Joe Biden has been president for two months. Only 46 months to go, unless he is reelected. In fact, he teased the media at his press conference, suggesting that he likely would run for reelection, though he insisted that prospect was too far in the future for him to consider today.
The biggest change from his predecessor is the calm which has descended upon Washington, D.C. Days go by without thinking about Biden. After four years of Donald Trump, the atmosphere seems so … normal.
However, U.S. foreign policy hasn’t changed much.
A fixture in the nation’s capital for almost a half century, Biden views himself as a foreign policy maven. And he certainly knows the players. As variously Senator, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presidential candidate, and vice president, he was involved in many of the most of the important foreign policy decisions made since he arrived in Washington in January 1973.
The result has not been pretty. Of course, he isn’t responsible for all that has happened. But he has committed more than his share of whoppers. Indeed, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates wrote that Biden "has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades." That may be slightly exaggerated, but not much.
Biden always was an enthusiastic interventionist. Years ago when he was "only" a Senator we were on CNN and he got agitated over my argument for withdrawing from one foreign conflict or another. He was an inveterate social engineer who couldn’t imagine America not being involved in every controversy and problem abroad.
He favored the Balkans interventions, in which the US, guided by the principle that the Serbs were always wrong, variously backed or opposed ethnic insurgents, country breakups, and boundary changes. He also supported NATO expansion up to the new Russian borders and treated Moscow as a dire threat to America in its conflicts with Georgia and Ukraine, which are not alliance members and matter little to US security. In fact, he supported putting American forces almost everywhere, never finding an alliance that he didn’t want Washington to join, enhance, strengthen, or subsidize.
He voted for the Iraq War, the most important single foreign policy mistake in the last 20 years. He was better on Afghanistan, opposing the Obama administration’s double buildup. He reportedly opposed the Libya intervention as well. On other issues he was conventionally bad, such as subordinating US interests to the demands of Israel’s government.
During the 2020 campaign he resisted any foreign policy concessions to progressives. He moved sharply left on economic and domestic issues but remained a militarized social engineer on international issues. Obviously, he wasn’t inclined to abandon what he saw as his new and improved opportunity to micro-manage the world.
Perhaps worse, he and almost all the foreign policy professionals around him are charter members of the Blob, the foreign policy establishment centered in Washington, DC and New York City. Although they disagree on many issues at the margin, they are largely united in their view that social engineering is the raison d’etre of America’s creation, that there is no problem on earth that is not properly solved by the US, meaning them.
Although he’s only got two months on the job, so much could still change, the initial tidings are not positive. There are the good, the bad, and the ugly.
- A return to the sort of formal civility and understated hypocrisy that normally characterizes diplomacy. Although President Trump’s over-the-top rhetoric and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s ostentatious sanctimony were at times sources of levity, these attributes often interfered with even normal contact among countries. The behavior also undercut occasionally sound positions, such as Trump questioning the sacred status automatically accorded NATO. Foreign leaders need not be friends by any normal definition, but smoother national relations are likely if leaders treat each other with at least nominal respect and courtesy.
- Recognition, half-hearted though it might be, that Saudi Arabia should not be coddled and sheltered from criticism for egregious violations of international law abroad and human rights. Presidents Barack Obama and Trump made Americans accomplices to multiple war crimes through their backing of the Kingdom’s murderous assault on Yemen, characterized by direct attacks on civilian targets and a starvation blockade. Trump and Pompeo ostentatiously ignored Riyadh’s crimes against its own people. Although the Biden administration did not live up to the president’s promise to treat the royal regime as a "pariah," at least the US secretary of state has stopped publicly genuflecting to the Saudi crown prince before considering Mideast policy.
- Foreign policy by tweet is ancient history. Although Trumpian tweetstorms created endless topics for the commentariat, they did not help make a more peaceful and prosperous world. They were especially harmful when applied to complicated issues that warranted serious attention and careful rhetoric. Eventually the president’s comments were not treated seriously, which created a different set of complications.
That’s a fairly limited set of positives for Biden after following perhaps the most controversial, squalid, and inept administration in American history. Unfortunately, the bad is much more substantial:
- The Biden administration is advancing the idea of a "foreign policy for the middle class," frequently presented by Jake Sullivan before he became national security adviser. The approach is well-intentioned, in the sense that it recognizes many Americans do not believe that US actions overseas reflect their interests. However, the analysis threatens to turn foreign policy decisions into a gaggle of financial calculations – and not good ones, since the administration seems generally hostile to free trade, which increases prosperity and jobs overall. More fundamentally, the most important foreign policy actions typically affect far more than the material well-being of one group of Americans. For instance, sanctions on Iran, war in Afghanistan, criticism of Chinese human rights abuses, and policy toward North Korea have little to nothing to do with the middle class as such. If the administration wants a simple metric, better would be a foreign policy directed at preserving peace.
- Preparing to break the Afghanistan deal with the Taliban. After nearly 20 years, the only sensible policy in Central Asia is to leave. The US has no vital interests at stake. The Taliban only wants to rule its country, not fight America. The regional powers – which include Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and Iran – can and should take over efforts to promote stability in Afghanistan. America has not been able to establish a strong central government and democratic political order in a country that has never had one. It is time to leave Afghanistan’s many problems to the Afghan people and their neighbors.
