Seven months after taking office, President Biden’s approach to handling the US’s foreign policy challenges have become clear. Mr Biden has been involved in foreign policy decision-making throughout his career. He served on and eventually chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was one of President Obama’s point men on foreign policy issues.
Mr Biden stressed throughout the 2020 election campaign that he would prioritize foreign policy issues and reassert the US’s commitments to its allies. While many of Mr Biden’s stances denote a shift away from former President Trump’s “America First” doctrine, his policies vis-à-vis Afghanistan and China are like his predecessor’s.
Mr Biden has largely pursued policies in continuation with the previous administration’s “strategic competition” strategy in dealing with China. He has kept Trump-era trade restrictions and sanctions against China in place and his goal of countering and competing with Beijing mirrors Mr Trump’s approach. Mr Biden’s China strategy breaks from Mr Trump’s in that the former has called upon American allies to join the U.S. in countering Beijing.
In March, for instance, the president hosted a summit with the leaders of India, Australia, and Japan, which are all member states of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or “the Quad” to discuss dealing with issues in the Indo-Pacific. Statements issued by the leaders after the summit reflected a commitment to democracy, the rules-based order, and a free and open Asia, all goals that are antithetical to China’s interests.
Mr Biden has made a clean break from the previous administration’s stance on Russia. While the former president was known for his cosy relationship with President Putin, Mr Biden called the Russian president “a killer” weeks after taking office. Mr Biden also delineated sixteen key infrastructure sectors off-limits to Russian cyberattacks in a June meeting with Mr Putin, threatening retaliation were Moscow to attack any one of the sectors.
However, the president has also proven willing to remain diplomatic with Russia. In February, his administration and Russia negotiated a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is the only agreement limiting the two countries’ nuclear arsenals. Mr Biden’s nuanced approach to dealing with Russia has been labelled “dual-track diplomacy” as it guides the US to engage with Russia when it suits the national interest and to disengage when it does not.
In the Middle East, Mr Biden has striven to end years-long conflicts while also preventing regional insecurity from spilling over and harming American interests. In July, the president announced that all combat troops would withdraw from Iraq would by the end of 2021. However, the US will maintain several thousand troops tasked with training and advising the Iraqi military. Some fear that the drawdown in Iraq will allow Iran to assert a greater role in the country.
After Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003, a major obstacle to Iranian hegemony vanished, and the country quickly assumed a powerful role in Iraqi politics and in opposing the US’s military objectives. With no combat troops left to protect US interests in Iraq, critics of the decision say that Iraq is more vulnerable to Iranian influence.
Containing Iran’s nuclear program is another top priority for Mr Biden. The US and Iran have met for six rounds of negotiations in an attempt to arrive at a deal that would bring sanctions relief in exchange for limitations on the Iranian nuclear program. The election of hardliner Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency and fear among many Iranians that a future administration would renege on a deal as Mr Trump did in 2018 have presented challenges to negotiations, and a seventh round of talks has not been scheduled.
Afghanistan is currently the most salient foreign policy issue for the Biden administration. As the Taliban restores its hold on Afghanistan, the president has drawn bipartisan criticism for his decision to withdraw American troops. His critics say that the US withdrawal is unacceptable as it endangers America’s supporters and enemies of the Taliban in Afghanistan. However, Mr Biden has long taken the view that the US’s role in Afghanistan was not to remove the Taliban from power but to prevent Al-Qaeda from using the country as a safe haven.
He stood his ground in a speech on 16 August, stating that while he was surprised by how quickly the Taliban restored its power, he did not regret his decision and he did not want the war to last into a fifth president’s tenure. Nonetheless, images of Afghanis falling off the wings of military aircraft evacuating Americans from Kabul may be seared into the minds of people across the world and tarnish perceptions of Mr Biden’s foreign policy decision-making.
Image: Chauncey I Brown III via Flickr