WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden has received no shortage of advice on how to fill the yawning gap between his “America’s back!” mantra and the challenges facing a world that has undergone major changes since he last served in the White House.
Biden should concern himself less with human rights in China than with finding issues open to American-Chinese cooperation, foreign policy doyen Henry Kissinger counseled. Let Russia win in Syria, advised Aaron Stein, Middle East director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Progressive groups have called on Biden to cancel major weapons programs and get rid of the Trump-era Space Force. Brazil’s environment minister suggested that if Biden wants to save the Amazon, he should pay for it by buying Brazilian carbon credits. NATO’s secretary general has warned against leaving Afghanistan without an allied agreement.
Biden has set out some big principles – pay close attention to the interplay between domestic and international priorities, consult with allies and participate in international institutions, elevate climate to the top of the agenda – along with plans for first-day reversals of some of President Donald Trump’s more egregious departures from historical norms on issues such as immigration.
But on a host of matters in between, Biden faces competing priorities, congressional hurdles and wary, if welcoming, allies. In some cases, such as with North Korea and Venezuela, the most daunting obstacle to foreign policy success is the one that has bedeviled several presidents before him. There are no good options.
The fight against the coronavirus and righting the economy are likely to consume much of the new president’s first-year emphasis and energy. Biden is “inheriting a country in crisis,” said Ellen Laipson, director of the International Security Program at George Mason University.
“Between the pandemic and not traveling and economic pain, it’s not going to be an easy time for the foreign policy crowd. They’re going to have to wait their turn,” she said.
Some issues will not wait.
New START, the only remaining arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, is set to expire two weeks after Biden’s inauguration. The five-year extension Biden has said he plans to offer will give his administration some breathing room to deal with problems that have worsened over the past four years, including Russia’s development of new strategic and nonstrategic weapons not covered in any arms deal, competition in space-based weaponry and cyber aggression.
Russian President Vladimir Putin will doubtless seek relief from sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama and Trump, Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a council podcast last week. But Biden, if so inclined, “is likely to find them very hard to dismantle without backtracking on key issues that led to sanctions in the first place,” including Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military aggression in Ukraine, and poison plots against Kremlin enemies.
Although Biden is likely to seek Russian cooperation on Iran and climate change, “it will take a lot of dialogue, particularly on Ukraine, to see if there’s any give on the Russian side that could justify lifting sanctions,” Sestanovich said.
On Iran, powerful bipartisan forces in Congress oppose Biden’s plan to reenter the nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew. Under the agreement, Iran curtailed its uranium enrichment and allowed strict international monitoring of its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
As Obama and Vice President Biden maintained when the deal was signed in 2015, and the president-elect has now said, the nuclear agreement was designed to be a starting point to remove an immediate threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon and set the stage for further negotiations over stemming the Islamic Republic’s proxy wars and missile development.
Trump argued that those things would never happen, and his departure from the deal ensured that they did not during his administration. Biden’s challenge, beyond dealing with political opposition at home, is how to reenter negotiations with an Iran that portrays itself as the aggrieved party and has expressed no interest in dealmaking beyond the original terms of the agreement.
In the interlocked web of national security issues, Biden must also balance U.S. relationships with the rest of the Middle East, where Israel and Arab countries are likely to object to any outreach toward Iran.
Biden said in October that he will “reassess” the relationship Trump cultivated with Saudi Arabia, “end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.” Those initiatives are likely to find favor with Congress, which saw Trump veto anti-Saudi legislation.
Biden remains committed to ensuring Israel’s security and does not plan to reverse Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and annexation of the Golan Heights. But his opposition to new settlements on occupied land and commitment to a two-state solution with the Palestinians may have less resonance amid new Arab normalization deals with Israel.
At the same time, Biden’s ability to make progress with Iran is an important aspect of his goal to reestablish trans-Atlantic ties with Britain, France and Germany – all still parties to the Iran nuclear deal – and the rest of Europe.
Europe is embroiled in its own problems with the pandemic and rule-of-law rejectionists in countries such as Hungary and Poland, whose leaders Trump embraced. Leading allies are pleased that Biden is a committed trans-Atlanticist who shares their values and has pledged to repair traditional U.S. ties.
But they remain wary about potential contradictions between his vows to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing and agriculture, and what they hope is an end to Trumpian trade threats and tariffs.
Although Biden has pledged to retain the tens of thousands of U.S. troops who are based as deterrents in Europe, as well as in Japan and North Korea, he also wants to end major deployments to overseas wars, limiting the U.S. presence to relatively small counterterrorism forces of 1,500 to 2,000 to protect the homeland.
That leaves open a lot of questions of interest to NATO and European allies who share responsibility with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in Africa.
Biden will take over a world in which the United States, although still a great power, is not necessarily the sole dominant one. “But the passing of U.S. dominance need not mean the end of U.S. leadership,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice as national security adviser, argued in a 2018 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine.
“That is, the United States may not be able to direct outcomes from a position of preeminent economic, political, and military influence,” Sullivan wrote, “but it can still mobilize cooperation on shared challenges and shape consensus on key rules. In the years ahead, although Washington will not be the only destination for countries seeking capital, resources, or influence, it will remain the most important agenda-setter.”
One place where Biden hopes to lead the democratic world in confronting China. Although European allies have sought coordination with the United States on China, U.S. partners in Asia, where neighborhood peace and economies are far more dependent on a smooth relationship with Beijing, are concerned about his intentions.
Biden has not committed to any particular action vis-a-vis China, including the lifting of Trump tariffs or revision of still unrealized trade deals, all of which he has said he will review in terms of how they affect U.S. workers and the economy.
He has called for “pushing back” on “China’s deepening authoritarianism, even as we seek to cooperate on issues where our interests are aligned,” and called on the United States to “speak out” on oppression against Hong Kong and Uighur Muslims.
He has broadly pledged to ensure that China follow international maritime and territorial norms, and said that the United States will greatly increase its diplomatic presence in regional organizations where Trump has largely ceded influence.
Although the Trump administration has beaten the drum against Chinese expansionism and aggression in increasingly bellicose terms, Biden has emphasized a somewhat different approach. He has said he will use the power of U.S. leadership – and a revitalized U.S. economy – to mobilize a more unified global stand against China on all fronts.
“Most important is that we lead once again by the power of our example. America’s commitment to universal values sets us apart from China,” Biden said in written responses to questions posed last summer by the Council on Foreign Relations. “That is how to project a model that others want to emulate, rather than following China’s authoritarian path.”