Joe Biden promised the world that he was "opening a new era of relentless diplomacy." Either those were just words or Biden has lost control of his foreign policy. Rather than the birth of diplomacy, the first sixteen months of Biden’s term in office have seen a dearth of diplomacy. On all the major issues, there has been none, and often worse than none.
The US has been a non-participant in any of the talks on the war in Ukraine. Antony Blinken, the US chief diplomat, has not spoken to his Russian counterpart once since the war began. Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent, told me that "the US is clearly not interested in peace negotiations." Retired ambassador Chas Freeman went further in a personal correspondence, calling it "the opposite of statecraft and diplomacy."
The State Department, the font of diplomacy in Washington, has instead found itself in what should be the impossible position of calling for impeding diplomacy. State Department spokesperson Ned Price seemed to discourage diplomacy when he said, "Now we see Moscow suggesting that diplomacy take place at the barrel of a gun or as Moscow’s rockets, mortars, artillery target the Ukrainian people. This is not real diplomacy. Those are not the conditions for real diplomacy." The State Department has also discouraged Ukraine from negotiating the key issue of the war, that Ukraine not join NATO, because "this is a war that is in many ways bigger than Russia, it’s bigger than Ukraine."
In what should have been a bombshell report, the Ukrainian paper Pravda says that on April 9, "as soon as" Ukraine and Russia, "following the outcome of Istanbul, had agreed on the structure of a future possible agreement in general terms, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared in Kyiv almost without warning."
Johnson demanded that Putin "should be pressured, not negotiated with." He told Zelensky that, even if Ukraine was ready to sign some agreements with Russia, the West was not. He said that the war presents a chance to "press" Putin and that the West wanted to use it, according to one of Zelensky’s "close associates."
Though it cannot be said for certain, it is unlikely that America’s most loyal Western European ally was going rogue with a message of his own unique to the UK. His message about not negotiating is consistent with State Department statements, and his message about pressing Putin is consistent with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s redefined war goal of wanting to see "Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine".
The Biden administration acknowledges that it was not Iran, but the US, that is to blame for the death of the successful Iran JCPOA nuclear agreement. Blinken called the Trump administration’s "decision to pull out of the agreement" a "disastrous mistake." Biden, while campaigning, said that Trump "recklessly tossed away a policy that was working to keep America safe and replaced it with one that has worsened the threat." He promised to "offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy."
But he was very slow to act on that offer. 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, incredibly, refused to guarantee that the US wouldn’t break its promise again.
Once again, with a possible negotiated solution a possibility, US diplomacy, rather than giving life to the negotiated settlement, put it in a comma. It is the Europeans, not the Americans, who are pressing a last minute effort to resuscitate it. An open letter signed by over forty influential European officials, including former IAEA director-general Hans Blix and former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, has implored the US to “swiftly show decisive leadership and requisite flexibility to resolve the remaining issues of political (not nuclear) disagreement with Tehran.”
The letter expresses “growing concern” that with “a final text [that] is essentially ready and on the table, . . . negotiations to restore Iranian compliance with, and U.S. return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) appear to have entered a period of stasis that threatens to undo the real and welcome progress made in recent months toward reinstating a non-proliferation achievement that is crucial for international peace and security.”
As the US sits in the waiting room, watching the nuclear agreement die, it is not the State Department, but the European Union’s Iran nuclear talks coordinator, Enrique Mora, who is rushing to Iran for a last attempt to save it.
It is not just on the two big headline stories that US diplomacy is absent or worse.
As with Iran, while campaigning to be president, Biden promised 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.”
Sixteen months later, the biggest diplomatic achievement Biden’s administration can boast of on Cuba is reopening the consular section of the US embassy in Cuba to resume limited processing of Cuban visa requests and holding talks on migration.
Aside from that opening, Biden has eschewed diplomacy with Cuba, voting against the near unanimous UN resolution to finally end the blockade on Cuba, and refusing to lift the restrictions on remittances to Cuba that make it impossible for Cuban Americans to send money home to their families. He has also listed Cuba as a country "not cooperating fully with United States anti-terrorism efforts.”
Biden has even exceeded the Trump administration by increasing sanctions on several senior Cuban officials in the military and police. Most significantly, Cuba expert William LeoGrande reports that the US embassy in Havana “has taken a leading role supporting dissident activists, pushing the boundaries of what’s normally allowed under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.” Cuban journalist Rosa Miriam Elizalde reports that “in September, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) gave $6,669,000 in grants for projects aimed at ‘regime change’ in Cuba.”
As with Iran and Cuba, while campaigning to be president, Biden called the Trump administration’s policy on Venezuela "an abject failure." He has made the positive move of ruling out military action on Venezuela, but he has not eased the deadly sanctions that have caused tens of thousands of deaths.
On May 2, Blinken, once again, spoke with coup leader Juan Guaidó and, once again, reiterated US support "for Guaidó as the Interim President of Venezuela." That is a coup, not diplomacy.
Facing shortages of oil due to sanctions on Russia, there was the possibility that some good could come from the US’s pragmatic decision to return to Venezuela for preliminary talks on easing oil sanctions on Venezuela. However, the oil talks and the diplomacy were killed by hostility from congress led by Senators Marco Rubio, Rick Scott and Bob Mendez.
When discussing the discussions with Maduro, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki first reiterated that "we don’t recognize [him] . . . as the leader of Venezuela" and then cautioned reporters that "as you are assessing how to spend your energies in this time of a lot of news in the world, I would not focus a lot of them on conversations about the future of the United States importing oil at this point in time . . . from Venezuela." Since then, the State Department has said that the only talks with Maduro will be talks about democracy in Venezuela.
Biden’s continued backing of Guaidó and rejection of democracy is swimming against the international tide and the desires of the region. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has asked Biden to invite "all the countries of the America’s to receive and invitation, without excluding anyone," to a Summit of the America’s to be held in the US. On May 8, he reiterated that he intends to emphasize to Biden that “Nobody should exclude anyone" after Western Hemisphere Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said "Cuba, Nicaragua, the [Nicolás] Maduro regime [in Venezuela] do not respect the Inter-American Democratic Charter, and therefore I don’t expect their presence. . . . They will not receive invitations." Steve Ellner reports that President Guillermo Lasso of Ecuador is considering re-establishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela. Argentina has re-established diplomatic relations with Venezuela and has urged other countries in the region to do the same. Even the European Union stopped recognizing Guaidó as the interim president of Venezuela over a year ago.
Though the Biden administration has announced a new approach to North Korea that "is open to and will explore diplomacy," it has, so far, seemed to have done nothing. Biden told Congress that the new approach is a combination of "diplomacy as well as stern deterrence." But Biden has not even taken the first step of appointing a special negotiator for North Korea.
Despite Biden’s promise that his would be the administration of "relentless diplomacy," the first sixteen months of that administration, from Russia to Iran to Cuba and Venezuela and North Korea, has seen, not only a dearth of diplomacy, but even an active discouraging of democracy.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.