Joe Biden

Joe Biden; illustration by John Springs

A profound global change shapes the foreign policy of the Biden administration. From the end of World War II until the past decade, the world saw the United States as unquestionably the greatest power, with a thriving democracy and an economy envied by all. That reputation is now gone. It didn’t disappear just in the last four years, but Donald Trump’s presidency accelerated the decline, wreaking havoc on long-standing US policies and practices, weakening what had been the unique strengths of alliances that stretched around the globe, and intensifying the sense of grievance, distrust of authority, and racial, cultural, and political polarization that now afflict American society.

China, the United States’ only near peer economically and militarily and its greatest foreign threat, now holds the view that the US is in a systemic decline, perhaps an irreversible one. Chinese president Xi Jinping makes no secret of his belief that the US has lost its confidence as an international leader and is not likely to regain it. This conviction shapes Beijing’s policies, including its growing military assertiveness in Asia, and is therefore in itself a threat to American interests. And Xi is not alone. Governments worldwide are watching the US skeptically or anxiously, wondering whether it can overcome its domestic problems and if commitments made by the current president will simply be reversed by his successor.

If Washington is going to lead again, says Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, the first question is: “Can the US get its house in order?” “More than any time in modern history,” he adds, “the world is watching US domestic policy.”

The 50–50 split in the Senate is another critical factor. Presidents must always trade off partisan interests, but it is quite a different thing to make policy when you cannot afford to lose a single vote in your own party. If President Biden is to hold the Democratic caucus together, he must keep senators’ eyes fixed on the need to act boldly at the federal level—to “go big”—despite their very different views on how to achieve particular goals. Thus far, he has been remarkably successful in doing so, but the unity is tenuous.

Within these limitations, and notwithstanding the delayed presidential transition and a troublingly slow pace of nominations below the cabinet level, Biden has gotten off to an exceedingly fast start. As the new international environment demands, he has prioritized domestic needs, with an emphasis on shaping policies that will demonstrate to Americans and the world how well the much-maligned federal government can deliver. In dealing with the pandemic, the US has gone in a matter of weeks from worst in the world among big countries (25 percent of the world’s cases and 19 percent of deaths among only 4 percent of the global population) to delivering the most vaccines. Biden met his doubled goal of administering 200 million shots in his first one hundred days and reached it well ahead of the deadline. In less than fifty days, Congress approved his $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, among the largest stimulus plans in US history. On day seventy-one, the president announced an even larger plan to rebuild neglected infrastructure, a $2.3 trillion “once-in-a-generation investment in America.” It has been a long time since a president has delivered not just a press release or a photo op but detailed legislative packages to Congress.

The infrastructure bill is to be paid for by raising the corporate tax rate from 21 to 28 percent, halfway back to where it was before the Trump tax cuts. It has also been a long time since an American president unapologetically proposed a tax increase. If approved, it would raise an estimated $2 trillion over fifteen years and demonstrate to financial markets the intention to control the huge rise in government debt that is underway. The administration’s international economic plans are even bolder. They include measures to eliminate international tax havens, a global minimum corporate tax rate of 21 percent to discourage companies from moving to countries where taxes are lowest, and an agreement to tax multinationals partly on their share of sales in each national market. Some of these measures would be hard, if not impossible, to enforce, and the chances of broad agreement among the major economic powers are slim, but if adopted they would amount to a major reform that promises substantial economic gain to all.

Geopolitically, Biden has taken easy though important steps to rejoin international organizations and agreements Trump walked away from (the Paris climate accord, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the World Health Organization, and the New START arms control treaty) and immediate action to restore crucial alliances in Europe and Asia. The latter move is the most notable. In March Biden convened the first-ever summit of the leaders of Japan, Australia, India, and the US—a group known as the Quad—converting a largely moribund informal arrangement into an active partnership of democracies, each of them a naval power, with a shared vision and commitment to act as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific. Playing China and Russia’s game of vaccine diplomacy, the Quad leaders announced a plan to jointly manufacture and deliver up to one billion Covid vaccine doses throughout Southeast Asia by the end of next year. Separately, Biden sent his secretaries of state and defense to Tokyo and Seoul to begin rebuilding bilateral US relations with these two pillars of its alliances in Asia in advance of the administration’s first meeting with Chinese officials. Underlining the point, Biden reserved his first in-person summit meeting for the prime minister of Japan.

