What We Have Learned About Biden’s Foreign Policy

And what more we’ll learn when we see the defense budget.

The tradition of assessing presidential administrations at the 100 day mark is homage to FDR and the power of the presidency to combat the Great Depression. It is totally arbitrary, of course, and in many ways has become a lazy hook for members of the pundit class. Nonetheless, this initial look at the early actions of a president and his team can provide some useful insights into the general trend of national security policy—a trend that might otherwise be obscured by the Biden team’s focus on the COVID vaccine rollout and attempts to pump up the economy and enlarge the role of government in American society.

In that spirit, one can say that the first 100 days or so of the Biden administration’s foreign policy have gone about as expected. The president and his national security team have been met with a sigh of relief both in U.S. agencies and (with some notable exceptions) in chanceries around the world.  

Biden has demonstrated his commitment to liberal, multilateral internationalism by rejoining the Paris Accord on climate and the World Health Organization (although holding the organization to account for allowing China to obfuscate about COVID will remain an ongoing challenge). He has reinstated what appears to be a more normal, national security decision-making process and has recruited senior officials who are almost entirely in the mainstream of the Washington foreign policy elite (or “blob” if you prefer).  

The administration ordered air strikes on Iranian-backed militias in Syria to make the point (as President Biden himself said) that Iran should act with caution and not “impunity” and to demonstrate it is willing to use military force when necessary. His administration also issued interim national security strategic guidance that was notable mostly for the continuity it expressed with many of the policies (if not the rhetoric and frequent impulsive policy shifts) of the previous administration—particularly on China. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan held their own in an initial exchange of unpleasantries with their Chinese counterparts and followed that up with sanctions aimed at China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong that were impressively coordinated with the EU. After some initial delay, the administration designated a number of Russian individuals and entities for sanctions in response to the Solar Winds hack and Russian interference in the 2020 election (as attested to in the declassified report of the director of national intelligence). The administration has also begun to try to deal with some of America’s more problematic allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey without provoking a rupture. All of that is to the good.  

For internationalists of more conservative bent, however, there are several concerning developments. First, although the national security process looks like something more approaching regular order than its predecessor, the administration has still been slow in sending nominees forward for key positions in the national security bureaucracy. As a result, decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a very few principal officers of the government. This may be an unavoidable result of the election delays and the general difficulties of vetting candidates in a hyper-partisan age when mean tweets are enough to disqualify prospective appointees, but it is not sustainable for very long. It also runs the risk of the decision-makers becoming cloistered and susceptible to groupthink.

Second, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan raises a number of concerns.  It is perfectly appropriate for the President to overrule his military advisors and seek to extricate the U.S. from what he considers an “endless war,” however much I and others may disagree. But the insouciance with which several unnamed advisers have dismissed concerns about how easy it will be to perform the kinds of counterterrorism operations that Vice President Biden championed a decade ago during the Obama Afghan policy review was a bit startling, as was the morally repugnant statement by Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer suggesting that the Afghan government (supported by the U.S. for two decades) was just another faction equivalent to the Taliban. There will be reputational consequences for the U.S. “choosing to lose,” as Ambassador James Dobbins has argued, and other effects on U.S. policy (including the danger of loose Pakistani nuclear weapons) the consequences of which may bedevil the Biden team sooner than they think. 

Third, elements of the Biden team seem to be in unseemly haste to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. That agreement, which was meant to put a stop to Iran’s nuclear program, is significantly flawed, enough so that the Democratic platform argued returning to it was meant as a prelude to seeking a longer, stronger, broader agreement. The U.S. negotiators, however, are falling all over themselves in their assiduous backgrounding of the press to proclaim that “maximum pressure” has failed and that many of the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration for Iranian support for terrorism or human rights abuses were done in bad faith to scupper any attempted return to the JCPOA. The negotiating strategy in Vienna seems to be an attempt to convince the Iranians of something of which I doubt they need much convincing—that the Biden team would really, really like to get back into the JCPOA. In fact, the real task is to convince them that they cannot receive the kind of sanctions relief they want absent real movement toward the kind of broader and stronger agreement that Biden professes to want. To proceed along the current lines is likely to actually increase Iranian demands and bring the Biden team into conflict with members of Congress (and not just Republicans).

Finally, the administration has staked out declaratory positions on China and Russia that, as noted above, are consistent with the emphasis on great power competition of the Trump administration. Those, however, will be increasingly difficult to sustain absent concerted effort to maintain the nation’s defenses. This will be difficult given the cross-pressures from the left wing of the Democratic Party. But no matter how much one wants to argue that international affairs are now more complex, that diplomatic means are required to advance U.S. interests (which is clearly true), and that other measures of national power are as important as the defense budget, it remains a fact that allies and adversaries will see the U.S. commitment to defense as a crucial benchmark for assessing U.S. willingness and ability to succeed at long-term competition with its authoritarian adversaries. A tough declaratory policy without adequate military means to enforce it is a recipe for disaster, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. 

Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, in defense of the administration, has pointed out that critics on the left and right have been quick to declare that the top-line number that Biden administration announced is either too low or too high without actually seeing what is in the budget itself. That is a fair point. As Gordon England, one of her predecessors, used to say at the Pentagon, “we are what we buy.” The budget will certainly provide some guidance as to what investments the administration is prioritizing and which so-called “legacy” programs it is putting on the chopping block.

The problem however, is that U.S. faces both near-term challenges (as a recent GAO study on readiness pointed out) and long-term ones (as the interim strategic guidance acknowledged). A flat or declining budget will force excruciating choices and increase the likelihood that the Department of Defense will have to run considerable risks. The House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, a serious student of defense, recently said at an event hosted by the Reagan Institute that the existing National Defense Strategy is not affordable and that the U.S. can afford to deter but not to dominate China. That, unfortunately, suggests a strategy of spending just enough to fail if deterring China is unsuccessful. The budget submission is already late and Chairman Smith has been loudly calling on the administration to provide it to the committee so that the defense debate can begin. The budget is likely to provide one of the most important and illuminating debates on the administration’s likely future course. Watch this space.

Eric Edelman was a foreign service officer for 29 years and served in Israel, the Soviet Union, the Czech Republic, Finland, and Turkey. He is counselor at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.