Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Is Biden's Foreign Policy Failing?

| Sep. 30, 2021

The U.S. president's intentions might be good, but the results so far are another matter.

When Joe Biden became president, many assumed his administration would manage America's relations with other countries in a disciplined, predictable, and sophisticated way. The era of self-defeating swagger and diplomacy-by-tweet would be over, and responsible public servants would be back in charge. Biden's mantra—America is back—suggested that diplomacy would replace military power as the preferred instrument of U.S. foreign policy, which is exactly what the American people say they want. Biden's team is an experienced group of mainstream figures, in sharp contrast to the neophytes and oddballs who initially staffed former President Donald Trump's foreign-policy team. Given all the above, there was every reason to expect a smoothly functioning foreign-policy operation.

It hasn't quite worked out that way. To be sure, Biden & Co. can claim some number of initial successes: rejoining the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, restarting talks with Iran on its nuclear program, spearheading a global agreement to crack down on offshore tax havens, committing more vaccines to the global effort against COVID-19, and mending fences with key NATO allies at the Brussels summit in July. Plus, Biden has done more to actually make a pivot to Asia than either of his two predecessors, which is no small thing in itself. Nobody in Biden's inner circle had to resign in disgrace after three weeks in office—as Michael Flynn, Trump's first pick for national security advisor, was forced to do—and the Biden White House hasn't committed the embarrassing gaffes (such as getting the names of foreign leaders wrong in official communiques or releasing statements filled with spelling mistakes and factual errors) that were a frequent occurrence in the "snake pit" of the Trump White House.

And to be fair, diplomatic successes rarely happen overnight; making genuine and lasting progress on big issues usually requires sustained and patient effort over many months, if not years. By this time in George W. Bush's presidency, he had done essentially nothing for which he is now remembered (except to be president when the 9/11 attacks occurred), and Trump's main achievements nine months in were almost entirely negative. Reaching useful agreements with both allies and adversaries almost always requires some degree of give-and-take (to ensure that all participants have a stake in the outcome), and even a powerful country like the United States rarely gets everything it wants. Bottom line: No serious person should expect foreign-policy miracles in a president's first year in office.

Nonetheless, certain aspects of Biden’s performance are worrying, leading more than a few observers to make unflattering comparisons to his undistinguished predecessor. The talks with Iran have gone nowhere—due to a combination of mutual suspicion, Iranian prickliness, and the administration's own timidity—and the safe bet now is that no new agreement will be forthcoming. Indeed, Biden seems to be moving toward his own version of "maximum pressure," a strategy that has been tried repeatedly and has never worked. I'm not as critical of the administration's handling of the Afghanistan disengagement as some observers are—especially many overwrought Europeans—but a team as sophisticated and skillful as this one was alleged to be could have done a better job of defusing allied concerns while implementing a sensible and entirely predictable withdrawal. The new AUKUS partnership could be an important step toward maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, but was it really necessary to blindside France in the process? Awkward acronyms aside (try adding an "F" to AUKUS and see what you get), it appears little effort was made to assuage French feelings beforehand. An omission like that amounts to diplomatic malpractice in anyone's book.

Moreover, for an administration that says it wants to put diplomacy front and center, Biden's team has been slow to fill key diplomatic posts. Some of these delays are due to unpatriotic grandstanding by self-interested politicians like Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who have held up key appointments in order to indulge their own desire to appear important. But the problem goes beyond a couple of "show pony" Republican senators—to use David Rothkopf's apt label for Cruz and Hawley—insofar as Biden has been slow to nominate people for key ambassadorships and other policy positions. He has been president for nearly nine months now—close to 20 percent of a presidential term—and he still doesn't have his full team on the field yet. That’s partly due to the cockamamie nature of the appointments and confirmation process in the United States but not entirely....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Is Biden's Foreign Policy Failing?.” Foreign Policy, September 30, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt