With Russia pointing a gun at Ukraine’s head, China increasing threats against Taiwan, and Iran on the verge of nuclear weapons breakout capability, the United States and its allies face an extraordinary set of national security challenges posed by autocratic rivals. Just months before President Biden took office, one of us wrote in these pages to analyze whether the incoming president would follow through on his campaign promise to stand up to dictators. The article articulated reason for skepticism: The president’s record suggested that he might be less than resolute against America’s autocratic rivals.
With Biden’s first year in office behind us, we can see that the article proved prescient. While Biden has been pretty tough on China, he has been unwilling to adequately confront Russia, Iran, and international terrorism and has largely ignored North Korea, to the detriment of U.S. national security interests.
Let us start where the administration has performed best. Biden has continued the Trump administration’s priority of great-power competition with China and built upon that record in meaningful ways. While Biden’s comments on the campaign trail – “They’re not competition for us” – cast doubt as to whether the president understood the threat, his administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance declared China to be the greatest state-based threat to the United States and the only threat capable of upending the U.S.-led international system.
Biden has maintained much of Trump’s approach to economic competition with China and added new elements. He kept in place Trump-era economic tariffs and measures to crack down on the unfair practices of Chinese technology companies, like Huawei, while taking steps to boost America’s technology competitiveness.
The Biden administration has been more consistent than Trump’s in condemning China’s human rights violations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken followed his predecessor in calling China’s actions in Xinjiang a genocide. Biden signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which strengthens prohibitions on importing goods made with forced labor in Xinjiang. Alongside Canada, the United Kingdom, and European Union, Biden levied coordinated sanctions on Chinese officials directly involved in the genocide. Finally, in December 2021, the administration announced the United States would diplomatically boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over China’s human rights violations.
In the diplomatic arena, the administration has emphasized working with allies and partners to build a counterbalancing coalition against China. The president elevated “the Quad” grouping of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan and, in September, hosted at the White House the first-ever in-person Quad summit at the leader level. Biden announced AUKUS, a new trilateral security pact with the United Kingdom and Australia, which will provide Australia nuclear-powered submarines and bolster security cooperation and interoperability more broadly.
But, while the Biden administration’s overall philosophy toward China has been on point, the execution has, at times, left something to be desired. The rollout of AUKUS was marred by poor coordination with key European allies, especially France, which saw its own submarine deal with Australia scrapped because of the new pact. The diplomatic spat even caused France to briefly withdraw its ambassador from the United States.
Similarly, Biden has now twice promised that Washington would defend Taiwan against an invasion from China, only to be walked back both times by his own White House. Clarifying America’s commitment to Taipei would be a welcome step forward to strengthen deterrence against China, but the public back-and-forth with his own staff has sown confusion. Is this a highly complicated master plan to keep Beijing guessing, or, more likely, undisciplined White House messaging?
Still, despite a couple of unforced errors, the Biden administration deserves mostly high marks for its China policy.
Its record on Russia, however, has been less impressive. Consistent with his campaign promise to punish Russia for its 2016 election interference and cyber attacks, Biden took early steps to sanction Russia.
In simultaneously searching for “a stable, predictable” relationship with Russia, however, Biden has inadvertently strengthened Putin’s hand. As the article one year ago predicted, Biden’s first major foreign policy act as president was to extend the New START arms control agreement with Russia, even though Moscow is exploiting the treaty to a one-sided advantage by building new types of exotic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons not limited by the agreement. Biden refused to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany, giving Moscow a new weapon to coerce economically its Eastern European neighbors. And, although it is impossible to prove, we suspect that Putin took Biden’s measure watching America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan (more on this later), contributing to his decision to threaten a massive invasion of Ukraine.
A major Russian invasion of Ukraine could be the biggest shock to the international system since the end of the Cold War. Biden has attempted to deter the attack by threatening, among other things, arms sales to Kyiv and reinforcements to NATO’s eastern flank if Putin invades. But those are steps that should be taken now in anticipation of a Russian invasion, not after it is too late to make much of a difference. Moreover, Biden mistakenly declared that direct U.S. military intervention was off the table. While there are good reasons to avoid a direct military clash with Russia over Ukraine, it is counterproductive to assure Putin of that. We want the Kremlin to worry about what might go wrong. You don’t take your own queen off the board in a game of chess.
On Iran, the administration’s approach has been wrongheaded and, predictably, it has not worked as it expected. Biden hoped to quickly re-enter the 2015 nuclear agreement and then use that as a baseline to negotiate a “longer and stronger” deal. Instead, Iran has refused to re-enter the accord or even engage in meaningful negotiations. Meanwhile, as Biden has eased the economic and military pressure, Iran has taken advantage by greatly ramping up its nuclear program. Experts estimate that if Iran’s supreme leader decides to sprint, it would take him about three weeks to build one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium. Time is running out.
As one of us argued in a piece in the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, the administration might soon face a choice between allowing Iran to become a nuclear-weapons state and using military force to prevent this from happening. To avoid that outcome, the Biden administration should return to the pressure track with a new sanctions offensive and by placing a credible military option back on the table. Another possibility, however, is that, in order to kick the can down the road, Biden will settle for a new weaker deal with even fewer restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program than the flawed 2015 agreement.
Turning to international terrorism, the article last year highlighted the “hasty Obama/Biden troop withdrawal from Iraq and the willingness to stand by as civil war raged in Syria” as contributing directly to rise of the Islamic State terrorist threat. Unfortunately, President Biden repeated this mistake in overseeing another hasty troop withdrawal, this time in Afghanistan, followed by a chaotic evacuation.
The rapid Taliban takeover will once again make Afghanistan a safe haven for terrorists and likely inspire other anti-American terrorist groups around the world. Moreover, the United States now lacks an on-the-ground presence in the country making it much more difficult to gather intelligence and conduct military strikes against terrorist threats there, including those posed by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. To add insult to injury, the administration failed to adequately consult with allies on the decision, jeopardizing the security of their citizens in the country and leading them to question American reliability globally.
North Korea is a hard problem and, as expected, Biden has put it on the back burner. The Biden administration has left Trump-era sanctions in place and suggested it is open to engaging North Korea diplomatically, but there has been no concerted effort to restart conversations with Pyongyang. Meanwhile, the threat continues to grow. Over the past year, North Korea has continued to conduct missile tests, including of a hypersonic missile designed to evade U.S. missile defenses.
Considered as a whole, Biden has not delivered on his promise to stand up to dictators. He has been pretty good on China, but too passive in his approach to other autocratic challengers. As the president has repeatedly stated, the world is at an inflection point between democracy and autocracy. While Biden’s rhetorical commitments are not in question, he has not yet backed that rhetoric with the action necessary to mitigate the serious threat to U.S. and allied national security posed by America’s autocratic enemies. With three more years in the Oval Office to go, let’s hope he finds the nerve to do so. The security of the free world depends upon it.
Matthew Kroenig is a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and the deputy director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. Jeffrey Cimmino is the associate director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.