America is (sorta) back
Biden charts a new foreign policy course in choppy international waters without a clear narrative or a steady compass
“America is back” is the foreign policy mantra Biden repeated in 2021 to signal that a new captain was at the helm, tacking away from the Trump administration’s “America First” approach. But as the first year draws to a close, the destination Biden charts towards remains uncertain and the ship he skippers suffers from major engine troubles and structural damage.
Biden’s first year in foreign policy has been mixed, like most presidents. No single signature foreign policy achievement stands out, beyond a new tone and style that prioritized rebuilding alliances with longstanding partners in Europe and Asia. This partly reflects the nature of the fragmented world and the problems it faces today – no quick hit wins are apparent. It also shows how Biden’s first year has been heavily focused on dealing with dual domestic crises of the pandemic and its economic fallout – both continuing to strain America in 2021’s closing days.
Biden’s foreign policy has left divided impressions at home and abroad. Nearly 6 in 10 Americans (59 percent) disapprove of Biden’s handling of foreign affairs, reflecting broader political trends at home in 2021. Although America’s image in many parts of the world bounced back during the transition from Trump to Biden, serious doubts remain about whether America and its democratic system remains a good example for the rest of the world.
The biggest challenges facing America’s ability to influence events overseas remain on the home front, especially chronic questions about the stability of America’s own political system. 2021 began in America with an insurrection and violent attack on the U.S. Congress, a shocking event that left a mark. Tectonic plates continue to shift in the world at a time of grave uncertainty about the health of America’s own political system – and doubts about whether any commitments made by America to the rest of the world will stick after Biden leaves office.
Factors that Biden and his team have more control over are the ones that can be addressed more quickly: the lack of a clear narrative for its foreign policy as America drifts through uncharted waters globally and unforced management errors in policy implementation. A curious mix of strategic groupthink and a lack of tactical and operational coordination among the Biden team has prevented its foreign policy from being all that it can be in its first year. As a result, some solid progress on critical issues such as the economy are blended with unnecessary blunders like the Afghanistan withdrawal and mistaken theories of particular cases like Iran that have hurt American interests and values.
Some Steps Forward
The Biden administration prioritized several transnational issues in its first year and achieved some important results or laid the foundation for future progress in four key areas:
First, the economy – connecting America’s revival at home to a new approach in the world. Some of President Biden’s most important foreign policy achievements came at home: the passage of the American Rescue Plan in March and the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November. Infrastructure legislation will lay part of the foundation for American economic power and international influence in the decades to come – and demonstrated that President Biden could deliver on what former President Trump could only promise. Other important pieces of legislation like the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, a watered-down version of the Endless Frontiers Act, continue to languish in Congress. But their passage would only bolster the Biden administration’s effort to make America strong at home to be strong in the world.
The Biden administration focus on rebooting America’s economy was linked to some significant results reconnecting America’s relationship with its European allies, especially on difficult economic and trade questions. It forged a U.S.-European Union Trade and Technology Council to synchronize a Transatlantic approach to key economic and technology issues related to the broader competition with China. At the G20 summit in Rome, the United States and European Union finalized an end to the costly tariff wars escalated by the previous administration and forged a new agreement on aluminum and steel production that addresses both climate change and China. More broadly, the Biden administration forged an agreement on a global minimum tax to stop corporations from shifting jobs overseas and to generate billions of dollars to invest in America’s ability to compete.
The combined effort of these domestic and international economic moves: a booming American economy that still remains unrivaled in many aspects. It also put America is a stronger geopolitical position to compete with countries like China in ways under-recognized by many foreign policy analysts.
Second, the pandemic – deploying vaccines at home and abroad. The Biden administration took important to deploy vaccines worldwide and rebuild some of the international cooperation needed to deal with the virus that was absent in the previous U.S. administration. It has pledged to donate some 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses and has shipped out over 331 million doses as of December 21. President Biden has repeatedly vowed that the United States would become the “arsenal of vaccines” for the world, ramping up American vaccine production capacity. The United States remains well ahead of both allies and adversaries when it comes to vaccine internationalism. The European Union, for instance, has promised to donate 451.5 million doses worldwide, while China has donated just under 120 million doses of its ineffective vaccines.
