President Biden has moved swiftly to reassure allies from Europe to Asia that America has their back, but when it comes to sharpening U.S. policy toward adversaries and enemies, the administration’s first 100 days have proved far from game-changing.
Mr. Biden has yet to formulate a clear North Korea policy, his pursuit of talks with Iran has stumbled at the opening gate, his China policy largely preserves the tariffs and tough rhetoric that President Trump put into place, and critics say he is already a step behind in the grand strategy dance with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Two major foreign policy developments worth highlighting at the traditional presidential milestone measuring stick — the decision to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the effort to solidify U.S.-Japan-Australia-India “Quad” cooperation against China — build on policies Mr. Trump pushed vigorously in the four years leading up to Mr. Biden’s arrival in the White House.
But the Biden administration’s supporters, including an Atlanticist foreign policy establishment largely appalled by Mr. Trump’s blunt “America First” agenda, have spent the past three months toasting the end of what many lamented as his rhetorically combative and strategically unpredictable “foreign policy by Twitter” approach.
Although the Biden approach is calmer, it remains to be seen what the administration’s lasting mark will be. Analysts say Mr. Biden’s impact so far has been more about ideology than action.
Mr. Biden harvested some low-hanging fruit early in his presidency: The U.S. has rejoined in the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord. Washington and Moscow beat a deadline to extend the expiring New START arms control treaty for another five years. The Pentagon has rescinded Mr. Trump’s ban on transgender troops and reversed his planned drawdown of American troops in Germany.
Mr. Biden sought to put an exclamation point on the new U.S. diplomatic approach in his speech to Congress on Wednesday. He declared that the world is at “a great inflection point in history,” with American democracy in “competition” against autocratic powers of the world to “win the 21st century.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping and others are “autocrats,” Mr. Biden said, and they “think democracy can’t compete in the 21st century with autocracies because it takes too long to get consensus.”
Mr. Biden also defended his Russia policy by asserting that he has made President Vladimir Putin understand that Washington does not seek escalation with Moscow but will not ignore Russian provocations, its intimidation of neighbors including Ukraine, or its treatment of political dissidents such as imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Mr. Biden worked with Mr. Putin during his first 100 days on the New START pact, but he has also levied sanctions against Russians over the Kremlin’s meddling in U.S. elections and the SolarWinds cyberattacks on U.S. public and private computer networks.
In what he described as a two-hour call, Mr. Biden said Wednesday that he also directly raised concerns with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Hong Kong, human rights abuses against Uyghur and other ethnic minorities in China’s western Xinjiang province, and Beijing’s actions toward Taiwan. He justified much of his unprecedentedly expensive domestic agenda on the need to preserve American global leadership in the face of fast-rising China.
But his approach has differed stylistically and substantively from that of Mr. Trump, who was prone to surprise foreign policy actions that left allies and adversaries off guard and forced to react. Weeks after his election, Mr. Trump made a historic phone call to Taiwan’s president, a nuanced move that sent a clear message that his administration would not respect traditional diplomatic niceties in its dealings with the pro-democracy island.
In some ways, Mr. Biden has yet to soften the tone and policies of his predecessor. Pentagon officials have warned of a surge in Chinese military activity around Taiwan, coinciding with Mr. Biden’s first few months in office.
In the Middle East, meanwhile, Mr. Biden’s approach earns a large incomplete grade. His appointees have prioritized an unsuccessful bid to draw Iran back into compliance with the Obama-era nuclear deal that Mr. Trump repudiated in 2018. Hopes of a quick return to the status quo ante have been slowed drastically by domestic complications in Tehran and Washington, leading to drawn-out, “indirect” talks seeking a pathway for both sides back to compliance.
Mr. Trump made Saudi Arabia a centerpiece of his Middle East strategy, but Mr. Biden has criticized the longtime strategic ally for the death of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi, even as the White House faced some criticism for declining to specifically hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly responsible, despite U.S. intelligence claims that the prince approved the hit.
The Biden administration also quickly withdrew U.S. military backing for the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen’s civil war and reversed the Trump administration’s determination that Yemen’s Iranian-backed, anti-Saudi Houthi rebels were terrorists.
Mr. Biden also has come through on his campaign promise to recognize World War I-era atrocities against Armenians as a “genocide,” a move that has outraged Turkey and one that Mr. Trump and other past presidents refused to make.
But a move to enlist Central American countries to deal with a crush of migrants to the U.S. border — a job Mr. Biden asked Vice President Kamala Harris to lead — has been slow to produce concrete results. Hemispheric challenges under Mr. Trump, including dealing with anti-U.S. regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have largely been left on auto-pilot as Mr. Biden focused on other priorities.
A focus on climate
One marked change in Mr. Biden’s foreign policy likely cannot be fully judged for at least a decade or two. In a total about-face from its predecessor, the administration has put the issue of global climate change front and center on its foreign policy agenda by rejoining the Paris Agreement and describing collective greenhouse gas reduction efforts as an area where the U.S. and adversaries — most notably China — can work together.
As promised, Mr. Biden hosted a virtual gathering this month of 40 major world leaders, including Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin, while announcing a major upgrade in U.S. emissions reduction targets in the coming decade.
The results so far are debatable at best. Mr. Xi last week reaffirmed China’s intention to increase emissions through 2030 before starting to move to zero net emissions by the second half of the century. He was clinging to the Trump administration’s justification for withdrawing from the Paris Agreement.
