significantly increased its weight through deficit spending in the past year. This emergent neo-statism runs counter to the free market doctrine that held sway in the West for 40 years.
In 2008, the state bailed out the financial sector; in 2020 it had to bail out the entire economy. Had leaders followed the monetarist prescriptions of so-called sound finance to balance the budget and not increase the money supply—preached by the likes of Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan—the pandemic would have caused an unraveling of capitalism worse than the 1930s Great Depression.
A Fight Over a Trump Official Could Block Aid to Latin America
The largest provider of urgently needed aid is up for a bigger budget, but some Democrats first want to remove its Trump-nominated head.
Latin America has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and was already facing major economic challenges and headwinds even before the crisis hit. This should be the hour of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the most important provider of development finance and public-sector assistance in the region. But to help Latin America emerge from the pandemic, the underfinanced IDB urgently needs a capital increase. The only problem: That capital increase risks being held hostage to the Biden administration’s desire to remove the former Trump administration official who is heading the IDB, Mauricio Claver-Carone, from his post before any decision on a capital increase is taken.
For those who do not follow Latin America: The IDB is the largest and most important development institution in Latin America and the Caribbean. It lends considerably more to the region than the World Bank does. In 2020, countries in the region received $12.6 billion in public sector loans from the IDB compared to just under $8 billion from the World Bank. The bank, which celebrated its 60th anniversary two years ago, has strong roots in the region. It operates as a cooperative in which Latin American governments have a large share of control and decision-making. In recent years, the IDB has expanded its membership to include 20 donor countries from outside the Western Hemisphere, including several European countries as well as China, Israel, Japan, and South Korea.
The IDB’s new leadership is now seeking a capital increase that would allow it to lend more money and help with growing challenges brought on by COVID-19. Beyond the immediate crisis, the region also faces tectonic shifts in global trade, a growing digital divide, and the effects of climate change. It urgently needs to reform education and move forward on deeper regional integration in infrastructure and energy.
Biden’s Pick for U.N. Ambassador Will Have to Juggle Containment and Collaboration With China
The administration is moving quickly to reassert U.S. leadership but needs Beijing’s support for major initiatives.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. President Joe Biden’s nominee to serve as ambassador to the United Nations, struck a combative tone on China during her confirmation hearing last month, describing Beijing as a “strategic adversary” whose disdain for human rights and democracy “threaten our way of life.”
But the veteran U.S. diplomat may now have to win over Beijing in order to secure diplomatic wins in her first weeks at Turtle Bay.
If confirmed, Thomas-Greenfield will have to muster global support for key global challenges at the U.N., including the fight to contain the coronavirus pandemic and global warming. China’s backing or at least acquiescence will be critical.
During the past year, the Trump administration’s efforts to blame China and the World Health Organization for mishandling the pandemic in its earliest stages led to diplomatic deadlock at the U.N. The emergence of highly contagious variants of COVID-19 that have been rapidly spreading across national borders provides an opportunity to test China’s willingness to cooperate in a global effort to contain it.
“I think there is space to make some early moves by the administration on COVID and climate,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert with the International Crisis Group.
Why Everyone Likes Katherine Tai
Biden’s nominee to be U.S. trade representative is admired on both sides of the aisle, but she faces some of the toughest conditions ever when it comes to winning over the rest of the world.
It says something when you haven’t made any enemies after working more than a decade in today’s viciously polarized Washington, especially on Capitol Hill. And it’s difficult—no, let’s be frank, it’s impossible—to find anyone who will say anything bad about Katherine Tai.
Perhaps that’s one reason the little-known Tai, a 46-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrants, became the first congressional staffer in memory to make the leap to a cabinet position as President Joe Biden’s nominated U.S. trade representative. “Freakishly smart.” “Tough.” “Fantastic.” Such comments pop up prodigiously from both sides of the aisle—but it’s noteworthy that all the above accolades came from Republican trade experts interviewed by Foreign Policy. Biden himself remarked, upon nominating her late last year, that “she’s earned praise from lawmakers of both parties and from both labor and business as well. Now that’s a feat.” Turning to Tai, Biden added: “I’ve gotten more calls complimenting me on your appointment than you can imagine.”