Third, climate change – building out a framework for future cooperation and progress. The Biden administration’s climate summitry – ranging from the White House’s own April leaders’ summit to the COP26 summit at Glasgow in early November – yielded some significant commitments and further entrenched the idea that countries should aim for net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. All of these efforts require follow-up and a more practical plan for implementation that addresses the many political challenges that remain.
Finally, freedom in the world – setting some markers on the contest between democracy versus autocracies. One other central Biden foreign policy concept is the competition between democracies and autocratic forms of government in the world. In this competition, China and Russia featured prominently, and both countries are testing the limits of their power and influence in places like Taiwan, Ukraine, and Lithuania. Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December faced some skepticism at home and in the world, but it set forth some ideas and programs including an anti-corruption initiative could have some appeal and impact, if they are threaded through and implemented in key aspects of U.S. foreign policy. In addition, the summit effectively trolled the China’s government and showed that liberal democracy may not be quite as down and out as many of us might think.
Some Steps Back
The progress achieved in Biden’s foreign policy in the first year was in many ways overshadowed by a series of unforced errors, many of them based on faulty assumptions put forward by advocacy-oriented groups. These assumptions often gain traction in the heat of an election campaign, but they offer little practical guidance when it comes to actually governing in a way that protects America and its interests.
To start, the botched Afghanistan withdrawal exposed hollow posturing on human rights and democracy – and undercut Biden’s competence brand. President Biden’s determination to withdraw from Afghanistan at all costs was a significant policy error compounded by poor execution. His administration embraced its predecessor’s surrender agreement with the Taliban and abandoned a deeply flawed democracy, depriving it of the tools necessary to defend itself against the band of religious fanatics that eventually seized control of the country. Afghanistan now faces a horrific perfect storm of economic collapse, mass starvation, and the return of a brutal and incompetent autocracy, while the United States confronts renewed terrorist threats from al Qaeda and the Islamic State but possesses far less ability to counter them effectively.
Nor did the administration’s “diplomacy first” approach produce major gains in the Middle East in the absence of serious efforts to address security conditions. President Biden’s early pledge to “lead with diplomacy” has not worked well in practice, particularly in places like Iran and Yemen. The Biden administration engaged Iran early on in an attempt to revive the 2015 nuclear deal discarded by the previous administration, but negotiations have produced little progress while Iran’s nuclear program moved well past the limits outlined in the 2015 agreement. In the most recent round of talks, Iran’s new government reneged on commitments its predecessor made in earlier rounds of talks but returned to previous proposals after American and European diplomats warned negotiations were on the verge of outright collapse.
Likewise, the Biden administration’s attempt to resolve Yemen’s multiple conflicts with diplomacy faltered on a series of largely incorrect assumptions about the conflicts themselves. It appointed veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking as special envoy for Yemen, but its policy focused largely on pressuring Saudi Arabia to “end the war” without taking into account developments on the battlefield like the Houthi offensive against the strategic town of Marib. Though Lenderking himself appears to suffer few illusions about the nature of the conflict, the Biden administration’s “diplomacy only” approach to Yemen hasn’t given him the tools necessary to conduct the sort of diplomacy that stands a real chance of bringing the country’s conflicts to an end.
The magical thinking behind “diplomacy only” is not simply the product of ephemeral talking points or cheap politics. It reflects the deeper challenge of what the political philosopher Michael Walzer once called the “politics of pretending”: imagining the world and key actors we’re trying to shape are more hospitable to our ideas and diplomacy than they actually are.
Finally, the administration failed to establish a clear set of priorities in China policy and fumbled some early efforts to build a global network to compete with Beijing. China is often described as the leading national security issue for America, and a bipartisan consensus has emerged about the need to compete with Beijing and its ruling Communist Party. Despite a few fringe voices that fret about a “new Cold War,” there’s a strong sense that China is working at odds with America’s interests and values. Yet, one year into the Biden administration, it remains unclear what its overall China strategy is and how it is going to rally partners around the world.
In addition, the Biden administration badly mishandled the diplomacy surrounding the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It gave France, which had a massive contract to build conventional submarines for Australia, mere hours’ notice before announcing the nuclear submarine pact, in a diplomatic fiasco President Biden himself later acknowledged was “clumsy” and “not done with a lot of grace.” French President Emmanuel Macron and his government were enraged, requiring substantial effort to repair frayed ties with a long-standing U.S. ally. This episode also shows that America’s regional policies remain largely disconnected from one another, another example of operational management challenges among Biden’s team, with a move intended to benefit the U.S. position in Asia harming its standing in Europe through ham-handed bureaucracy.
