Biden Faces the World
Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 17, 2021
The inescapable conclusion to anyone witnessing two weeks of Joe Biden tackling the many issues of U.S. foreign policy is that this new administration is moving steadily, certainly and with a deep belief in actual governing.
You don’t have to agree with Biden to recognize an administration that reviews and decides, knowing what it wants to achieve and grounding his views and those of his State Department on principles of international engagement, American leadership joined with allies, a heavy dose of morality and sincere respect for diplomats and the work of diplomacy.
Just as certainly, his opponents are already priming their election guns on a sense that Biden is
“soft” on China and weak on immigration, and has been slow to talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
There are moves, like overturning the month-old declaration of Houtis in Yemen as a terrorist group, that keep alerting the world of a distinct change in what has been American thinking for four years — in this case, lifting the designation to favor allowing food and aid to Yemeni civilian refugees over a knee-jerk opposition to Iranian allies.
Even Biden’s first foreign policy speech to State Department employees was a massive rejection of Donald Trump’s push for American isolation and preference for global authoritarian leaders over longtime international friends, plus newsworthy efforts to stop U.S. support for continued offensive attacks by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, halting the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany, and clear warnings to Russia, Iran and China about expectations for better relations.
Atop a commitment to review and loosen immigration and asylum policies, to extend limits on intercontinental ballistic missile warheads, to recommit the United States to international climate control efforts and rejoin the World Health Organization to help counter coronavirus worldwide, it’s been an active two weeks.
For sure, there were plenty of questions to follow about practically just how and at what cost Biden will pursue these policies. Specific policies aside, however, the general impression was the opposite of the gasps we’ve felt every time Donald Trump went abroad. Biden knows what he is talking about, hires people who have expertise and bases his leadership on something other than personal gut.
That alone is a welcome change. So, too, is the idea that despite domestic emergencies and plenty of political infighting, Biden seems to lean on a full team of professionals rather than political loyalists.
For good or bad, the dominant themes of the Trump foreign policy were America First and only-Donald-Trump-can-fix-it. The immediate conclusion from Biden’s opening weeks are the opposite — on both counts.
Biden clearly sees American interests are intertwined with those or the globe, and specifically of America’s traditional allies, and is committed to rebuilding a State Department — and other agencies — that is staffed with professionals and not straight political appointees.
It is a re-embrace of what Trump would call the deep state, and hearing it sounds weirdly comforting just to know that personnel who actually know what they are doing are going into the appropriate government slots.
It also reflects that among all the candidates in either party, Biden seems to have emerged as the single one who actually knows the most about how the gears of government work and seems to have the best chance to build international consensus.
Targets of Foreign Policy
In seeking to turn the aircraft carrier that is U.S. foreign policy, it takes a whole lot of maneuvering to get things aligned. It was an interesting note to hear that Biden had reached out to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell about foreign policy, for example, to align their interests in this area even as they spar over the size and speed of coronavirus aid and other domestic legislation.
From press reports and network interviews, it seems clear that the United States is taking a stronger hand against Russian interventions in our country and in Europe, an effort that is winning widespread support; Biden is targeting China for a big-scale review of what we want to achieve and what is possible is being seen as appropriate, even as we see China probing for military, trade and diplomatic openings. In his first talk with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, Biden did not hesitate to share harsh views of Chinese human rights policies, unfair trade practices or aggressive military moves in the South China Sea.
Lining up European allies towards a renewed attempt to corral Iranian aggressiveness is also winning bipartisan praise, though it comes with warnings about Iran’s nuclear plans. Even the idea of taking a stronger position towards Saudi Arabia, especially in trying to halt destructive war against Yemen, so far has been supported.
At the same time, adopting policies that will appear to loosen immigration enforcement and invite more refugees to the United States are likely to bring much more criticism, especially as the administration seeks expensive solutions that don’t involve a border Wall. Trump had tied into a certain well-spring of xenophobia to feel comfortable taking very inhumane stands against immigrants.
It’s early to judge whether Biden will have any success at building out his vision, and even harder to judge whether the efforts will prove good for the country and the world.
But we can report that the first weeks are building a certain sense of confidence that this administration actually deals in realistic assessment and practical solution.