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Op-Ed: Does the Biden administration deserve a passing grade in foreign policy?

President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit in socially distanced chairs.
President Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the start of the U.S.-Russia summit in Geneva on June 16.
(Denis Balibouse / Pool Photo)
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Senior officials in charge of foreign policy in the Biden administration have spent 2021 seeking to return America to activism in multilateral institutions and to restore its global reputation as a leader and its image as both competent and reliable after the hapless chest-thumping of the previous administration.

Unhappily, the first year has not been kind to their efforts or their president. I say this as someone who was a colleague of many of these officials when I chaired the National Intelligence Council during the Obama administration — and who admires them.

They had bad luck with Afghanistan, not least inheriting the Trump agreement with the Taliban in 2020 promising a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops; it was little more than a fig leaf covering surrender.

But the U.S. also had bad execution. The administration was pressured by the Afghan government to avoid taking action that would bespeak departure, yet the U.S. still should have done much more than it did to prepare for the withdrawal by the end of August, especially to get out the Afghans who had worked with us. The military usually excels at quickly moving people, but in this case it did not.

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If we were given a do-over, we might have kept the Bagram air base open in Afghanistan even if it meant temporarily deploying more troops to defend it.

I was also surprised — after we saw the Iraqi army evaporate in the fall of Mosul in 2014 — that my former colleagues in intelligence didn’t at least warn of the strong possibility that the endgame in Afghanistan might play out in days or weeks, not months or years. My years in intelligence have left me skeptical of assessments that are too convenient, such as the one suggesting the Afghan regime could hold on for months.

The Biden team is experienced and able, and that is a welcome relief. Yet they are also card-carrying members of the foreign policy establishment, what Ben Rhodes, who was a deputy national security advisor to President Obama, calls the “blob” (and which probably also includes me). I sometimes have the impression they think this is still 1992, when the U.S. was having a unipolar moment as the global superpower.

The world has changed. This is not a time when we should be lecturing Chinese diplomats, as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken did in March in Anchorage, no matter how much they deserve it or respond in kind with lectures of their own.

Nor can U.S. leadership be assumed; it has to be earned, issue by issue, and decision by decision. On that score, conniving with London to sell Australia British nuclear submarines, rather than the French models they had ordered, and to do so with no prior warning to France, was a gaffe which neither a President Biden apology nor a visit to Paris in early November by Vice President Kamala Harris could erase.

Traditional allies are bound to hedge their bets: Having witnessed the “America First” Trumpism once, they know our politics well enough to know it could happen again.

There is more foreign policy continuity between Biden and former President Trump than I expected. Biden reversed two of three Trump withdrawals, taking the country back into the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization.

But what is more arresting is that he did not rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That should have been a natural, for it is the perfect vehicle for doing what the Trump administration sought but failed to do: Make progress in curbing the various ways China appropriates intellectual property, which includes requiring foreign businesses to share their technology in exchange for market access — and many reports of outright theft.

The first rounds of Trump tariffs may have gotten China’s attention, but the follow-up was negative: Rather than rallying countries in Europe and elsewhere that share the same grievance against China, the Trump administration levied tariffs on those would-be partners as well, apparently for reasons unconnected to China. Yet the fact that the Biden administration has made nary a peep about rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership underscores the constraints now that trade agreements have become dirty words across the political spectrum.

Russia’s massing of troops on Ukraine’s border, which began in November, will test the administration. It stands in testimony to the fact that a declining power can still be locally preeminent militarily — and to the risk that the Biden administration could simultaneously face crises in Europe and Asia. Never mind that if the foreign policy establishmentarians seem to think it’s still 1992, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to think it’s still 900.

By harking back to Kievan Rus — a medieval state that some say was the precursor to the modern states of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus — Putin is asserting that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. It may be an acceptable historical reference but it is an unwise strategy, for it only offends Ukrainians and drives them further toward the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

China plainly is the center of American foreign policy, and on that score, too, there seems more continuity than strategy. The Biden administration did not move to rescind the Trump tariffs but applied punitive measures of its own, such as delisting Chinese companies from U.S. stock exchanges and not sending officials to the Olympics in China.

While the administration obviously understands that if humanity is to survive, we must cooperate with China in addressing the climate crisis, otherwise the “new Cold War” mentality that appears to grip Washington seems to include the administration as well. That is a very unhelpful frame — more 1962 than 2022 — for not only does it narrow the scope for cooperation with China, it also downplays the economic importance of the two countries to each other.

Political calculations may suggest hyping the “China threat” to sell measures for renewal at home that we should do even if China didn’t exist, such as spending more on basic research and development on critical technologies, just as President Eisenhower used the Cold War in the 1950s to justify the National Highway Defense Act, which built the U.S. interstate system so that in the event of a nuclear attack people could easily evacuate cities.

But slogans are not strategy, and on the Biden administration’s first-year report card, its approach toward China earns it an “incomplete” in foreign policy.

Gregory F. Treverton, chairman of the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2014 to 2017, is a professor of international relations at USC and chairman of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum.


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