Tai will need all the friends and allies she can get in Washington, because she may not find many abroad. She faces a reordered world in which China and other major nations, including U.S. allies, are negotiating their own trade deals at a high rate, excluding the United States. This in turn has created one of the toughest trade environments ever for the United States, the nation that reinvented the global trading system after World War II. And it’s clear that Biden chose Tai, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School who is fluent in Mandarin and understands Beijing’s aggressive trade practices as well as anyone, largely because China’s often illegal behavior poses the biggest trade challenge that Washington faces. She is considered a shoo-in for confirmation, though her hearing date has not been officially set (it is expected in late February), an administration official said.
But faced first with ending the COVID-19 pandemic, righting a teetering economy, and mitigating climate and immigration crises, not to mention addressing a dangerous diplomatic standoff with Iran, Biden and his team are trying to set aside trade as an issue for now. It’s still too raw a subject after years in which the Democratic Party nearly split apart over the question of free versus fair trade. Though Biden openly deplored his predecessor Donald Trump’s unilateral approach, especially toward China, he has set out no new trade agenda three weeks into his administration other than to say he plans to build a united front with like-minded nations.
Trump’s Worst 2 Military Mistakes for Biden to Fix
Some policies may be worth keeping, but Trump’s handling of allies and withdrawals from conflict zones are not among them.
Last week, the Biden administration announced a suspension of former President Donald Trump’s plans to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany, pending a comprehensive review of U.S. military positioning around the globe. It was a welcome move that provides Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with the opportunity to scrutinize a broad range of the Trump administration’s defense policies and determine which to keep and which to discard. Two leading candidates for disposal are already clear: Trump’s transactional approach toward long-standing allies such as Germany and his withdrawals of U.S. forces from conflict zones based on strict timelines.
As we all know by now, Trump habitually treated U.S. allies and partners as burdens to be jettisoned, rather than recognizing alliances as crucial national security assets to be nurtured. Beijing and Moscow can only dream of having a global network of capable allies like that of the United States.
Yet Trump confused allies such as Germany and South Korea with recipients of charity, refusing to appreciate the enormous benefits of having U.S. forces deployed in those countries. North Korea, for example, has nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the United States. U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula play a vital role in deterring an attack by Pyongyang on the U.S. homeland. In addition to expressing the desire to withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, Trump made an unforced error by pushing a counterproductive approach to cost-sharing negotiations with Seoul that created unnecessary tension, which Beijing and Pyongyang certainly relished.
The Biden Administration Should Prevent an ‘Atrocity Famine’ in Yemen
After declaring an end to U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive, there is more the president can do.
On Feb. 4, President Joe Biden announced he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen. The Biden administration’s decision to review U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and its subsequent move to revoke the Trump administration’s designation of Houthi forces as a foreign terrorist organization, are welcome steps in reassessing the U.S. role in the Yemen war. Humanitarian groups had broadly criticized the designation as likely to impede relief on the ground to civilians. United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock bluntly called for an immediate reversal of the policy to avert larger-scale famine, noting that 50,000 people were “essentially starving to death in what is essentially a small famine… another 5 million are just one step behind them.”
The UN has labeled Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, as over 80 percent of the population relies on humanitarian assistance to meet basic nutritional requirements. Five rounds of negotiations between the Saudi-backed government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Houthi forces failed to end the war, which has seen over 112,000 people killed in violence since late 2014. Significant flows of humanitarian assistance helped avert larger-scale famine in early 2019 and limit deaths from the world’s largest recorded cholera epidemic.
A reset of U.S. policy on the Yemen war is necessary if the United States wants to end the suffering of the Yemeni people while repositioning itself as a diplomatic broker in Yemen’s civil conflict. U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition can be traced back to the Obama Administration’s generous arms sales to Saudi Arabia to allay concerns about the 2015 U.S.-European Union-Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration should instead pivot toward human security concerns, not only to address the cataclysmic humanitarian crisis in Yemen but also to pressure the parties to the conflict, including U.S. allies, to reach a negotiated settlement. A renewed focus on diplomacy and the restoration of humanitarian assistance will help lower tensions throughout the Gulf and the broader Middle East in the process.
Biden Must Not Ignore Iran’s Human Rights Record
The U.S. government has a long history of pursuing multiple policy goals with adversaries and demanding respect for human rights will not derail nuclear negotiations.
Less than a month into President Joe Biden’s first term, Iran is already in the headlines, most recently with the news that another dual national, identified as Iranian-American businessman Emad Sharghi, was sentenced to 10 years in prison on dubious spying charges.
