But as important as foreign policy is to the president’s agenda, he knows that the greatest threat to the republic, and to his presidency, lies at home. Tackling national issues – such as tackling Covid and inflation, passing a Build Back Better bill, and protecting voter rights – will require all the bandwidth it can muster, especially at approaching mid-term.
For Biden’s foreign policy, 2021 turned out to be the year primarily to clean up the old mess and create a few new ones. Biden set out to repair the damage his predecessor had done to America’s standing in the world. Joining the Paris Climate Agreement, reestablishing relations with NATO, repaying the World Health Organization and resuming talks with Iran have all helped restore America’s position with its allies, while by reminding his opponents that the United States was still a force on the international stage.
In June, after his first overseas trip, Biden emphatically said, “America is back to the table.” And there was little doubt that after four years of Donald Trump America’s allies were happy to see him there. It’s just that the table was not quite the same.
Countries – from China to Russia – had started talking about bolder steps to challenge American influence. And the grossly inadequate global response to both Covid and climate change appeared to raise serious doubts about the value of multilateral diplomacy.
Further, the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the free fried French diplomacy that alienated Paris over the Australian-American and British submarine deal seemed to confirm some allies’ concerns about the competence and credibility of the Biden administration.
In addition, the current crisis in US politics – capped off by the January assault on the US Capitol – has left the allies questioning the stability of the US political system and what remains of the administration’s commitments. Biden whether Republicans took over Congress in 2022 or a Republicans won the White House in 2024.
Heading into 2022, Biden knows that the country’s future (and his) does not only lie in restoring a sense of normalcy, but also in security and prosperity. Foreign policy is an internal Beltway issue, far from the top of what Americans think is the most pressing issue.
It doesn’t mean ignoring the world. Quite the contrary, it means engaging abroad so that foreign policy crises do not harm or undermine Biden’s national agenda, or as in the case of Afghanistan, damage his reputation. While the botched pullout wasn’t the only reason Biden’s approval ratings plummeted, it certainly didn’t help – given that the president has been touting his deep experience in foreign affairs.
So where should President 2022 start?
Ukraine will probably be the number one problem of the New Year. Even if Biden’s use of deterrence and diplomacy prevents a Russian invasion, Ukraine is likely to disrupt US-Russian relations for some time, given Putin’s determination to try to end his affiliation. growing with the West.
It will also complicate Biden’s domestic politics. The US Senate has scheduled a January vote on whether to impose sanctions on the company behind a pipeline from Russia. If the administration opposes tougher sanctions, Republicans will accuse Biden of being weak against Putin. If he agrees to toughen sanctions, he will alienate Germany, an essential ally, relying on access to the pipeline.
The Biden administration faces much the same conundrum in light of the difficult negotiations with Iran, which are likely to reach a point of success or failure early in the New Year. Neither diplomacy nor deterrence, so far, seems to be working. Iran is closer than ever to producing enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, although, according to Israeli intelligence, the country is at least two years away from making a deliverable weapon.
And Iran’s demand to lift all sanctions makes a return to the original 2015 nuclear deal unlikely. Israelis are pushing for a tougher US approach to Iran than the Biden administration hesitates to adopt even if Republicans and some Democrats deem it necessary. Indeed, the last thing Biden wants now on top of all his domestic woes is a major conflict with Iran that is leading to tumbling financial markets and rising oil prices.
Then there is North Korea. Kim Jong Un has been relatively calm lately. Indeed, there has been no long-range ballistic missile launch since 2017. If North Korea resumes long-range testing, Biden will have another headache on his hands.
So far, according to Joel Wit, a prominent member of the Stimson Center and veteran North Korea expert, Biden has his North Korean policy “only half right.” As the president has strengthened ties with U.S. allies in East Asia, such as South Korea and Japan, he has been reluctant to engage Pyongyang directly. Rather than reviving Trump’s summit-oriented diplomacy, he might consider quietly exploring the prospects of seeing Secretary of State Antony Blinken engage with North Korea.
Above all of Biden’s foreign policy priorities, of course, is China. The country’s predatory lending practices in much of its Belt and Road initiative, alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang, increased threats against Taiwan, and assertion of sovereignty in the China Sea South, among others, face the new administration with major challenges.
The administration backed down, sanctioning China for human rights abuses, strengthening relations with allies like Australia and Japan and announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. But as Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment thinks, the best one can hope for – at least for now – is probably some sort of “managed enmity.” And given attitudes on both sides of the aisle, Biden can’t afford to be seen as weak on China.
Unfortunately, the prospects for success in these four areas are limited. Domestic politics limit the flexibility of the administration, and it is difficult to imagine even the best strategy of deterrence and diplomacy producing stable end states. As the mid-term approaches, the president, who was determined to devote his major efforts to redressing America’s domestic woes, could find himself increasingly mired in dangerous foreign policy challenges to the United States. foreigner. At best, if he is clever and lucky, the world Biden faces is one to manage, not transform.