U.S.-Chinese relations deteriorated badly in the pandemic-shadowed final year of Mr. Trump’s term, but Beijing’s pattern of defiance has not changed with Mr. Biden. A meeting of senior U.S. and Chinese diplomats in Alaska in late March was notable mostly for the undiplomatic tone of the public sessions, and Beijing has dramatically increased its purchases of embargoed Iranian crude oil in recent months despite U.S. sanctions still on the books.
China’s state-controlled press has maintained a steady drumbeat of criticism targeting Washington, including its “hypocrisy” on human rights and its “Indo-Pacific” strategy that Beijing condemns as a means to rally regional support to contain China’s rise.
At the same time, Beijing has been pushing to seize the global public relations high ground against Washington on COVID-19. China has rejected any criticism about its early handling of the outbreak and has contrasted its low official death tolls compared with those of the U.S. and Europe. It also has strategically highlighted its COVID-19 vaccine deliveries to countries in need around the world while the U.S. has focused on vaccinating Americans first.
Mr. Biden appeared to be responding to that criticism Wednesday night in his speech. He told Congress that as the U.S. vaccine supply grows, it will “become an arsenal for vaccines for other countries, just as America was the arsenal for democracy for the world, and in consequence influenced the world.”
Mr. Biden spent more than three decades in the Senate, once chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has old foreign policy alliances with lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill. But some leading Republicans have stopped pulling punches and say they are uneasy about the course of American foreign policy in the first months of Mr. Biden’s term.
“I like Joe Biden, [but] he’s been a disaster on foreign policy,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in an interview this week with Fox News.
“He’s opening up negotiations with the Iranian regime, and they haven’t done a damn thing to change. Afghanistan’s going to fall apart. Russia and China are already pushing him around, so I’m very worried,” Mr. Graham said.
There are also major questions about the North Korea policy, which has been stagnant since direct denuclearization talks stalled after Mr. Trump’s second historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in February 2019.
The Biden administration, which has yet to name a special envoy for North Korea or nominate an ambassador to South Korea, said it has sought reengagement with the Kim regime but has been rebuffed.
Speculation has been surging in the interim that the Kim regime may be preparing provocations, including possible submarine-launched ballistic missile tests, aimed at cutting the legs out from whatever strategy the Biden administration announces after months of trying to keep the knotty problem of North Korea on the back burner.
Perhaps Mr. Biden’s most decisive strategic decision — his pledge to have all American troops out of Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — has drawn criticism and concern from both sides of the aisle.
Most of it is rooted in fears of a Taliban surge once the Americans leave, but there are also concerns that a full withdrawal will weaken the Pentagon’s ability to track and target extremists in Afghanistan and that the U.S.-backed government in Kabul will prove no match for the Islamist Taliban insurgency.
Mr. Biden rejected that notion Wednesday night by asserting that the United States will “maintain over the horizon the capacity to suppress future threats,” which he said have “evolved way beyond Afghanistan.” He said al Qaeda and Islamic State operations are more active today in “Yemen, Syria, Somalia [and] other places in Africa and the Middle East and beyond.”
Some warn that the Biden administration is ceding regional dominance to China, Russia and Iran by withdrawing from Afghanistan, setting into motion a strategic scramble among regional powers eager to benefit from the vacuum that the American and NATO pullout will leave in its wake.
Europe: Relief and resistance
Critics say Mr. Biden’s willingness to telegraph his foreign policy moves risks undermining strategic leverage that his administration might have had on multiple fronts, including with allies in Europe.
Many Democrats claim traditional trans-Atlantic ties were seriously damaged by Mr. Trump’s demand that NATO member nations pay more for their own defense and back up the U.S. harder line against China.
Mr. Trump’s willingness to levy tariffs on European producers also led to a string of trade tensions and retaliatory moves, but Mr. Biden’s evident desire to change course may end up weakening the U.S. bargaining position.
“The Biden administration has emphasized so much that it wants to recommit to those alliances with Europeans, that actually the Biden administration has no leverage over, you know, the EU and Germany, even when they’re pursuing interests which are opposed to American interests,” Hans Kundnani, a senior fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House, said in a recent webinar hosted by the London think tank.
He cited the refusal by the government of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to back down in the face of Mr. Biden’s clear signal opposing the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline project with Russia and the EU’s decision to proceed with a substantial investment agreement with China despite Washington’s reservations.
In NATO, however, there is near-open embrace of the Biden administration’s lower-key approach after Trump combativeness, which alliance supporters said was unproductive because it gave Russia a strategic edge. Some suggest that the more collaborative tone in relations between the world’s leading democracies will give Mr. Biden a boost beyond the first 100 days on the broader global stage.
“Despite a packed domestic agenda, Biden has made great strides to restore the United States’ determined global leadership. The world needed it,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary-general and the CEO of Rasmussen Global, told Foreign Policy.com.
He said “the big tests are still ahead” but added that the Biden administration has already coordinated “more closely with allies, from Secretary of State Blinken’s intensive conversations with European Union foreign ministers to Biden’s virtual appearance at the Munich Security Conference and first-ever summit meeting of the Indo-Pacific Quad.”
“This administration has set out clearly where it stands on some critical fault lines between freedom and autocracy, including on Taiwan and Ukraine,” he said. “NATO is also finally in a position to move on and build its new strategic concept without having to worry about presidential tweets and tantrums. However, Washington’s European allies are also under no illusion that Biden will go soft on their commitments to spend more on defense.”