President-elect spent the last week announcing his foreign policy team. Among other nominees, Antony Blinken has been tapped for Secretary of State; Jake Sullivan as national security adviser; and career foreign service officer Linda Thomas-Greenfield has been asked to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
All three individuals are consummate professionals who have long lived in the weeds of the policymaking process — for example, Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, has been Biden’s top foreign policy adviser for over a decade.
More important than the personalities, however, are the policies, and what we can expect from the incoming administration over the next four years.
While Trump’s decision-making process was anything but ideal, one can’t pin the poor record of U.S. foreign policy on a lack of professionalism alone. The bigger problem is that liberal hegemony continues to serve as the engine for how Washington approaches the world at large. The notion that the U.S. should leverage its diplomatic, economic, and military muscle to dominate every region, no matter how strategically insignificant, is burrowed deep into the Beltway’s muscle memory. Competent staffers are great — but a more humble foreign policy enveloped in realism and restraint is even better.
Can this team deliver?
Biden will enter the White House with a large “to-do list.” But to get foreign policy on the right track, he will need to exploit diplomatic opportunities when they arise; avoid supplanting the U.S. national interest with those from other countries; and defuse tensions with adversaries and competitors.
Ties between Washington and Moscow are in sore need of tension reduction. For Biden and his national security team, this may come as a nuisance. The President-elect called Russia an “opponent” of the United States during the presidential campaign. His skepticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin is deep and well-known. But that doesn’t mean Washington should write off diplomatic engagement. Russia may not be a peer competitor, but it remains a great power thanks to its large nuclear weapons arsenal, regional influence, and U.N. Security Council veto. Russia can’t be ignored or sanctioned into submission.
A Biden administration will have to approach Russia with a cool-head and a clear understanding of what is and isn’t possible. A grand deal with the Kremlin is unlikely — U.S. and Russian interests diverge on too many issues for a “Reset 2.0” to be even remotely realistic. But on issues of mutual concern such as trade, arms control, and counterterrorism, cooperation can and indeed should be pursued to the fullest extent. As a starting point: the New START treaty capping the number of deployable U.S. and Russian nuclear warheads should be immediately extended without conditions before it expires next February.
On Iran, Biden will need to replace a policy of maximum pressure with de-escalation. U.S.-Iran relations, never especially productive in the best of times, have arguably plunged to a nadir since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Biden is on record supporting U.S. reentry into the Iran nuclear deal. Iranian officials have indicated that they are interested in renewing discussions. The Iran nuclear deal could be the most available mechanism to anchor U.S.-Iran relations with more predictability. The name of the game is eliminating a maximum pressure strategy of sanctions and diplomatic pressure that has not only failed to net a single positive outcome, but also made conflict between the two more likely.
However, no change is possible if Washington continues to tie itself down in expensive, costly wars of choice that serve no purpose other than to perpetuate a failed status-quo. As vice president in the Obama administration, Biden was the chief skeptic of the 2010-2011 U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan. The reality since then — tens of thousands of U.S. casualties and as much as $1 trillion in direct war costs — has vindicated his reticence. Much like Trump, Biden campaigned on a pledge to end the very same “forever wars” the American public are largely opposed to. Actually removing troops from Afghanistan instead of merely talking about it would be the biggest foreign policy achievement of the Biden administration's first months in office.
This list is by no means exhaustive. How to manage China’s rise will be the most consequential U.S. foreign policy debate for the next few decades. The ability to concentrate on China will in turn depend in large part on the willingness of Washington to encourage burden-sharing and burden-shifting with its allies, particularly those in Europe.
A restoration of global dominance and intervention is the wrong antidote for the sickness afflicting U.S. foreign policy. What Washington needs — and Joe Biden can deliver — is a foreign policy more realist in its outlook, more pragmatic in its objectives, and more prudent in its approach.