Where to from here?
The ship of U.S. foreign policy sails towards rough waters these days – from Taiwan to Ukraine and key parts of the Middle East. The single most important thing the captain of the ship can do is make sure his team and compass is working properly. It needs to prepare for crises that will likely arise while at the same time setting a clear course of where it wants to take the ship of state.
The Biden administration’s progress on priorities like the economy and pandemic has been upstaged by dramatic mistakes like the Afghanistan withdrawal and naïve thinking on key issues like Iran. More competent execution can’t make bad decisions good, but it’s necessary to ensure good decisions don’t turn bad and achieve the desired results – and the Biden administration has a lot of room for improvement on the operational management of its national security.
Of course, a good deal of blame here lies with grandstanding Republican legislators who have held up appointments to crucial diplomatic posts like ambassador to China in order to make political points. However, it’s hard to see what the Biden administration can do to discourage this sort of hostage-taking and ensure America’s foreign policy institutions are fully staffed so long as the incentives remain strong in America’s politics to make national security a partisan wedge issue.
If President Biden wants his foreign policy to be more successful in the year ahead, he and his national security team should focus on improving their competence in execution and developing a more realistic vision of what diplomacy can and can’t accomplish. Repeatedly insisting that there’s no military solution to a conflict while parties on the ground go about imposing their preferred solution by force only undermines diplomacy – and makes the United States look foolish and out of touch with reality.
The need for a narrative
Perhaps most importantly, President Biden and his administration need to explain more clearly how their foreign policy moves benefit Americans at home in concrete ways or advance American interests abroad.
The Biden foreign policy team has faced challenges telling a clear story to Americans and the rest of the world about where America is heading and why. This predicament exists for a number of reasons, including the fact that the Democratic Party has outsourced its narrative for years to academics, political pundits, and activists. Today, a key vibe among the Biden administration’s foreign policy team is “technocratic managerialism” combined with some language and gestures tinged by the empty rhetoric of left-wing activism and vague foreign policy ideas operating under the banner of “restraint.”
The Biden team hasn’t told a clear story consistently about its foreign policy so far despite some good opportunities to do so, in part because the administration has been consumed with putting out national security fires lit by the previous administration or started by their own unforced errors.
Even when the Biden team chalked up some wins, it didn’t talk much about them. For example, despite some important and historic moves to jumpstart America’s economy, invest in its ability to compete, and reconnect America’s economic prosperity with key parts of the rest of the world, the Biden team didn’t tell this story to Americans or the rest of the world. Curiously, even after it did the hard work to secure important economic deals with European partners this fall, the Biden team did very little to connect the dots with America’s economic revival. It also didn’t tout these diplomatic successes as emblematic of its “foreign policy for the middle class” slogan. That may help explain why Biden’s approval ratings on foreign policy are so low – the vast majority of Americans don’t know the story he’s trying to tell and sell for his approach to the world, and public support is the fuel for the engine.
To craft a clearer narrative, the Biden team can connect the dots of key elements of the more successful aspects of its first year of foreign policy with the efforts to revive America at home, with some key points:
America’s best days remain ahead – and the fast creation and deployment of vaccines are helping Americans and the rest of the world move ahead in dealing with the pandemic, even as the world continues to face new challenges from new strains. 2022 will be better than 2021 and much better than the bleak times of 2020.
America has made historic investments to spark economic growth and innovation at home, and this led to a new economic boom impacting the rest of the world and keeping America’s economy number one in the world.
America still faces major challenges with its own democracy at home, but a strong majority of Americans want to see our country’s leaders work together to solve problems and make life better. Continuing to produce progress at home – getting people back to work, investing in schools, health, and infrastructure and helping all Americans – is the key to showing that our system works.
America continues to have unrivaled power and a network of steady and strong partnerships around the world to deal with security challenges and to keep Americans safe and prosperous. With our partners, we can face new competition from countries like China and continued security threats from countries like Russia, Iran, and North Korea and extremist groups at home and abroad without getting mired in costly wars.
There’s still plenty of time to right the ship of state, but the essential building block for advancing a more successful foreign policy approach in the coming period is making the case for a more inclusive patriotism at home, one that benefits all Americans, and then linking this idea to a more pragmatic foreign policy that restores America’s prestige in the world.