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In part to free up attention and resources for Asia, Biden has moved to end two protracted wars in the Middle East. He withdrew American support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen that has produced little more than an atrocious level of human suffering. The decision to finally end America’s longest war—the twenty-year conflict in Afghanistan—by September 11 was much harder and, in the view of many, emphatically doesn’t belong on this list of early accomplishments. Critics point out that maintaining a force of only 2,500 troops is not a huge drain on US finances, and they foresee a terrible future for Afghanistan following US and NATO withdrawal: protracted civil war; collapse of an elected central government; eventual victory by the Taliban; the loss of civil, political, and human rights, especially for women; a flood of refugees; and possibly restoration of a haven for terrorists. They are probably right, though it should be within the US’s capability to prevent the last of these.

The questions none of the critics can answer, however, are: How much longer should the US stay in Afghanistan, and to what end? What could be accomplished in another year or two or ten that could not be achieved in the twenty years the US has already spent there? What could be achieved by 2,500 troops that couldn’t be accomplished by 100,000? The US has spent (and committed in forthcoming medical costs for its wounded troops) $2 trillion on a country whose government is ineffective and mired in corruption, whose people largely live in poverty, whose military cannot defend it, and where the Taliban has steadily gained ground over many years.

Biden was right to recognize that there is never a good time to end a war that hasn’t met its goals. It would have been easy, he said in his announcement, to decide “not now,” but “that’s how we got here.” Nevertheless, as conditions in Afghanistan worsen, his decision will be low-hanging fruit for political opponents. He showed himself, in making this call, to be willing to take a very large political risk for what he is convinced is the right course. He will now have to promptly grant visas to the thousands of Afghans who will be in danger because they aided the American war effort and ensure that American intelligence is equipped to know if foreign terrorist training camps reappear there in the years ahead.

Trump’s deference to Russian president Vladimir Putin was deeply harmful to US interests, encouraging a leader who is instinctively a bully to treat the US as a weakling. Biden obviously needed to dramatically alter the relationship. In doing so he scrupulously avoided any hint of a “reset,” instead adopting a standoffish attitude that carefully mixes positive and negative moves. He quickly extended the New START treaty for its maximum five years, to secure the most time to develop new ways of addressing arms control. On the other hand, he has signaled—though hasn’t confirmed—a decision not to rejoin the Open Skies Treaty, a thirty-four-country agreement whose members are allowed to perform short-notice overflights of the others’ territory to collect military intelligence, blaming his decision on Moscow’s repeated violations of the treaty.

Seemingly casually, in mid-March Biden agreed with a journalist’s description of Putin as a “killer.” As Moscow began a huge military buildup on Ukraine’s border, Biden sent unmistakable signals of support to Kiev, but then suggested that he and Putin might hold a summit sometime soon. In mid-April he imposed a package of sanctions targeting the Russian economy in retaliation for Russian interventions in the presidential election and for cyberhacking operations, explicitly naming the SVR intelligence service as responsible for the devastating SolarWinds intrusion into government and business computer networks. The package banned US financial institutions from buying Russian sovereign debt but refrained from extending the ban to secondary markets, holding that move in reserve depending on future Russian behavior.

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Biden’s message thus far seems to be that Washington will pursue agreements with Moscow when it deems them to be in its interest, but that Russia is a low priority for the US—a stance guaranteed to be infuriating to Putin, whose anger and punctured pride were on full display in his state-of-the-nation speech in late April. Biden makes plain that he will not allow Moscow to come between the US and its European allies. An administration spokesman describes the goal as a relationship that is merely “stable and predictable.” In short, Biden has been both tough and measured. He has set a low bar for the relationship, a sensible beginning that will eventually require further development.

Biden made action on climate—urgently cutting emissions and building a resilient economy to withstand the drastic changes already underway—a top priority throughout the 2020 campaign. Though the US had moved in the opposite direction for four years and therefore didn’t seem in any position to pretend to leadership, he promised to convene a multinational summit in his first hundred days to reinvigorate all countries’ efforts to reach the goal of the Paris climate accord—and on Earth Day he delivered. A Chinese official couldn’t resist noting that this was like a “a student playing truant getting back to class.” Few countries besides the US announced a goal of higher emission cuts, and in that sense the meeting was only a modest success. But it did give Biden a high-profile occasion to announce an enormously ambitious goal of cutting US emissions in half from their 2005 baseline by 2030. The funding and legal basis for the changes it would take to reach that target are embedded in the infrastructure bill, so the goal is largely aspirational unless that legislation is enacted. But the deadline of the meeting made it possible to galvanize multiple federal agencies to produce in just a few weeks a plan for what could be momentous change.

