When Joe Biden came to office a year ago, there were a number of easy foreign policy victories he could have quickly claimed. He claimed none of them.
In Cuba, all Biden had to do was keep his promise.
While campaigning to be president, Biden said that he would “promptly reverse the failed Trump policies that have inflicted harm on the Cuban people and done nothing to advance democracy and human rights.”
But he didn’t keep his promise. Instead, he preserved and advanced Trump’s failed policies. He increased sanctions and support for dissident activists and regime change. He took steps toward keeping Cuba on the state sponsors of terrorism list, and he has maintained the blockade.
In Iran, all Biden had to do was reverse Trump’s broken promise.
But, instead of acting quickly and early to return the US to compliance and save the JCPOA nuclear agreement, Biden hesitated, increased sanctions instead of snapping back to compliance and refused to guarantee that the US wouldn’t break its promise again. Instead of building trust and achieving a significant early win, the new negotiations are weighted down by distrust and ripe with danger.
In Russia, all Biden had to do was keep the US and NATO’s promise.
In the current conflict in Ukraine, Putin is asking Biden to keep the promise the US repeatedly made at the close of the Cold War in 1990 that NATO would not expand east. As Putin recently said, “Sometimes it seems we are living in different worlds. They said they wouldn’t expand, but they are expanding.” Biden has refused to keep that promise.
Though the conflict seems so complex, failing first to avoid it and then to resolve it is a huge missed opportunity for Biden.
The immediate cause of the current crisis is the concern that Russia has moved as many as 100,000 troops to its western border with Ukraine, though “U.S. intelligence agencies haven’t concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin will invade Ukraine.”
Though little discussed, not only has the US intelligence community not concluded that Russia is massing for an invasion, Russian troop activity is behaving in a way that is inconsistent with US modeling of a Russian invasion. US intelligence had expected that, if Putin was planning to invade Ukraine, there would be a surge in the number of Russian troops near the Ukraine border, and the hostile presence would swell to 175,000. There has been no such surge. Instead of the increase in numbers consistent with a planned invasion, there has actually been a decrease of 10,000 troops.
It is NATO troops that have left their territory and marched to Russia’s very borders, surrounding Russia with guns by land, sea and air. Russia’s troops are stationed within their borders on Russian territory. Like the US or any country, Russia has the right to move its troops wherever it wants in its own country.
It is the US that has penetrated the Ukraine border, if not with troops, then with aid and arms. The US has provided Ukraine with hundreds of millions of dollars of "security assistance," including lethal weapons.
But they have also penetrated Ukraine with troops. Though only very rarely making the mainstream media and virtually never included in the discussion, the US actually has troops inside Ukraine. More than 150 US troops are in Ukraine in the role of "military advisors."
And it is not only the US but also its NATO subordinates that have troops in Ukraine. Operation UNIFIER is the name of the Canadian project to support and train Ukraine forces. Unlike NATO partners like Germany and France, Canada has strongly supported NATO expansion into Ukraine. In the meantime, Canada has expanded into Ukraine with a force of about 200 troops. Several other countries, including the UK, also have troops in Ukraine.
And the US has clandestinely been training more. The CIA is secretly training Ukrainian special operations forces in the US. The program started in 2015, after the coup in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea. The Trump administration expanded it, and, far from closing it down, the Biden administration has "augmented" it. And, once again inside Ukraine, CIA paramilitaries have gone to the front in eastern Ukraine, to the Russian border, to advise Ukrainian forces.
But, perhaps the biggest lost opportunity of all, is the opportunity Biden lost to resolve the crisis with Russia. The US is willing to do everything that Putin has asked it to do. The State Department has already informed Ukraine that NATO membership is unlikely at least for the next decade. And the US is pressuring Ukraine to grant the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine some autonomy.
But those two US moves are consistent with, or at least are rapidly approximating, Russia’s key demands. Consistent with the Minsk II agreement, negotiated in 2015 by Russia, Germany, France and Ukraine, the States is in favor of autonomy for the Donbas region; consistent with prior NATO promises and Russia’s key demand, the US is willing, at least for the foreseeable future, to withhold NATO membership from Ukraine.
Rather than agree to what both Russia and the US want and resolve the dangerous conflict, Biden is rejecting Putin’s security demands because the battle line over the US led unipolar world has been drawn at the Russia-Ukraine border. Putin finally drew a red line on that border and refused any longer to passively accept the inevitability of US actions and NATO encroachment closer and closer to Russia’s borders. That refusal began the candidacy of Russia as an alternative power in a multipolar world. To avoid what the US perceives to be a loss in that battle for global leadership, Biden is saying no to Russian demands that are approximately consistent with US wishes.
That refusal represents an historic lost opportunity to resolve the crisis over Ukraine.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.