The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s first year brought a cascade of foreign policy challenges, undermining his goal of projecting calm competence

President Biden speaks at a news conference Jan. 19.
President Biden speaks at a news conference Jan. 19. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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The Biden administration’s top national security officials — nearly all of them with extensive foreign policy experience under previous Democratic presidents — knew when they took office that the world had changed since they had last served.

In addition to repairing the United States’ Trump-damaged international reputation and relationships, there were unprecedented global crises, from the coronavirus pandemic to climate change and migration. There was a rising China to contend with, an increasingly belligerent Russia and its threats against Ukraine, nuclear-advancing Iran and North Korea, and the failure of the 20-year U.S. enterprise in Afghanistan.

They understood it all in the abstract, a senior administration official reflected. “But until you’re sitting in the seat, it’s hard to fully comprehend” the effect of so many issues simultaneously “blasting at full volume.”

After a year of earsplitting challenges, President Biden’s foreign policy record is mixed. As promised, the administration reclaimed a prominent U.S. seat at a number of international forums dismissed by President Donald Trump and has spearheaded several major new international agreements, including on taxes and climate. It has smoothed the ruffled feathers of some longtime allies and partners.

It has successfully navigated a choppy alliance with Israel and bolstered neglected relationships in Asia. Inflation notwithstanding, it has built what national security adviser Jake Sullivan called a “pretty damn good economic record” of growth and employment.

“If I think about the reservoir of American power from the point of view of the health of the economy long term, we are in a much better position than we were a year ago,” Sullivan said in an interview.

A year ago, Biden unveiled a 200-page plan to defeat covid. He has struggled to deliver on some key promises.

But Biden and his team have been less successful in what the president set as a prerequisite for restoring the United States’ preeminent place in the world: the projection of calm competence, both at home and abroad, after four years of turmoil.

When he promised a new era of U.S. global leadership, Biden said that foreign and domestic policy were inextricably linked — that the nation’s world standing would flow from revitalized strength and stability at home. The opposite, however, has also been true, as perceived foreign and domestic missteps have negatively reinforced each other.

Two defining issues — the failure to stem the coronavirus pandemic and the deep U.S. political divide — have often undercut both the image and reality of strength.

“Covid has accelerated and accentuated just about every significant infirmity in the system,” including institutions, economies, supply chains and migration patterns, Sullivan said.

Political divisions at home, and the restraints of a razor-thin congressional majority, have undercut the administration’s ability to present itself as a leader and exemplar of functional democracy.

Although there was initial bipartisan shock and outrage over the failure to anticipate the speed with which the Afghan government would fall, and the subsequent chaotic U.S. withdrawal, Democrats have emphasized that it was Trump who capitulated to the Taliban in a withdrawal deal and rushed the exit. To Republicans, however, Afghanistan is Exhibit A in a string of Biden foreign policy fiascos.

“Weakness has its consequence. We saw that in Afghanistan,” House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) said in a release Thursday titled “Biden’s Year of Failure.”

“We know Russia was watching. . . . We know that China was watching. Iran. All of our adversaries around the world were watching, and they saw the weakness, and they’re capitalizing on it right now,” Scalise said.

Damage control

At times, the president has undermined his own message of competence and collaborative leadership. France, the United States’ oldest ally, withdrew its ambassador in September after Biden abruptly announced secret negotiations that led to Australia’s purchase of U.S. nuclear-powered submarines and its cancellation of a multibillion-dollar contract to buy French ships.

At a news conference this month marking his first anniversary in office, Biden delivered a muscular pledge to impose “severe costs and significant harm” on Russia if it invades Ukraine. But he diluted his own threat by indicating that a “minor incursion” might provoke a lesser response.

In both cases, the administration was thrown into damage-control mode. After the Australia announcement, designed to showcase a new alliance to keep China in check, top aides were dispatched to Paris. Following a Biden-initiated call with French President Emmanuel Macron, and a joint statement agreeing “that the situation would have benefited from open consultations among allies on matters of strategic interest to France and our European partners,” the ambassador returned to Washington.

Barely an hour after Biden’s first news conference of the year, the White House clarified his imprecise language on Ukraine, assuring that any acts of Russian aggression, including cyber and paramilitary attacks “short of military action,” would be “met with a decisive, reciprocal and united response.”

Republicans were quick to capitalize on the stumble. “Do you think the strong, wonderful people of Ukraine think it would be a minor incursion if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin moved tanks into Ukraine, even a piece of Ukraine? Of course they don’t. But he does,” Scalise said of Biden.

To some experts, it is the way the American body politic reacts, rather than how the administration responds to foreign policy crises, that undermines the country’s image abroad.