Set against this ample list of successes and promising beginnings are Biden’s policies toward Iran and China, where serious initial mistakes might still be salvaged or, in the worst case, end as tragedies. Biden made clear during the campaign that he thought Trump had made a terrible mistake when he withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran—known as the JCPOA—even though Tehran was in full compliance with its terms. Biden promised, if elected, to promptly rejoin the agreement. Trump did what he could to prevent that by not only reimposing the sanctions that had been lifted by the JCPOA but adding a tangled web of 1,500 additional sanctions. Nevertheless, his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran failed. After waiting for a year, Tehran began to violate more and more provisions of the agreement. The breakout time to an Iranian nuclear weapon shrank from over a year to a few months. And rather than diminishing under extreme economic pressure, noxious Iranian behavior in the region and toward the US increased.

With the change in administrations, both sides wanted to restore the JCPOA, but both faced strong domestic political opposition to doing so. Biden should have acted quickly, following a sequence of simultaneous steps he had already endorsed, known as “compliance for compliance,” in which Iran would return to the terms of the nuclear agreement and the US would lift the sanctions it had imposed in violation of them. Instead, he hesitated. The issue became a liability in confirmation hearings, in which new appointees had to sound tough. Soon the US position appeared to be that no sanctions would be lifted until Iran returned to full compliance. Tehran responded predictably, with verbal threats and increased levels of uranium enrichment. Weeks passed. Confusion grew. Trust between the parties, already at the bare minimum, drained to almost nothing. Slow and awkward talks began, mediated by the Europeans, who shuttled from hotel to hotel talking separately to each side. In mid-April Israel saw an opportunity to sabotage the talks with an attack on the Iranian enrichment facility at Natanz.

Finally, the US reversed itself and squarely offered to discuss lifting sanctions. The talks began to inch forward, though the sides are still negotiating what the actual negotiations will look like. Iran has a presidential election in June that will certainly delay the talks and could derail them. Israel may take further actions that would force Tehran to respond directly. Domestic opposition in either capital may pose an insurmountable stumbling block. What should have been a quick though difficult return to an already negotiated agreement is now a complex new negotiation with the outcome up in the air. It needn’t have been this way.

Biden’s greatest international challenge is to define a sensible US policy toward China. Convinced that the US is a declining power, Xi has felt free to increase repression at home and in Hong Kong without fear of US-led international opposition and to steadily increase military provocations, especially in the South China Sea. Not since formal relations between the US and the People’s Republic began more than forty years ago has the relationship been as discordant and unstable.

As a first step, Biden wisely put relations with China on hold, so to speak, while he made clear that the US would no longer be acting alone in Asia but would reestablish close relations with Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and other partners. On the economic front he unexpectedly chose to keep Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods in place indefinitely and described the relationship he planned with China as one of “strategic” (or, in one case, “extreme”) competition. The “strategic engagement” of past years is long gone. But the issue that threatens catastrophe concerns Taiwan.

Peace has been maintained between China and Taiwan for the past four decades, as the island has grown into an economic powerhouse and robust democracy through a delicate balance of ambiguities dubbed the One China policy. Nothing is more sacred to the Chinese government than the belief that “there is but one China,” Taiwan is a part of it, and reunification will eventually occur. Under various agreements and joint communiqués, the US “acknowledge[d]” the Chinese position without agreeing to it and in 1979 promised to sever official relations with Taipei. Since then, any meeting between US and Taiwanese officials, no matter how minor, has been a red line for Beijing. Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began such meetings. To the consternation of many, Biden has continued and, arguably, escalated them. On each occasion Beijing has responded with an incursion into Taiwanese airspace and other military actions. A delegation that included the US ambassador to Palau merited ten military aircraft. An agreement to establish a coast guard working group called forth twenty. An “unofficial” delegation of Biden’s close friend and former senator Chris Dodd, accompanied by two former deputy secretaries of state, prompted a six-day Chinese live-fire exercise in waters off Taiwan. Chinese ships and a US carrier strike group tail each other through the Taiwan Strait.

All this comes as warning signs grow in the three capitals. Taiwan’s president, whose party has no interest in discussing reunification with Beijing, was reelected a year ago in a landslide victory. China has accelerated its buildup of weapons designed for an invasion of Taiwan. And a debate has begun in Washington over whether to strengthen deterrence against a Chinese attack by removing the ambiguity over whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defense. Doing so could have that effect or it could have precisely the opposite one if China sees it as a provocation that demands a response. Even without that step, Washington’s apparent decision to weaken or undo the agreed-upon ban on official relations with Taipei has many experts foreseeing a downward spiral into active conflict.

No one doubts that if there is war between China and the US as their relationship enters a new, competitive phase, it will be over Taiwan. “It would be a serious mistake,” warned Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “to try to change the existing status quo by force.” In Chinese eyes the US appears to be trying to do this by diplomacy, which could be just as dangerous.

