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Biden’s Foreign Policy at Year One 

Biden’s Foreign Policy at Year One 
 Maya Kandel
Historian, Associate Researcher at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3 (CREW)

After a first look at Biden’s first year in office, this article follows up with an evaluation of his foreign policy. 

Disappointment, clarification, polarization

Foreign policy was supposed to be an asset of the Biden administration, which boasted a president with half a century of international experience, four decades in Congress and eight years as vice-president, as well as a competent team that had done its homework on the current crisis of American foreign policy. 

Broad continuities are already clear: the centrality of China, a more protectionist trade policy, and a confirmed disengagement from the Middle East - trends inherited from Trump, with some going back to Obama. However, implementation has been disappointing, whether in Afghanistan or the announcement of the AUKUS deal. 

The breaks with Trump are clear too: rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the WHO, restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority, and settling trade disputes with the EU. These insances are interesting as they also underscore a core problem for allies and partners: American foreign policy is growing more polarized, and policies tend to be reversed from one administration to the next, not only on the domestic front, but in international affairs as well. 

This polarization makes foreign policy more complicated, contributing to the discrepancy between stated intent and actual ability, and does more damage to American credibility than the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul. It also creates obstacles in an area in which the president usually has more leeway in dealing with Congress. Everyone, friend or foe, is watching the American domestic situation and drawing conclusions. The main inference is a lack of American credibility on the international stage, whether regarding the country’s international engagements, or recurring self-inflicted crises. 

Polarization of foreign policy and international credibility

Domestic and international issues are increasingly linked, both in the rhetoric of the Biden administration and in the real world. This is true in "foreign politics" as well: Republican Congressmen, including prominent Senators, no longer shy away from putting partisan politics before national interest. Domestic setbacks, on climate for example, and external crises are piling up, and many major foreign policy priorities are still under review, while vacancies remain numerous, whether in embassies or the Departments of State and Defense (although many positions were confirmed at the end of December). 

Even the existential threat is not clear: is it China, or climate change? 

More importantly, Biden and his foreign policy team have used fine foreign policy rhetoric, but failed to outline a clear strategic vision of their international agenda; some "slogans" seem contradictory or require prioritization: is it "a foreign policy for the middle class," or "a fight between democracy and autocracy?" Even the existential threat is not clear: is it China, or climate change? 

Moreover, many of these objectives depend on domestic legislation stalled in Congress, because of polarization or simply due to a dysfunctional political system with a Congress spending much time on self-inflicted crises, much less on legislation. In 2014, Bush and Obama's Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said that the greatest threat to the country came from internal political dysfunction. That threat has only grown with Trump, who governed by stoking internal divisions.

The outline and main issues

Biden promised to "fix foreign policy after Trump," and America is certainly back in the Paris Climate Agreement and in the WHO, in multilateral bodies and focused on global priorities (vaccine donations), as well as in new trade initiatives, such as the steel agreement signed with the EU, which contributes to strengthening the Transatlantic link. The same logic applies to Africa. However, on the trade front, the Trump legacy is holding fast, a sign of a changing era and of a new consensus adopting a more protectionist stance, made of tariffs and industrial policy; national preference has also been reaffirmed

Other continuities have been confirmed, some going back to the Obama administration: the Indo-Pacific is the regional priority of American foreign policy, with competition with China at its heart, and trade policy in line with Trump's. The main difference lies not in the substance nor in the objective, but rather in the implementation, with a willingness to put more means and resources into diplomacy and multilateralism. Yet it took seven months for a first official visit (Lloyd Austin then Kamala Harris), after Europe and the Middle East - and without Biden. Elsewhere, many ambassadorial positions are still vacant, and it took almost a year to get an American ambassador to Beijing.

The last three US presidents shared a desire to disengage from the Middle East, and it seems the Obama doctrine is finally being brought to fruition, facilitated by Trump via the Abraham Accords - thanks to the empowerment of regional players and via a policy that has been described as "pragmatic realism". However, on the Iranian nuclear issue, Trump's biggest mistake, the situation seems as of yet unresolved, running the risk of opening a nuclear arms race in the region. 

The biggest break with Trump - and a novelty compared to Obama - is a higher consideration of the EU as a partner, by choice and by necessity, to better face the growing economic and normative weight of China, and to co-manage the crises instigated by Russia. The challenges posed by economic issues and technological standards at stake will impact the future on both sides of the Atlantic; however, the window for cooperation in cases where this would also serve European interests may be short. 

The biggest break with Trump - and a novelty compared to Obama - is a higher consideration of the EU as a partner, by choice and by necessity.

Moscow is back to haunt Washington and prove Mitt Romney right. Biden wanted to stabilize the relationship with Russia so that he could focus his efforts elsewhere. This is precisely what Putin does not want: his obsession with status seems to be one of his primary motivations, at a time when his partnership with Beijing is only growing stronger. 

On China, continuity with Trump is striking - albeit without the "civilizationalist" rhetoric. However, competition is not an end in itself, and many uncertainties remain, especially when it comes to an actual economic and trade strategy that would counterbalance the military focus. Kurt Campbell, the powerful Coordinator for Indo-Pacific Affairs on the NSC, insisted on the importance of cooperation with Beijing on climate issues in early January. The virtual summit between Biden and Xi Jinping, shortly after COP26 in Glasgow, also demonstrated a converging desire on both sides to ease tensions in the bilateral relationship - in order for both leaders to focus on domestic priorities. 

To conclude this brief overview: it is obviously too early to evaluate a president’s foreign policy; long-term initiatives, such as the Summit for Democracy, have only just been launched. Other efforts are commendable, though less noticed, such as the Biden administration’s review of sanctions, in terms of approach (multilateral rather than unilateral) and objectives (human rights and democracy rather than "maximum pressure").

2022: international crises, domestic legislation, and midterms

As always, events will in large part determine the Biden administration’s foreign policy. Much will also be determined by domestic political choices, and the world will continue to look at Senator Joe Manchin’s choices. Midterm elections will soon disrupt, then end, all legislative action in Congress. The impact could be felt on climate legislation, but also on many other pending legislation, from antitrust to the Innovation and Competition Act, which would fund R&D and industrial policy in cutting-edge sectors now dominated by China. 

Even if Republicans only win the House of Representatives, potential Speaker Kevin McCarthy has already vowed an agenda of "revenge," which does not bode well for the rest of the Biden presidency: presidential and executive time could be disrupted, or overrun, by the horde of announced investigations and impeachment proceedings. Until then, new domestic political crises related to budget, debt, sanctions, or internal political violence cannot be excluded. All of these factors will continue to distract Washington's attention, resources and will from the rest of the world. 



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