“You can’t underestimate the degree to which our democratic crisis is changing the view of the rest of the world,” said Eric Edelman, a career Foreign Service officer who served in senior State and Defense Department positions under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “Dysfunctionality . . . violence . . . the assault on democratic institutions are spilling into the way in which the rest of the world is looking upon us,” Edelman said earlier this month at a forum on Biden’s first-year foreign policy at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Others dismiss the notion that all eyes are focused on the United States and the rest of the world takes its cues from Washington. “Russia is doing what it’s doing because it feels it’s in Russia’s interest to do it,” said a senior official of a major European ally who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss political and diplomatic assessments. “Basically, since 2007, it has been pretty clear that Russia is pursuing a revisionist policy — throughout the [Obama] reset, Trump and now the Biden administration,” the official said.

How Russia views Ukraine — and why it should worry the West

The potential internal danger of political division extends far beyond the next election, according to the senior administration official.

“Can you imagine if 9/11 happened today?” the official said. “Would the country pull together on it? Would everyone rally around the president and pull together to defeat a common enemy?”

Some aspects of Biden’s first foreign policy year followed the game plan he set out during his campaign. The United States quickly rejoined the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, and extended the nearly expired New START accord on nuclear weapons limitations with Russia. The Space Force remained, but a new force posture review reversed Trump’s plans to withdraw troops from Europe.

Visa restrictions targeting Muslims were rescinded, and construction stopped on the U.S.-Mexico border wall. But the coronavirus, far from beginning to disappear by Independence Day as Biden promised, spawned even more travel barriers. Many plans for a more humane border, and hopes for immigration reform, were trampled under a flood of new illegal entries and asylum seekers.

Biden administration’s contradictions on immigration overshadow his achievements

Little action has been visible on many issues that dominated the Trump years, including Syria, North Korea and Venezuela. In some cases, there has been little change. A Biden plan to roll back Trump’s harsh treatment of Cuba fell victim to Havana’s own crackdown on protesters and the administration’s reluctance to buck the sensibilities of politically powerful Cuban Americans in Congress and in Florida.

Policy toward China, despite much rhetorical effort, regional outreach and closed-door planning, remains more or less where it was at the beginning of Biden’s term. Increased diplomatic backing for Taiwan — including continuation of Trump’s initiative to send high-level delegations to interact with the government in Taipei and stepped-up arms sales — has seemed more a reaction to Chinese saber-rattling than a fully formed policy initiative.

Promised diplomacy on U.S. reentry into the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran was first delayed by an administration review, and then by reluctance from Tehran. After talks finally began in April, they were suspended after six sessions when Iran elected a new government. Since negotiations resumed in November, progress has been slow, even as the administration and other participating world powers have warned that they cannot go on forever.

Lessons learned

Trump’s disorganized national security decision-making has been replaced with a more familiar National Security Council structure. Options are vetted from the bottom up with participation from appropriate agencies across the government, amid the traditional internal complaints that the White House exerts too much control.

But “stuff has happened that has altered trajectories” and policy plans, the senior European official said. “Five or six months ago, someone from the administration told me that Russia had practically been parked as an issue. . . . Now, we’re in a completely different paradigm.”

Some lessons have been learned. As the crisis with Russia over Ukraine has escalated over the past several weeks, top national security officials have made dozens of calls and visits to their European counterparts. Secretary of State Antony Blinken alone has been on the phone virtually every day since Christmas with NATO, the European Union and his fellow foreign ministers, and has traveled to Europe for face-to-face talks.

The outreach is a direct result of the howls of complaint from the United States’ closest allies that they weren’t sufficiently consulted about Afghanistan, where many of them also had troops, and not at all about the new Pacific defense pact that led to the submarine sale with Australia.

Officials dispute the notion that they let the allies down, especially on Afghanistan, where they say the Europeans were fully informed but just didn’t like the outcome.

“I do not buy the Afghanistan lack-of-consultation story,” the senior administration official said, ticking off a series of pre-decision trips to NATO by Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, as well as Biden’s talks with Group of Seven partners.

“But it’s immaterial, because the perception was there,” the official said.

Strenuous administration efforts have mended relations with Europe, according to officials in several allied capitals.

“I don’t know if it would have been different without Kabul” and the tumultuous withdrawal, or without the submarine deal, said a second European official. “But, yes, we have intense consultations with the United States right now” over Ukraine and other issues. “We’re not just there as a partner waiting” for the Americans to decide.

Other perceptions, however, have not so easily dissipated. Domestic approval of Biden’s foreign policy performance hovers around 40 percent, as his overall approval rating.

“It’s not clear the average American cares deeply” about most of what happens overseas, Suzanne Maloney, foreign policy director at the Brookings Institution, said at the Miller Center forum.

But amid the high volume of challenges, she said, the administration “has been very much hurt by the narrative . . . that they had a plan that they were following through on that was going to make Americans safer and more prosperous.”