Barack Obama set a goal of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within two years; Mr. Biden has firmly steered away from that quagmire.
Donald Trump bet he could quickly persuade the North Korean regime of Kim Jong Un to give up its nuclear arsenal, but Mr. Biden harbors no such illusions. Diplomacy toward North Korea “will not focus on achieving a grand bargain,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week. Rather, Washington will pursue incremental agreements that aim to mitigate the threat.
Not since George H.W. Bush became president more than three decades ago has the White House been so determinedly practical abroad. Not coincidentally, Mr. Biden is the most experienced foreign policy practitioner to take office since the first Mr. Bush, and, like that president, he has installed an equally seasoned national security team. The nation, and for that matter the world, is being spared the costly mistakes that stemmed from the unrealistic ambitions of the past three presidents.
Mr. Biden, of course, has some big ambitions of his own: He is seeking the most sweeping transformation of the federal government’s domestic role since President Ronald Reagan. In foreign policy, he has rightly defined his central mission as leading a contest between the world’s democracies and the resurgent threat of authoritarianism, as modeled by China and Russia. The administration’s opening steps toward Beijing and Moscow have clearly drawn the lines of that contest, with new sanctions and steps to rally allies.
Yet, even in this sphere, the administration has left room for deals. Upon taking office, Mr. Biden quickly extended the New START agreement with Russia limiting nuclear weapons, setting aside the Trump administration’s far-fetched attempt to refashion it to include China, along with Mr. Obama’s dream of ridding the world of nukes. Mr. Biden proposed a summit meeting next month to Russian ruler Vladimir Putin, and his climate envoy is actively seeking China’s collaboration.
Mr. Biden can fairly claim to have followed the foreign policy maxim that Mr. Obama coined, but did not always observe: “Don’t do stupid [stuff].” That doesn’t mean his decisions will always bring good results. The president’s grim determination to withdraw forces from Afghanistan could lead to a political and humanitarian catastrophe in that country and restore it as a base for terrorism — outcomes that a continued modest troop presence could prevent. His discounting of the possibility of a breakthrough in relations with North Korea may well prompt its regime to return to provocative measures, such as tests of nuclear warheads and intercontinental missiles.
This president has a better grasp than his predecessors of the limits of what the United States can accomplish abroad. So far, that’s been a good. The danger is that he will lean toward inaction or withdrawal in places where, like Afghanistan, even a partially effective U.S. engagement is better than none at all.