If President Barack Obama’s unofficial rubric for American engagement overseas was “Don’t do stupid” things — and President Donald Trump’s was to apply an “America First” lens of short-term transactional benefit — President Biden’s version is some of both.
Biden’s international agenda is defined by caution in most areas and conservation of American power for big-ticket priorities. Addressing climate change and confronting China are at the top of that list.
Biden and a seasoned group of foreign policy aides — most of them fellow veterans of the Obama administration — have set out on a rewrite of the Trump years that retains some of his populist focus on American jobs and some of his protectionist trade tariffs as well.
As the new president begins significant undertakings — such as withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan, setting an ambitious goal for reducing U.S. carbon pollution and resuming nuclear negotiations with Iran — the outlines of his deliberate approach are filling in.
“The signs are unmistakable. The science is undeniable. The cost of inaction . . . keeps mounting. The United States isn’t waiting,” Biden said last week as he welcomed 40 world leaders to an online climate summit meant to reestablish U.S. leadership on an issue Trump had sidelined.
He opened the session with a justification for domestic consumption, however. Calling climate response an “extraordinary engine of job creation and economic opportunity,” Biden got in a plug for his economic stimulus schemes, the latest of which face an uncertain future in Congress.
“That’s why I proposed a huge investment in American infrastructure and American innovation, to tap the economic opportunity that climate change presents our workers and our communities, especially those too often left out and left behind,” Biden said.
Nearly every one of Biden’s international initiatives, including his climate-change effort, comes with lengthy assurances about protecting “good-paying union jobs” at home. Biden’s announcement of an effective end to the nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan echoed some of Trump’s rhetoric about wasted time, effort and money.
Biden has also stepped back from an immediate expansion of refugee admissions and refrained from making a major gesture of U.S. goodwill on protecting the rest of the world from the coronavirus — echoes of the kind of nationalist political arguments that propelled Trump.
Absent a war or other unifying cause abroad, American foreign policy tends to drift inward, said John Gans, research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House global policy center.
“Without that, every issue becomes a debate between globalists and nationalists,” Gans said. “He knows this and knows there are risks there.”
World War II, the Cold War and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, all gave Americans and their leaders a consensus for foreign engagement. Biden has effectively declared an end to the terrorism-focused 9/11 era, with no imminent threat to replace it, Gans said.
Biden has been explicit about what he sees as the next threat on the horizon and a better use of American resources.
“We have to shore up American competitiveness to meet the stiff competition we’re facing from an increasingly assertive China,” Biden said as he announced the Afghanistan troop drawdown this month. “We have to strengthen our alliances and work with like-minded partners to ensure that the rules of international norms that govern cyber threats and emerging technologies that will shape our future are grounded in our democratic values, not those of the autocrats.”
The Obama administration also tried a “pivot to Asia,” later rebranded as a “rebalancing” after stalwart allies elsewhere were miffed. But the project was largely sidelined as Obama was drawn further into the Afghanistan conflict and as unforeseen crises in Syria and Ukraine took precedence.
Biden has surrounded himself with veterans of those policy debates, and many came to his White House determined not to be blown off course again.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an early joint visit to Asian allies that was widely seen as a symbolic show of force to China.
China’s military and technological rise was the backdrop for Biden’s first face-to-face meeting with a foreign counterpart — a sit-down this month at the White House with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Within a few weeks of taking office, Biden had a two-hour phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping that aides said included warnings about human rights abuses and activities that threaten China’s neighbors. It also included overtures to work together where possible, such as in addressing climate change.
Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin both attended Biden’s two-day climate summit, at Biden’s invitation.
Biden drew praise from allies and climate advocates for his quick move to rejoin the Paris climate accord, which Trump had abandoned, and for the effort to encourage other nations to make ambitious commitments for carbon reduction. Many climate activists called the U.S. effort insufficient, however.
“There are geopolitical reasons for integrating climate change in the national security arena due to the destabilizing effects that climate-exacerbated conflict causes, such as energy, water and food scarcity, environmental degradation, humanitarian disasters, political violence and its ability to undermine weak governments,” said Rachel A. Meidl, a fellow in energy and environment at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Biden is downgrading many familiar foreign policy matters as he focuses on China and climate change, including Middle East tensions, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. The new administration has condemned Russian aggression on the Ukraine border but has drawn no red lines publicly.
Although the Biden administration has made the worsening humanitarian disaster in Yemen a priority, including naming a veteran diplomat as a special envoy, not much has changed. Yemeni rebels intensified their attacks on targets inside Saudi Arabia after the Biden administration announced an end to U.S. backing for Saudi offensive operations.
The cautious approach of the Biden foreign policy team is seen in the outreach to Iran.
The Biden administration has launched nuclear talks with Iran after a delay that frustrated some allies who had expected a bold stroke. Biden’s campaign promise to return to the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran was among the very few foreign policy specifics he had offered.
But the initiative is an irritant to ally Israel and to its powerful backers in Congress, including Democrats whom Biden is depending on to confirm his nominees and pass the pillars of his domestic agenda.
The administration refused Iranian demands to drop sanctions before indirect talks could begin and held off on the start of the sessions in Vienna until European allies worked out an awkward formula to simultaneously address sanctions and actions Iran has taken that violate the agreement.
On Thursday, a senior U.S. official described the outcome as “still uncertain” after two rounds of talks.
The administration is unlikely to take on other diplomatic gambits in the region while the Iran initiative is pending.
“The Middle East hasn’t been a priority because they focused on other things, and they were totally upfront about that from the very beginning, that it wasn’t going to be a priority,” said Anne Patterson, a former ambassador to Egypt and Pakistan.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have long been the poles of U.S. policy in the Middle East, but Biden has kept leaders of both at arm’s length. He has reversed Trump policies seen as punitive to the Palestinians but made no move to be a peacemaker in the mold of past presidents.
The sprawling conflict in Syria is a cautionary tale for the Biden team, especially with Yemen in peril, Patterson said.
“In my view, the real cost of Syria was that it absorbed huge amounts of leadership time and it was very difficult to think about and focus on other things, like the pivot to Asia,” she said. “The Middle East sucks people back in.”