On three other top-priority issues, the administration has either said little or sent confusing signals. Immigration is one of them. Biden’s “don’t come now” message to asylum seekers on the southern border either didn’t register or was heard as an indication of a more welcoming stance. Border facilities were quickly overwhelmed by migrants, and the administration was forced to close them to the press, causing a political uproar. Vice President Kamala Harris was made point person for Mexico and the Central American countries from which most migrants come. Her initial weeks have been rocky. There was confusion as to whether she was to deal with immediate measures to stem the flow of migration or with long-term efforts to improve conditions in those countries. The White House’s “border czar,” Ambassador Roberta Jacobson, unexpectedly announced that she would soon step down. Whether this was in response to Harris’s appointment or she had planned for a short stay is unclear. Harris has not yet visited the border—an obvious political mistake whatever the particulars of her portfolio.

Biden then announced that due to the crush at the border, he would be keeping this year’s refugee intake at Trump’s historically low level of 15,000. Since asylum seekers at the border and refugees coming from abroad are unrelated categories, the linkage made no sense. Moreover, he had earlier notified Congress that he would impose a cap of 62,500. The announcement sparked a wave of opposition from Democrats. In the space of a few hours he reversed himself. The White House said it would have a new number within a month. Biden had promised to end the “moral and national shame” of the previous administration’s policies, but so far, on these vexing issues, he seems at sea.

On defense spending and nuclear issues there are few hints as to where this administration will eventually end up. Biden has proposed an essentially flat defense budget for fiscal year 2022 (or perhaps a slight decrease depending on inflation), disappointing those who know that the Pentagon budget, which received large increases during the Trump years, contains a great deal of fat that could be cut without harm—and with possible benefit—to national security.

On nuclear weapons neither appointments made to date nor policy announcements give an indication of whether President Biden intends to follow the view he held as vice-president, when he went out on a political limb to say that these weapons are only useful for deterrence and not for fighting wars, a policy that would have major consequences for the size and type of nuclear force the nation needs. He has said nothing about whether he intends to rethink what has become a nearly $2 trillion nuclear modernization plan, especially of the most dangerous, least useful weapons of the strategic triad: the stationary “use it fast or lose it” ICBM force. All of this may be a wise choice to protect his domestic priorities: a president, especially one with a razor-thin congressional majority, can only take on so much. His hesitancy on what have been issues of prime concern to him through much of his career is a surprise nonetheless.

Biden made the success of democracy a central theme of his campaign. He promised a global “Summit for Democracy” in his first year, by which time, he said, the steps he had taken to restore US democracy would be sufficient to inspire action by others. The expectation was and is highly unlikely. The use of “for” rather than “of” suggested a shrewd choice to sidestep the problem of who would be invited. Would Turkey qualify? Or Poland? Or the Philippines? What about the many countries that call themselves democratic but aren’t? By the first presidential press conference, however, the preposition had become “of.” He would invite, Biden said, “an alliance of democracies to come here to discuss the future.” There is no doubt of his passion about this. In his first international address, he avowed, “I believe with every fiber of my being that democracy must prevail.” But there are real questions about the wisdom of holding such a summit, both regarding the dilemmas associated with choosing participants and with the much larger issue of whether it is wise to frame international problem-solving around coalitions of democracies as opposed to others. There are far too many nondemocracies whose involvement is crucial to addressing the world’s major issues for such an approach to succeed.

In his first hundred days, in contrast to what has sometimes been his reputation in the past, Biden has shown himself to be decisive, bold, willing to take big risks, and politically deft. He has looked nothing like the low-key, transitional figure in the presidency that was widely predicted. So far, at least, he has been disciplined about sticking to a manageable number of priorities and keeping domestic initiatives at the fore. He has been smart about changing dozens of Trump policies while letting Trump himself settle into the background. He has assembled a team of experienced professionals whom he trusts and who work well together, although he has been slow to fill the hundreds of national security positions that require Senate confirmation. Unless the pace picks up, this will soon cripple the administration’s work.

The pace of policymaking, by contrast, has been extremely rapid and, by and large, sound. Biden has understood that relations with China—his biggest challenge—have to begin with a broad-based strengthening of US relations across Asia. However, his current direction on Taiwan, nearing red lines of the One China policy, risks disaster. His stumble over the Iran nuclear deal, seemingly now reversed, has been costly. If it does not prove retrievable, it will have been a huge loss with dangerous consequences for the region and the globe. Still, these misjudgments stand out against a sweep of good beginnings. They reveal a president in command of both the big picture and the tactical details of foreign affairs, and with the confidence to go against his military leadership on withdrawal from Afghanistan. Perhaps Biden was ready for the top job all along, or perhaps he has grown into the presidency in record time.

—April 26, 2021