One of the most pressing foreign-policy priorities for the Biden administration will be to formulate its approach toward Iran.
The Biden team has publicly indicated their goal of reentering the 2015 nuclear deal, and then engaging on other issues including Iran’s involvement in regional conflicts, its ever-expanding ballistic missiles program, and its support for terrorism in the region.
A glaring omission by the incoming administration so far—as well as by the expert community of Iran analysts—is any coherent policy formulation significantly addressing Iran’s reprehensible oppression of its own people. Arguably, the most notable difference today on the ground, in contrast to when the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, is the severe deterioration in Iran’s dismal human-rights record.
America Is Back. Europe, Are You There?
Europeans say they want cooperation with Washington. Their latest actions speak a different language.
For four long years, I received countless emails and text messages from European diplomat friends distressed by the Trump administration’s reckless, ham-handed foreign policy. Last month, gratefully, those messages turned into expressions of relief and hope for the Biden administration. After having suffered a president who treated America’s oldest allies with contempt while embracing autocrats and adversaries, Europeans are looking forward to a more cooperative Washington under a Biden administration.
Now it’s time for the United States to send a message to its friends in Europe: The window of opportunity for reinvesting in the trans-Atlantic relationship is not indefinite. It is time, dear allies, to get your act together.
At the beginning of December, the European Union published an agenda for cooperation with the United States. It was a remarkably thoughtful and wide-ranging document, clearly not something that had been thrown together as these papers sometimes are, but rather the product of forward-looking policy-makers thinking about opportunities that a new U.S. administration might bring for joint action from climate change to technology policy to relations with China.
Then, just a few weeks later, news came out that the EU—led by Germany—was rushing to complete an investment agreement with China before U.S. President Joe Biden’s inauguration. The news precipitated an unusual tweet from incoming U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, the subtext of which was: “Could you please wait so that we can discuss a joint approach in just a few weeks?” Europe—oblivious or on purpose—pressed forward anyway.
Biden Eyes Career Diplomat as Top Envoy for Latin America
Brian Nichols, currently the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, has experience throughout Latin America.
President Joe Biden is considering nominating a seasoned career diplomat to be the top U.S. envoy for Latin America, several people familiar with the matter told Foreign Policy.
If named, Brian Nichols would become the Biden administration’s point person for U.S. relations with Latin American countries that became strained under Donald Trump, particularly Mexico and Central American countries amid the former president’s sharp crackdown on immigration and failed efforts to build a wall along the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Nichols would also be tasked with handling U.S. policy toward Cuba and Venezuela, some of the most politically sensitive foreign-policy issues for the new administration.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the expected appointment when asked by Foreign Policy, saying they had no personnel announcements at this time. Sources familiar with the matter stressed that Nichols’s nomination was not set in stone and required more paperwork and approval to work its way through the White House before a final decision was announced.
Nichols is one of a number of career foreign service officers being considered for senior leadership slots, including regional assistant secretary of state posts, in the State Department, current and former officials said. The Biden administration pledged to reempower career diplomats in a break from Trump, who viewed the State Department with distrust and disdain, once referring to it as the “Deep State Department.” The Trump administration broke historic precedent by not appointing any current foreign service officers to be regional assistant secretaries of state.
Nichols is the current U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe but has served across Latin America, including as ambassador to Peru and posts in Colombia, Mexico, and El Salvador. If tapped as assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, Nichols would be the first African American to be the top U.S. envoy to Latin America in over four decades.
He won praise in U.S. diplomatic circles for how he addressed the police killing of George Floyd, which sparked a wave of protests that spotlighted systemic racial injustice and police violence in the United States last year. Despite widespread international outcry, top Trump officials at the State Department were slow to respond.
“As an African American, for as long as I can remember I have known that my rights and my body were not fully my own,” Nichols wrote in a statement released by the embassy in Zimbabwe, at a time when many in the Trump administration had yet to address Floyd’s death or the protests. “In a long, unbroken line of black men and women, George Floyd gave the last full measure of devotion to point us toward a new birth in freedom.” In the statement, he highlighted Zimbabwean pro-democracy activists whom human rights groups said were killed by Zimbabwean security forces.
The Associated Press was first to report that Nichols was in the running for the senior State Department post, which would require presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.
In Venezuela, U.S.-led international efforts to oust President Nicolás Maduro from power amid the country’s humanitarian and political crisis hav