- Treating Saudi Arabia as a necessary security partner. Although the administration has ended support for what it calls offensive operations against Yemen, officials nevertheless profess themselves committed to the Kingdom’s defense. Yet Yemeni attacks on targets in Saudi Arabia are retaliation for Riyadh’s continued prosecution of the war. The latter could best seek peace by simply exiting the conflict. The US should do nothing to support prosecution of an unnecessary, aggressive war.
- Retaining an Israel-centric approach to the Middle East. Despite the rise of progressives within the Democratic Party, Biden and the party establishment continue to prioritize maintaining support from Israel backers and thus largely dismiss the mistreatment of Palestinians. However, Israel, a regional superpower with nuclear weapons, is well able to defend itself. Washington should consider the interests of the involuntary residents of Israeli-controlled territory to be at least as important as the demands of Israel’s increasingly radical, right-wing governments.
- Heading toward confrontation with North Korea. Dealing with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is never easy. Nevertheless, the Trump administration demonstrated that even a commitment to diplomacy would not work if the demands were unrealistic, in this case that the North denuclearize before receiving any benefits for doing so. Although the Biden administration’s review is ongoing, the president’s statement at his press conference was unsettling. He indicated that engagement "has to be conditioned upon the end result of denuclearization." Most analysts believe that to be very unlikely – Pyongyang believes that only nuclear weapons are certain to deter US military action. Yet diplomacy could still produce more limited but beneficial arms control and reduce tensions, thereby making ultimate denuclearization at least conceivable, if not likely.
- Taking a needlessly confrontational position toward China that risks turning a political and economic challenge into a cold or hot war. The administration has yet to develop, let alone articulate, a comprehensive policy toward Beijing but appears to be moving in a worrisome direction. The food fight in Anchorage might have been theater for the respective publics – the Xi regime used it to win nationalism points at home – but seems to represent the two governments’ general perspectives. The administration is pushing military confrontation in the Asia-Pacific, even though the People’s Republic of China does not directly threaten US security. While Washington naturally supports the independence of friendly states, they should take responsibility for deterring Chinese aggression, which remains unlikely, at least other than against Taiwan. The administration’s repeated promises to defend Japanese control over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands risk war with a nuclear power over a handful of useless rocks and discourage Tokyo from making any concessions over contested territory. Another problem is the administration’s push for industrial policy at home, which would use the PRC as an excuse for a dubious program to further politicize the American economy. The administration correctly sees a need for international cooperation to respond to China, but even the Europeans are not inclined to join an anti-PRC crusade. Americans should approach Beijing with confidence, not fear.
Then there is the ugly:
- Fawning over every alliance, big or small. Unfortunately, the president treats military allies like Facebook friends: the more the better, irrespective of their value. Alas, adding such security midgets as Montenegro and North Macedonia gives America no benefit. No doubt Biden also would include Kosovo, Bosnia, and even the Duchy of Grand Fenwick if given the chance. Although international cooperation makes sense, doing for other nations what they can and should do themselves does not. For instance, the Europeans have roughly 11 times the economic strength and three times the population of Russia, their most plausible adversary. Why aren’t they defending themselves? Because the US is willing to do it for them, of course. Similarly, if Japan fears Chinese or North Korean aggression, why does it spend barely one percent of GDP on the military? Because America is committed to doing the job. Unfortunately, Washington has turned alliances into defense welfare for populous and prosperous friends. Biden & Co. seem determined to make this problem even worse.
- Maintaining a Russo-phobic perspective. Earlier this year Biden singled out Russia as America’s enemy. He has vastly inflated a manageable challenge and demonized a potential partner. Vladimir Putin may be a soulless killer, as the president claimed, and the Russia leader certainly is no friend of America, but Moscow does not threaten the US, which enjoys overwhelming economic and military advantages. Russia’s treatment of Ukraine has been terrible but reflects arrogant missteps by the US and Europe. Washington and Brussels should search for a modus vivendi with Moscow, allowing cooperation on a range of issues. Particularly important is to stop pushing Russia toward China.
- Continuing the Trump administration’s "maximum pressure" campaign on Iran. Candidate Biden promised to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or nuclear deal, but since has insisted that Tehran return to compliance before the US does so. Both countries need to act, and Iran makes the sensible point that it was America which dropped out of the agreement. Iran then took revocable steps, which it is willing to reverse once the US acts. The administration also is continuing the Trump military campaign, bombing Iranian-backed forces in Syria to retaliate for alleged attacks by Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, from which American forces should long ago have been withdrawn. Much has poisoned the bilateral relationship. Trump’s policy of "maximum pressure" turned out to be a spectacular disaster, leaving Iran closer to developing nuclear weapons, more truculent in dealing with its neighbors, with a more hardline Islamist parliament, and under the control of more resolute authorities wielding more effective tools of repression. With Iranian presidential elections upcoming, the administration risks a further political turn in Iran that could lead to a return to confrontation, which would not be in either country’s interest, or that of the region.
President Biden has time to correct his early mistakes. However, he must both recognize and address them. Yet having surrounded himself with Blob members, he is likely to hear little other than fairly predictable calls to standard liberal interventionism. In which case not much is likely to change, at least until the first international disaster lands in the Oval Office.
Biden should focus on promoting peace and prosperity for the American people, with a general commitment to the good of all. He should eschew attempts at global social engineering, which foreign peoples hate as much as would Americans under the same circumstances. Realism, in both its standard and academic meaning, as well as humility and restraint should guide his actions. He should learn from his mistakes, the many in the past and those that inevitably will occur in the future. Most of all, he should be willing to say no when urged to intervene yet again in conflicts not America’s own. He was elected to lead the US, not remake the world.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.