By Arab News
By Kerry Boyd Anderson *
After his inauguration in January, President Joe Biden sought to undo much of former President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. His administration has had some success in that goal, while also facing hurdles. Biden has also sought to reframe geopolitics through a lens of democracies and autocracies — partly in response to China’s rising global influence. He has tried to balance Americans’ desire to project US power abroad with their war fatigue. These factors, combined with the pandemic, drove much of US foreign policy in the last year.
Biden and his senior officials objected to Trump’s foreign policy for many reasons, including the Trump administration’s lack of concern about democracy or human rights and lack of interest in some traditional alliances. The Biden administration has worked hard in its first year to try to repair relationships with key allies. For example, European countries were happy to see a friendlier tone from the White House, an end to some of Trump’s tariffs, and a return to climate discussions and talks on the Iran nuclear deal.
To some extent, Biden has been successful, with leaders in several countries expressing relief that Biden replaced Trump and polling that showed a surge in positive perceptions of the US. However, the Biden administration will not sacrifice priorities just to keep allies happy; for example, the administration went ahead with the AUKUS security agreement with Australia and the UK, despite French indignation.
Another major Democratic Party objection to Trump’s policies centered on climate change. While Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, Biden quickly rejoined it. He also attended the COP26 conference on climate change. Biden and his party have addressed climate change in domestic policy as well.
The Iran nuclear deal is another key policy area where Biden seeks to reverse Trump policies. Signed in 2015 under the Obama administration, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action sought to place constraints on Iran’s nuclear program. Trump withdrew from the multilateral agreement in 2018 and imposed heavy sanctions on Iran. The Biden team has pursued talks with Iran to return to the deal, though with little discernible progress so far.
Biden has also worked to partly roll back Trump’s policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. The Biden administration has expressed support for a two-state solution and restored economic and humanitarian funding for the Palestinians, which Trump had cut. However, the Biden administration has done very little to pursue any peace process, continues to express strong support for Israel, and has no intention of reversing Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem.
Partners and adversaries know that Trump might be president again in only a few years, which presents a major complication for Biden’s foreign policy. It is difficult to persuade the world that the Trump era is an aberration when the current White House cannot guarantee that Trump will not return to power.
One area of agreement between Biden and Trump is that both wanted the US to withdraw from the war in Afghanistan. In a deal with the Taliban, the Trump administration had agreed to pull US forces out of Afghanistan, but it was Biden who implemented the withdrawal. While it is debatable whether a more peaceful withdrawal was feasible, the reality is that it looked very messy. As the Taliban quickly regained ground, chaos ensued in Kabul. The US failed to evacuate many Afghans who had assisted its operations and now face persecution.
The seemingly haphazard US withdrawal badly undermined perceptions of American power. NATO allies felt ignored in the process, which complicated Washington’s efforts to restore relations with Europe. Especially after the Trump administration’s sudden pullout of many soldiers from northern Syria, which placed Kurdish allies at risk, the Afghan withdrawal further raised doubts about the US as a security partner.
More broadly, the withdrawal demonstrated that the US public and its leaders are tired of the nation-building wars that began with the George W. Bush administration. Biden also took steps to further reduce the US’ military role in Iraq. There is little appetite for any type of military activity that is not clearly, directly related to US security interests. The Biden administration is well aware of this and has expressed its intention to try to reorient foreign policy so that it more clearly benefits middle-class Americans. Avoiding ideological nation-building wars and trying to ensure that foreign policy benefits US citizens are positive developments. Nonetheless, the reality that the US wants to avoid military entanglements will lessen its leverage with countries such as Russia, China and Iran.
Under Biden, intelligence and defense officials have publicly said that China is one of the top threats facing the US. Polling also identifies it as the top country of concern for a majority of Americans. Compared to Trump, Biden has taken a quieter approach toward China, but his policies are clearly designed to push back against growing Chinese influence. Biden has mostly maintained Trump’s tariffs and has said that US officials (though not athletes) will boycott February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. The Biden team has actively worked to deepen relationships with Indo-Pacific partners who share Washington’s concerns about China.
The Biden administration sees China as an increasingly assertive economic, military and political competitor. Washington is keenly aware that Beijing is working to assert the superiority of its style of autocratic government, in direct contrast to liberal democracy. Biden’s recent Summit for Democracy served several purposes for the administration, including building a network of countries that reject China’s more authoritarian approach.
At the same time, the Biden team does not believe it is possible or desirable to fully isolate China. Rather, they seek to balance competition with the pragmatic understanding that the two countries must cooperate on some economic and environmental issues.
The pandemic has been another priority for the Biden administration, in both foreign and domestic policy. After taking office, Biden canceled Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. While the administration’s initial focus was on vaccinating Americans, it soon moved to provide vaccines abroad. The US has now shipped more than 300 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to other countries, part of Biden’s pledge to provide more than 1.1 billion doses through 2022. Washington has also taken additional steps to help boost vaccine availability globally.
The first year of a presidency often involves crisis management, while developing foreign policy guidance. In 2022, the administration will hope to focus more on implementing strategies. For Biden, managing the pandemic, responding to climate change and relations with China will remain top priorities. He is likely to continue efforts to reach an agreement with Iran, but Washington will keep pressure on Tehran unless there is a deal. There are plans for a second Summit for Democracy.
US presidents establish foreign policy priorities but must adjust as events unfold beyond their control. Relations with Russia are frosty and now Biden faces a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine that threatens US interests in Europe. Moscow understands that Americans are not interested in a new ground war, but Washington has tools it can use to try to deter Russia — much will depend on the extent to which Biden is willing to use those tools and if allies will support him.
Obama tried to pivot away from the Middle East to Asia, but events on the ground in the Middle East complicated those efforts. Biden is now attempting that same pivot, so far with greater success, but he does not fully control the outcome.
Terrorist and extremist movements have derailed US foreign policy priorities before and could do so again, as could many other expected and unexpected challenges. Issues to watch in 2022 include migration at the southern border, the global economic recovery, cybersecurity, and North Korea.
Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 18 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica. Twitter: @KBAresearch