Why the Standard Tools of Foreign Policy Are Failing
The Afghanistan debacle has devastated Biden’s global standing and our national security challenges are piling up.
It’s no secret that foreign policy challenges to President Joe Biden are piling up at an alarming rate. In the last week alone, Russia has edged toward a full-scale invasion of Ukraine (with some inept encouragement from Joe Biden), Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have widened their war in the Persian Gulf with a drone attack on civilians in Abu Dhabi, and North Korea has conducted four missile tests. There should be no debate about the reasons these challenges are proliferating, nor why traditional solutions are not working. But until the administration understands the “why” behind its failures in national security, they will continue to grow. In a word: Afghanistan.
The decision to scuttle out of Kabul in the dead of night, to ignore the clamors of allies in NATO and on the ground, to accept nothing less than ignominious defeat—at the hands of the Taliban no less—has devastated Biden’s global standing.
And so it is unsurprising that neither diplomacy nor sanctions appear to be working to deliver Joe Biden’s chosen goals—a de-escalation of global tensions and a diminution of a set of threats as varied and dangerous as any since the end of the Cold War. The dictators behind those threats sense American weakness. On the non-proliferation front, both North Korea and Iran (which is accelerating both its nuclear and missile programs) have stubbornly proceeded apace, advancing weaponization and expanding delivery range for the most dangerous weapons the world knows. In the case of North Korea, after years of alternating peace talks, military threats, proffered bribes, escalating sanctions, and benign neglect, absolutely nothing appears to have moved the Hermit Kingdom from its chosen course.
Faced with this litany of failure, the Biden administration (egged on by the leftist, doggedly pro-unification government in Seoul) is thinking of ending the state of war that has existed on the Korean peninsula since the 1950s. It is unclear what either Washington or Seoul diplomatic poohbahs believe they will gain, as Pyongyang has made absolutely clear that all it really wants is an end to the U.S. military umbrella over the Republic of Korea.
On Iran, while Team Biden has escalated its rhetoric (as much against the Trump administration as against Iran), ever more generous offers of capitulation to the Islamic Republic have yet to deliver a return to the now largely irrelevant Iran deal Biden’s old boss sealed. True, there have been sporadic sanctions imposed on a variety of Iranian officials since Biden took office, but the anti-Trumpian approach has largely rested upon the marriage of overeager diplomacy and a blind eye to illegal sales of Iranian oil. Not surprisingly, this velvet fist in a velvet glove has yielded few concessions from Tehran.
More problematically for the administration, the Iranian leadership has, concurrent with the nuclear talks ongoing in Vienna, escalated its disruptive regional behavior, targeting U.S. forces in Iraq as well as the U.S.-backed prime minister, and encouraging its Yemeni partners, the Houthis, to widen their range of attacks, broadening from local targets, Saudi civilian targets, and regional shipping to targets in the United Arab Emirates. The regime has also escalated the frequency and quality of weapons deliveries to Hezbollah, causing Israel to ramp up its own air defensive operations over both Lebanon and Syria.
Notwithstanding the prospects for a nuclear-armed Iran, the Tehran game has become something of a sideshow because of the maelstrom of other strategic problems. Putin appears to be committed to his aggression against Ukraine, and has—in the face of occasional strong rhetoric from Washington—failed to back down. After Biden promised “severe costs and significant harm on Russia and the Russian economy,” (leavened with a heartening promise that military action “is not on the table,”), Vladimir Putin shrugged off the threat. Instead, Russia has hit the Ukrainian government with a cyber attack, prepped for a false flag casus belli, and inserted Russian troops in Kazakhstan (at the request of its president). And it has issued a series of escalating demands, including barring Ukraine from NATO membership and an end to NATO military cooperation with former Soviet states.
As daunting as Russia’s growing predations on its neighbors are (Finland and Sweden are even talking about joining NATO), rumbling from Beijing is likely yet more troubling to Biden’s national security cadres. A diplomatic boycott of the Olympics seems unlikely to achieve much, and certainly not an easing of the Chinese Uyghur genocide to which Xi Jinping appears so committed. Only Congress has managed to muster any kind of anger over the Uyghurs, while the the Biden administration working quietly but ultimately fruitlessly to derail the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.
In Biden’s defense, there is a give and take in the world of foreign policy, and, mirroring the Trump-era arguments between China doves (ahem, Steve Mnuchin) and hawks on the Trump National Security Council, there are some in the Biden White House who believe Chinese concessions on climate and support in relieving inflation-driving supply chain nightmares is more important that possibly-fruitless efforts to save the Uyghurs. This emphasis on domestic policy over foreign policy has even greater purchase during times of economic crisis. And there is a burgeoning inflation/supply chain/workforce participation crisis in the United States that isn’t getting better.
Regarding Russia, others argue that painting Putin into a corner is more likely to spark conflict with Ukraine and that now is not the time to test NATO. They look at Germany’s embarrassingly weak response to Putin, and ask, “If Putin’s neighbors can’t get excited enough to defend Ukraine, why should the United States?” (Those who believe Angela Merkel was the only reason Germany is weak-kneed on national security receive 20 demerits.) And it’s hard not to be sympathetic to those in Biden’s circle who are tired of putting up with Europe’s mercantilist pacifism.
Similarly, there are different perspectives on the best way to force Iran back from the nuclear brink, get North Korea to stop shooting off missiles, disincentivize Houthi terrorism, defang Hezbollah … not to speak of limiting Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, threats to Taiwan and the assorted other Chinese Communist Party led assaults on the global order. But there is little disagreement that these things would—ideally—not happen. And that’s the problem. Increasingly, the standard tool box of foreign policy solutions appears empty.
Disagreements about diplomacy vs. the use of force, “crippling” sanctions vs. smart sanctions vs. targeted economic measures, and war vs. peace are not new. But historically, the United States, or the U.S. and a coalition of willing allies, have been able to impose costs that outweigh the perceived benefits of the malign designs of the world’s rogues. Lately, that is not the case. As my AEI colleague Chris Miller laid out succinctly in a recent Foreign Affairs piece,
After Biden administration officials escalated their threats, the Russian stock market and its currency barely budged. The markets’ collective shrug mirrors the Kremlin’s view that the United States will not follow through on the harsh sanctions it has discussed.
The same calculus works in Beijing. Biden, Xi Jinping has rightly reckoned, has no appetite for confrontation—not over the Uyghurs, not over Taiwan, not over anything. But why? Again, in a word: Afghanistan.
Every president since the disastrous Jimmy Carter has been tested in one way or another—Ronald Reagan by domestic unions at the very first, but by the Soviets at every turn; George H.W. Bush by Saddam himself; Bill Clinton by the Balkans; George W. Bush by the Chinese capture of a U.S. spy plane and then 9/11. Hell, even Barack Obama drew a red line and took out Muammar Gaddafi; Donald Trump took on the ayatollahs and took out Iran’s most important military leader. In each instance, the American president showed his mettle in the face of foreign threats.
What has Biden done to signal to the world that he—and the America that is “back”—is a force to be reckoned with? Precisely nothing. Diplomacy, sanctions and threats from a president that is not serious about his nation’s power and interests mean little, and the world’s rogues have figured that out.