Biden’s policy failures symbolize US leadership crisis
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President Joe Biden entered office a year ago with a promise to reclaim America’s global leadership by renewing multilateralism, resetting relations with China and Russia, ending the war in Afghanistan and reviving the Iran nuclear deal. However, his subsequent policies aimed at realizing these core foreign policy objectives — pursued with weak deterrence and meek diplomacy — have failed to produce the desired outcomes.
Consequently, allies in Europe and the Middle East still doubt if they can fully trust the US. While China has expanded its economic clout in Asia, Russia has raised the security stakes in Europe. Beset by a humanitarian crisis, Afghanistan could implode at any time. And Iran continues to play deadly games in the region, while pursuing brinkmanship in nuclear negotiations.
There is little doubt that Biden’s lack of leadership and strategic thinking has put the world at greater risk of conflict.
Where to begin. Multilateralism: Yes, he has brought America back to global institutions and the Paris climate accord, led the global climate discourse and sponsored a summit for democracy. But on the global issues that really matter, the US has opted to go alone — it backstabbed France by signing a secret nuclear submarine deal with Australia and the UK; it exited Afghanistan without consulting the allied nations in NATO; it debated democracy, while keeping half of the world out; and it appeased Iran, forgetting what Tehran does to America’s time-tested Arab allies in the neighborhood.
Of course, unilateralism at the expense of multilateralism cannot buy America the global goodwill it desires. A democracy in turmoil at home loses the moral high ground to nudge its illiberal variants abroad, be it the coup in Myanmar or the protests in Kazakhstan. Diplomacy is set to fail when its basic premises are wrongly framed. Even deterrence comes to naught when the enemy is cunning to the core.
Vladimir Putin has led Russia in the last 20 years with a mastery that only a spook can display. Compare his composure to Biden’s frailty and the dynamics of European security become clear. Moscow means business when it says NATO must not enlarge into what it treats as its own post-Soviet sphere of influence. The threat of punitive economic sanctions can work neither here nor in the case of Gazprom, which has already laid down Nord Stream 2. Germany needs Russian gas more than ever. Kiev and Warsaw may cry wolf about Russian blackmail. But against Putin’s brinkmanship, Biden will do as he does best: Damage limitation.
What about China, which Biden and the team have made enemy No. 1 for no good reason? It is hard to believe that a supposedly dovish leader would militarily frame the economic competition with China in Asia-Pacific, even rallying his NATO and G7 counterparts to test Chinese patience over Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea. Beijing has risen economically through a great national effort and under successive visionary leaders. If its edge in critical technologies like 5G is a problem, then why not invest in their research and development? Why push China toward an existential conflict it wants to avoid at all cost? And without stating what the end goal is.
Meanwhile, as Washington is busy forging security partnerships such as AUKUS, the Chinese are expanding their geoeconomic influence in the region, recently joining the 15-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The US is not even bothering to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose predecessor was created under its auspices as an economic counterweight to China. Beyond Asia-Pacific, Beijing has done an investment deal with the EU and fostered trade and investment partnerships across the Middle East and North Africa.
On the military exit from Afghanistan and the nuclear talks with Iran, the less said the better. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is particularly fond of passing the buck and blaming the Trump administration for negotiating the fateful peace deal with the Taliban and pushing the Iranians toward resuming their nuclear weapons program. But the buck stops with the Biden administration. In the case of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, by pushing back the deadline but moving ahead with the plan, it paved the way for the Taliban’s victory and its tragic consequences. In the Vienna talks on the Iran nuclear deal, who is saber-rattling whom is crystal clear. The Biden administration doesn’t even care what its Arab allies say about the danger posed by the clerical regime’s ballistic missiles and malign acts.
However, it would be unfair to blame Biden alone for the great mess America’s relations with the world are in today. All of his foreign policy gaffes are symptomatic of a deepening crisis in American leadership.
The roots go back to America’s unipolar moment three decades ago, when it had the chance to reshape global institutions to preserve the rules-based international order. Instead, imperial hubris led its military-industrial complex to tread dangerous terrains and wage expansive wars. The consequent reality, marked by an overstretched military draining vital economic resources, has polarized politics in the US and eroded its influence in the world.
This has created an acute leadership dilemma concerning the policy choice between domestic renewal and foreign assertion. In terms of strategic preferences, nationalism has superseded internationalism — Trump’s “America First” versus Biden’s “Build Back Better” reflects this tendency. This is why, barring some exceptions, major US foreign policies denote continuity along bipartisan lines, such as imposing punitive trade tariffs on China and the security disengagement from the Middle East.
America is in dire need of domestic healing to overcome its bitter political divide, economic meltdown and pandemic battle. However, despite eroding influence abroad and deep divisions at home, the US faces a world with both traditional geopolitical threats and new challenges tied to globalization. Managing them requires adapting to a multipolar world, where China and Russia matter. While competing with them, the US must muster their support, alongside its traditional allies, to reshape the global order in ways that serve common goals.
Biden has so far failed to provide the sort of leadership that America and the world need at this critical juncture — one that does not squander global obligations for the sake of domestic renewals or let the latter determine the contours of the former. Will he be any different in the remaining three years of his presidential term? Only time will tell.