After a strong start that included rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and World Health Organization, both of which Trump abandoned, President Joe Biden has been, in a word, disappointing.
Over the past year, Joe Biden has talked like Barack Obama but walked like Donald Trump on foreign policy. But as he lacks the eloquence and bullishness of his predecessors, the president has fallen flat through and through. He has failed to keep promises, issuing checks his administration could not cash. And although he criticised Trump’s policies, he so far kept much of them in place. Any good reason why the US has not rejoined UNESCO yet?
For its fanciness, Biden’s “foreign policy for the middle class” turned out, like Trump’s, rather nationalistic and protectionist. His commitment to make America more credible and respected around the world has failed as miserably as Trump’s commitment to “make America great again”. A quick balance sheet may help clarify. In the Middle East, Biden spoke with passion and determination about democracy and human rights but went on to appease dictators like Egypt’s Abdul Fattah el-Sisi.
He has not talked to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman but has continued selling arms to Saudi Arabia despite its devastating war in Yemen, which has entered its seventh year. He has re-emphasised the importance of the two-state solution but also gave Israel the green light to do what it will to finish off Palestine through repression and illegal settlement. And if that wasn’t enough, Biden has fully supported Trump’s policy of wedding Arab dictatorships to Israeli colonialism under the pretext of “peace”.
The only issue where Biden actually diverged from Trump was the Iran nuclear deal, which his administration has been trying to revive, albeit incompetently. As for transatlantic relations, Biden promised to reverse Trump’s indifference towards Europe and his insolence towards NATO but has proved just as cold and distant towards the continent. He made the decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan with hardly any coordination with the European allies, a withdrawal that proved an utter disaster in its implementation, forcing US soldiers and personnel to basically flee the country in humiliation.
And in a humiliating and abrupt move, the Biden administration stiffed France out of a $40b arms deal by scuttling its submarine sale to Australia. Biden later admitted that his administration’s handling of the affair was clumsy and lacked grace. Biden has also failed to get European powers, notably France and Germany, solidly behind US policy against a more bellicose Russia that has been amassing forces on its borders with Ukraine. In fact, since Biden became president, a bigger gap opened up between the US and its Western allies over how to deal with Russia.
After the EU was sidelined from talks held last week between Russia and the US, French President Emmanuel Macron has said the EU “must open its own talks with Russia rather than rely on Washington” in what seemed like a snub to the Biden administration. Biden’s failure to restore trust and commitment to transatlantic relations may not all be his fault, considering Europe’s increasingly negative perception of the US and its political system since the Trump presidency.
But the president has not, himself, invested sufficiently to shore up these relations that are so critical to tackling the urgent challenges coming from rising China and reemerging Russia, which will undoubtedly define his foreign policy legacy, if not his presidency.
Biden the politician, who came of age during the US-Soviet rivalry, has fallen back on the Cold War mindset. He is framing today’s superpower competition as one between democracy and autocracy, even though, unlike the Soviet Union, China and Russia are part and parcel of today’s Western-erected world system. If history has taught us anything, it is that for the past two centuries, superpowers behaved similarly on the world stage regardless of their system of governance.
And old habits die hard. Ever since President James Monroe articulated the very first strategic doctrine of the US in December 1823, basically warning European powers of further colonisation or greater intervention in the Western Hemisphere, most of his successors felt compelled to articulate US geo-strategy and interest in virtuous, even divine terms. But today, the US lacks credibility as a liberal democracy – it is hardly worthy of the name, let alone emulation after the Trump presidency, and especially since the January 6 attack he instigated on the US Congress. It also lacks geopolitical leverage and deterrence capability especially after its disastrous war in Iraq and humiliation in Afghanistan.
As a result, neither Moscow nor Beijing seems impressed, let alone deterred, by Biden’s huffs and puffs over their sabre-rattling in Ukraine and Taiwan. Both have mockingly rejected Washington’s sermonising, publicly chastising American diplomats over their country’s own shortcomings.
Biden must play the cards he was dealt, which admittedly are no winners. His attempts at bluffing have so far impressed none of the other major players. Short of completely pulling out, Biden should lower his bets and cut his losses. With one down and three years to go, Biden has ample time and leverage in foreign policy, which he may lack in domestic policy, to chart a new way forward on nuclear disarmament, global warming, universal health, food security, and peace.
This starts with recognising other strong players on the world stage and appreciating the high stakes of this risky global game of thrones.