Joe Biden “will be a foreign policy president,” predicted former New Mexico governor and United Nations ambassador Bill Richardson. “That’s his first love.”
Biden’s allies should be careful what they wish for.
The 46th president’s challenges abroad are myriad, but this White House has focused first on the threats posed by rogue states and extricating the U.S. from conflicts abroad. In Biden’s first 100 days, the administration has devoted conspicuous attention to revivifying the defunct nuclear accords with Iran and executing a full withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the pivotal Central Asian region in which it is situated.
The wisdom of these pursuits is debatable. Indeed, we will likely be debating them for years to come. But in many ways, these are the easiest challenges presented to the Biden administration. Orchestrating a unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan that isn’t informed by conditions on the ground is, by definition, a matter of will alone. Likewise, the administration’s imperturbable desire to re-establish something resembling the JCPOA seems untethered to Iranian actions and is, therefore, a one-party affair.
Whether America’s allies complicate these efforts remains to be seen. But if America’s adversaries are inclined to take “yes” for an answer, success as the Biden administration defines it will be a function of the Biden team’s resolve alone.
But more parlous and challenging foreign threats are fast appearing. They are coming from America’s near-peer competitors as great power competition emerges from a period of post-Cold War dormancy.
As of this writing, the buildup of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border is nearing the point of critical mass. “We’re now seeing the largest concentration of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders since 2014,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an ominous reference to the year Moscow invaded and subsequently annexed Ukrainian Crimea.
The buildup, which began in March, consists of roughly 40,000 troops, tanks, artillery, and support units along the Eastern border, where separatists loyal to Moscow have maintained de facto control of Ukraine’s Donbass region since 2014. Sporadic bouts of violence along the “line of contact” between separatist forces and Ukrainian regulars have flared ever since, and this year already looks to be bloodier than the last. Another 40,000 Russian soldiers are believed to be stationed in Crimea. Together, these forces represent a significant 10 percent of Russia’s total military manpower.
If Moscow’s objective is just to intimidate Kyiv and its Western partners into making diplomatic concessions, it’s being pretty coy about it. Joe Biden has preemptively responded to the challenge presented by Russia’s destabilizing troop buildup by offering to reward Moscow with a bilateral summit between himself and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But Moscow has responded demurely, suggesting that such an engagement would be contingent on U.S. behavior—likely a suggestion that the White House would have to lift some of the sanctions targeting Russian interests before high-level diplomacy could resume.
And while Russia menaces Europe, China seems intent on destabilizing the Pacific.
In the last several weeks, Chinese military jets and bombers have been engaged in “increasingly aggressive” violations of Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone.” These violations have become a near-daily occurrence, but Monday’s was the largest yet.
According to Taipei, the People’s Republic sent 18 fighter jets, four nuclear-capable bombers, an early-warning aircraft, and two anti-submarine aircraft into its defense zone in the biggest show of muscle the island nation has yet seen from Beijing. On Sunday, Blinken addressed the growing tensions in the strait. “We stand behind all those commitments,” America’s top diplomat said of defending Taiwan’s sovereignty, “it would be a serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force.”
To the Biden administration’s credit, this White House has not kept its distance from the Republic of China. Last week, the State Department announced a new policy aimed at encouraging government-to-government relationships between the U.S. and Taiwan—a sign that America’s “one-China policy,” which precludes formal diplomatic relations with the government in Taipei, is on the way out (a goal that a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Washington hope to formalize via legislation). That objective was further advanced by Biden’s decision to dispatch a diplomatic delegation to Taiwan this week, which includes close associates of the president such as former Sen. Chris Dodd.
These diplomatic reassurances are all well and good, but the question remains: Would Americans die for Danzig? Or, in this case, Taipei? The answer seems like a glaring “no,” particularly when this administration cannot even abide the low-intensity conflicts it inherited in Central Asia and the Middle East.
“This is not conditions-based,” said a senior administration official who briefed reporters anonymously on the timetable for withdrawing NATO forces from Afghanistan. “The president has judged that a conditions-based approach . . . is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.” The word that describes the unilateral cessation of hostilities regardless of whether our interests and objectives are seen to is “unconditional.”
Similarly, despite the threat posed by destabilizing Iranian actions in the region—including an Iranian missile attack on an Israeli vessel off the coast of the United Arab Emirates just yesterday—the Biden administration seems determined to draw down the U.S. troop presence in Iraq, whether that advances U.S. interests in the region or not. U.S forces in Iraq are shifting to training and advisory roles, allowing for the redeployment of combat troops shortly. And while there is no specific timetable for withdrawal, “Iraqi and U.S. officials have said they support a scheduled withdrawal.”
If the United States is such a spent force that it doesn’t have the wherewithal to support friendly governments in states where its commitments are deep and its policing actions are largely bloodless, why would revisionist powers like Russia and China believe that Washington has the stomach for a far costlier conflict in their respective backyards?
“Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” Joe Biden affirmed in a February address. That’s all well and good, but talk is cheap. This White House will be tested not just by rogue states but great powers, too. And so far, its performance is uninspiring.