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Editorial: On foreign policy, it’s not enough for Biden to be the anti-Trump

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin is President-elect Joe Biden's choice for Defense secretary.
(Associated Press )

In choosing retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin as secretary of Defense, President-elect Joe Biden has filled most of the positions on a foreign policy team with reassuringly able and experienced nominees. Now the challenge is for Biden and his advisors to make good on his promise that “America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”

Austin, who must receive a waiver from Congress to serve so close to his retirement as a uniformed officer, would be the first Black person to serve in that position. He would join a team that includes Secretary of State-designate Antony J. Blinken; Jake Sullivan, who will serve as national security advisor; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a veteran diplomat who will represent the United States at the United Nations.

In four chaotic years as president, Donald Trump needlessly alienated America’s allies, cozied up to dictators, scorned international organizations, downplayed climate change, winked at human rights violations, treated career diplomats and military officers with contempt and confused his own interests with those of the nation. Both Biden’s statements and his appointments suggest that he will follow a different path.

But the next president will need to be more than the opposite of Trump if he wants to pursue a successful foreign policy.

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To be sure, Biden should move to undo Trump’s worst blunders, such as his reckless repudiation of the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord. But Biden and his team must also pursue — in a competent and consistent way — initiatives that Trump was right to undertake but bungled badly. They include winding down the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, engaging North Korea in talks over its nuclear program and responding to unfair trade practices by China.

Afghanistan poses a particular challenge. Because of a last-minute decision by Trump, U.S. troops in that country — trainers, advisors and counter-terrorism forces — are set to dwindle to 2,500 next month. The peace process midwifed by the Trump administration has made only halting progress, and Biden might feel pressed, including by some of his foreign policy advisors, to leave troops there indefinitely if there is no political settlement.

That would break faith with Biden‘s promise to end “forever wars.” His foreign policy team should leverage its experience and diplomatic skills — ideally in concert with NATO partners and other nations in the region — to create conditions that would allow for further withdrawal, leaving a small force to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

In dealing with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Trump careened from threatening Pyongyang with “fire and fury” to a humiliating personal courtship of Kim Jong Un. The latter approach failed to produce a commitment by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

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Biden has said his administration would work with other nations, including China, to advance the objective of a denuclearized North Korea. But the administration should also be open to the possibility of an agreement that would freeze or contain North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Like presidents before him, Trump sought to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but what he once called the “ultimate deal” proved elusive after the administration floated a peace place that was heavily skewed in Israel’s favor.

To his credit, Trump did preside over the normalization of relations between Israel and two Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. And, as part of the agreement with the Emirates, Israel agreed to postpone the annexation of land in the West Bank. Biden, whose credentials as a supporter of Israel are unassailable, should build upon that achievement to press for a comprehensive agreement that would include a Palestinian state peacefully existing alongside Israel.

The new administration will also need to frame policies for dealing with Russia, China and Iran.

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Russia’s annexation of Crimea, its meddling in the 2016 U.S. election, and its attempts to intimidate America’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have made it a pariah in the eyes of lawmakers from both parties. Even Trump, despite his reluctance to confront President Vladimir Putin over election interference, signed legislation imposing sanctions on Russia. Yet it’s in this country’s interest to engage with Russia.

Biden has said that the U.S. must keep NATO’s military capabilities sharp and “impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms.” He also said the U.S. should “stand with Russian civil society” against Putin’s authoritarian rule. But he also has expressed support for the extension of the New START treaty that places limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and for the pursuit of additional arms-control agreements. His administration should explore ways to calm tensions with Russia without abandoning U.S. allies or countenancing Russian aggression in Ukraine.

On China, the president-elect has said that the U.S. should “build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.” Such a nuanced strategy is easier articulated than accomplished, but Biden’s team is better equipped to try to execute it than the Trump administration, whose disdain for multilateral approaches left the United States without the allies and the leverage needed to bring about real change.

Iran has loomed large in Trump’s foreign policy to the point of obsession. Trump‘s repudiation of the nuclear agreement, which gave Iran an excuse to stop complying with its restrictions and created a breach with America’s European allies, was only the beginning. His campaign of “maximum pressure” through economic sanctions, which seemed designed to bring about leadership change, also has strengthened hard-liners in Tehran. (They were further empowered by the recent assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, allegedly by Israel.)

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Biden has called Iran a “destabilizing force” in the region, but he has expressed an interest in rejoining the nuclear agreement if Tehran returns to strict compliance and in building upon it to ensure that the Islamic Republic doesn’t develop nuclear weapons. This, too, is an area in which Biden’s commitment to work with allies might yield better results than the Trump administration’s unilateral approach.

Finally, Biden has promised to advance human rights abroad, a cause to which Trump personally seemed indifferent — witness his refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — and which his State Department has pursued selectively, focusing primarily on violations of religious freedom. Biden will have to balance a commitment to human rights with other U.S. interests. But he is far less likely than Trump to ignore or minimize abuses of human rights.

Like any president, Biden will face unanticipated foreign policy challenges and will have to modify his policies accordingly. That’s what President Obama did when, overcoming his aversion to U.S. military involvement abroad, he used military force in Iraq and Syria against the militant group Islamic State, a campaign that Trump ultimately brought to a conclusion.

Fortunately, the caliber of the men and women Biden has selected to shape U.S. foreign policy offers hope that the next administration will respond thoughtfully to predictable and unpredictable problems alike. Amateur hour is over.


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