There are a host of challenges but also tremendous opportunities, as a superb panel of foreign policy experts and former national security officials laid out during a panel discussion on Monday at the Brookings Institution. I recommend viewing the entire program, but I will hit the highlights and add some of my own thoughts on some major issues for the incoming administration.
First, since Biden served as vice president, we have exited the Iran nuclear deal, which isolated us from allies and drove Iran into the arms of Russia and China. At the same time, Iran is now significantly out of compliance with the nuclear deal and, if anything, has behaved even more aggressively on non-nuclear matters, as former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Never Trumper Eric S. Edelman explained. On the positive side for the West, Iran’s economy is under tremendous duress. The Biden team could simply reenter the nuclear deal (alarming members of both parties, Israel and regional allies); more likely, according to former State Department official Tamara Cofman Wittes, it could use the leverage it is inheriting to work its way back into the deal, obtain Iranian compliance and remedy shortcomings in the deal. (In a prior media call, senior Biden adviser Antony Blinken suggested this approach.) The Trump team’s maximum-pressure campaign had no off-ramp to diplomacy; the Biden team can offer the Iranians one, with conditions.
Second, Biden will have to carve out a China policy that is both realistic and reflective. The belief that economic reform would force political liberalization in China has been thoroughly discredited. The fundamental conflict — that Western democracies are threatened by authoritarian regimes — has become obvious to our allies and to responsible foreign policy voices in both parties. To gain leverage on the still unsolved issues, such as intellectual property theft and cyberwarfare, Biden will need all his diplomatic skills to form a united front with allies. Evan Osnos, a visiting fellow at Brookings, suggested that Biden can also use the Senate as a cudgel, pointing to its unanimously passed measure condemning China for actions in Hong Kong as evidence of unified U.S. resolve against China. It is always helpful for a U.S. president to tell an adversary to deal with him or face the wrath of a Congress seeking to score political points.
China might be a unifying principle to obtain bipartisan support for domestic investment in research and development, STEM learning, immigration reform to attract foreign students, and a push for green energy technology. As former State Department official Victoria Nuland observes, Biden has frequently advocated that to be strong abroad, we need to be strong at home — and vice versa. (Recall how Sputnik spurred scientific investment during the Cold War.)
Third, as several Brookings panelists noted, Biden will need to define his objectives in the Middle East. Dreams of the Arab Spring have faded, Syria and Libya are “still bleeding" from wars, Iranian proxies remain a destabilizing force throughout the region and supposed U.S. ally Saudi Arabia has behaved in monstrous ways, from murdering Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi to committing war crimes in Yemen. U.S. troops remain in Iraq where Iranian-backed militia are on the offense. On the positive side, Israel has formalized diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates and with Bahrain.
No one on the Biden team is talking about “pivoting” from the Middle East to Asia, as President Barack Obama attempted, but it is far from clear what a more stable Middle East would look like and how to get there. Biden, no radical on foreign policy, has stated he is not looking immediately to remove all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, which are scheduled to be drawn down. More generally, he said he does not envision big defense cuts, though a rethinking of threats and reallocation of money to deal with 21st-century obstacles are needed.
Fourth, several panelists alluded to the need for public diplomacy. Biden and his team need to do what several presidents have neglected to do: consistently explain to Americans our fundamental foreign policy principles — e.g., why we need allies, why our prosperity depends on a strong role in the world, why we favor democracies over authoritarian states and why we have troops around the world. Biden, Wittes noted, is aiming for a more practical approach driven by an effort to find points of common ground with allies and even adversaries. After President George W. Bush aspired “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” and after Obama sought a “reset” with Russia and a nuke-free world, perhaps we are due for a sensible internationalist grounded in reality.
Fifth, the damage that Trump and his fellow Republicans have done — by not recognizing the results of the election, by casting the media as an “enemy of the people,” by stoking racism, by violating the human rights of refugees and by enabling human rights abusers — should not be underestimated. We have lost moral authority around the world. Many dissidents and persecuted people feel abandoned by and disillusioned with the United States; autocrats have no motivation to reform at home. It will take years to reestablish credibility on human rights. Immediate and concrete policy action to signal a dramatic break with the Trump administration may be useful. Biden has already pledged to eliminate the Muslim ban and, I would suggest, could announce a return to a humane, responsible refugee policy.
These are just a few of the myriad foreign policy issues the incoming administration will face. Those who want to be optimistic can say there’s nowhere to go but up when it comes to our international stature. Worldwide celebrations of our elections suggest the world has been waiting for an American comeback.