The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s first 100 days in foreign policy have been about undoing. Here’s what comes next.

From left, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William J. Burns and Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at a House Intelligence Committee hearing April 15.
From left, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director William J. Burns and Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at a House Intelligence Committee hearing April 15. (Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Biden’s first 100 days in foreign policy have been more about undoing than doing — fixing the messes he inherited but not yet building a new strategy. Meanwhile, a restless world is testing Biden, pushing at the margins, and it won’t wait long for answers.

The best snapshot of Biden’s disorderly world is the global threat assessment presented April 14 by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and CIA Director William J. Burns. It’s a worrying document, summarizing intelligence that China, Russia, Iran and North Korea “have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies.”

The report is 27 pages of bad news. Our adversaries perceive a weakened America and are pressing to take advantage. China sees an “epochal geopolitical shift” away from the United States and is preparing to fight wars in space, at sea and on land. Russia, as usual, is weak in everything except “new weapons that present increased threats.” Iran “will take risks that could escalate tensions” in the Middle East. North Korea “will be a WMD threat for the foreseeable future.”

Biden’s response has so far mostly been a repair job, understandably so. He wants to retreat from vulnerable positions such as Afghanistan and strengthen defensible ones such as the security relationships partnerships with Japan and India. He seeks to restore the international partnerships the Trump administration had trashed — from NATO to the Paris climate accord. Most of all, he wants to rebuild the U.S. economy as a platform for American power.

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Nobody loves a superpower in decline. Countries around the world are wondering how far they can push Biden’s America. Chinese diplomats lectured their American counterparts in Anchorage last month. Russia provocatively moved troops to the Ukraine border. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have secret back-channel contacts with Iran, even as they request more U.S. weapons.

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As Biden enters his second 100 days, he needs a clearer strategy for projecting power. I’m not talking about starting new “endless wars,” but about working better with countries that are willing to fight for themselves.

Let’s start with Afghanistan, where Biden is moving quickly to withdraw the remaining 2,500 U.S. troops. I’ve been worried that we will leave behind a country that will implode under a Taliban onslaught, requiring “cold hearts and strong stomachs” as a desperate population pleads for help. But Saad Mohseni, the head of Moby Group, the biggest media company in the country, told me Tuesday that this scenario is unnecessarily bleak. Afghanistan won’t simply collapse back into the dark ages of Taliban rule.

“The Americans don’t realize they’ve transformed a whole nation,” Mohseni argues. He rattles off some statistics: The population is now 50 percent urban; 80 percent of the people watch television; 70 percent have a mobile phone; the literacy rate has gone from 10 percent in 2001 to more than 50 percent today. If Afghanistan gets through the first bloody months after America’s departure, the Taliban will have to make concessions, he contends. That’s the bet we should make, with money and training and other support.

Iran is another country probing at the margins. Biden has seemed in his first 100 days to be rushing back into the nuclear deal that President Donald Trump abandoned. Rejoining the agreement makes sense, but it isn’t an Iran policy. Biden should think bigger — and push back at a bullying regime that’s unpopular at home and feared abroad.

Why not start in Lebanon, with a hefty investment to rebuild a strong Lebanese Armed Forces that can finally reduce Hezbollah’s power? Qatar is said to be ready to bail out the Lebanese financial system; a new government, at U.S. insistence, can begin tackling corruption; and an American-financed and -trained Lebanese military can gradually restore sovereignty.

Finally, there’s the “great power competition” problem of Russia and China. Okay, so let’s compete. Russia figuratively banged its shoe on the table (as the Soviet Union did in testing the new President John F. Kennedy) by moving troops to the Ukraine border, but after public and private warnings from Washington, Moscow pulled back. Chinese diplomats were icy in Anchorage, yet they don’t want a hot confrontation, either.

America’s high card is technology. We’re still leading that race, but China is gaining. The smartest thing Biden can do is invest in owning the high-tech future. Social spending for an already overheating consumer economy can wait.

Even after the Trump wrecking ball, America is still the global convener. That was obvious with last week’s virtual summit on climate change, attended by both Chinese and Russian presidents. Biden has shown in Afghanistan that he understands the limits of U.S. power. The challenge for the next 100 days — and beyond — is to remind ourselves and the world of this country’s strength and staying power.

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