Could 100 days have possibly gone by so fast? In a blink of an eye President Biden has attempted to address a large swath of foreign policy promises he made on the campaign trail, including ending forever wars, confronting climate change, and prioritizing human rights in our relationships with friends, frenemies, and rivals abroad.
So how did he do? As Biden prepares to address Congress in a Joint Session on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Quincy Institute experts are weighing in on whether the president makes the grade or has fallen short of expectations. The responses are decidedly mixed:
Upon becoming president, Joe Biden wasted no time in reaching an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin to extend the life of the New Start nuclear nonproliferation treaty, and that’s a good thing.
But candidate Biden had responded to a query by the Council for a Livable World by declaring that, “the United States does not need new nuclear weapons.” Then why has his administration made no attempt to reassess the massive modernization of the U.S. nuclear strike force — projected price tag $1.2 trillion — now underway? Given the actually existing and emerging security challenges facing the United States, do we really need new land-based missiles, long-range bombers, missile-firing submarines, and a new family of “more flexible” warheads? The answer is no.
What President Biden has done right: declare climate change an existential threat and announce that it will be at the center of national security and foreign policy.
What he has done wrong: Other than holding a global zoom call, he does not appear seriously committed to this declaration. His team is doubling down on containing China’s economic, technological, and diplomatic rise through a militarized approach that will ensure that the United States continues to burn a lot more oil and money for war preparations than is advisable. Their approach will exacerbate the threat rather than ameliorate it.
What a difference a few weeks make! Biden started off slow on foreign policy, signaling that his priorities were all domestic — the pandemic, the economy — and that he would not allow foreign policy issues to consume the political capital he needed for domestic reform. On Iran, his non-movement left many with the impression that his position differed little from that of Donald Trump. On Afghanistan, a withdrawal did not seem to be in the cards. But two months into his presidency, something changed. He ordered the full withdrawal from Afghanistan while sowing the seeds of a broader military disengagement from the Middle East. Iran diplomacy has kicked into full gear and a return to the JCPOA seems within reach.
“America is back” was the story Joe Biden told to begin his presidency. It appeared to augur the restoration of pre-Trump defaults, in which the United States divided the world into subordinate allies and actual or potential adversaries, and attempted to shoulder the military burdens toward both. But Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan suggests something else is afoot, even if very partially. The president argued that open-ended deployments are unacceptable and inhibit rather than enable productive forms of engagement. Apply this principle rigorously and he — or his successors — would transform America’s role in the world for the better.
The Biden administration should be commended for eliminating the counter-productive containment rhetoric and overt hostility toward China and the CCP favored by the Trump administration. Yet it has thus far failed to present a realistic strategy toward Beijing that reflects a recognition of the urgent need to stress shared leadership and military restraint over primacy and zero-sum rivalry, temper deterrence with credible reassurance signals on key issues such as Taiwan, and prize constructive over zero-sum economic and technological competition. This might be good for domestic politics, but it will not reassure U.S. friends and allies nor move China in desired directions.
President Biden has stated that North Korea is U.S.’s top foreign policy challenge and authorized a policy review. Ideally, the new policy would broaden the scope beyond Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program to include the overall bilateral relationship, which is stuck in Korean War-era. A phased approach that pursues both peace and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has never been seriously tested. The well-worn path of “maximum pressure” will only inflict harm on ordinary North Koreans while encouraging the regime to build more nuclear weapons as a security guarantee against its number one enemy: the United States.
It is good that Biden has prioritized climate change and also that the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization. The announced withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan is excellent. Biden has rightly resumed talks with Iran on a nuclear agreement, but wrongly attached new conditions to this.
However, while Biden has sought to diminish tensions with China he has also cast them as a Cold War-style foe. He is not trying to reduce military spending. The administration continues vastly to exaggerate the threat from Russia.
Among the most disappointing aspects of Biden’s China policy thus far is his failure to take swift actions to revitalize the people-to-people exchanges with China that were gutted in the final year of the Trump administration. These exchanges are essential for enhancing mutual understanding and preventing conflict. The Biden administration should have restored the Peace Corps presence in China, renewed the China Fulbright program, reinstated five other cancelled U.S.-China cultural exchange programs, removed the extreme visa restrictions on all Chinese Communist Party members and their families, and adopted a more targeted approach to reviewing visas for students from universities affiliated with China’s military. The Biden administration also needs to take steps toward reopening the Houston consulate and loosening restrictions on Chinese journalists in exchange for reciprocal measures from China.
Progressives and conservatives alike believed that Joe Biden would cut the defense budget, soften the previous administration’s needlessly harsh rhetoric on Russia and China, and more substantively reverse America’s approach to Iran. He did none of these things, disappointing his supporters and raising questions about his dedication to his articulated ideals. On the defense budget, in particular, Biden retreated when no retreat was necessary. But for many, Biden can be excused for a simple and singular reason: he has reversed the tone set by the previous administration — which makes change on the other issues suddenly possible. Joe Biden isn’t Franklin Roosevelt, but he’s not Donald Trump either.
The Biden administration’s early actions on Yemen — ending support for “offensive” Saudi military actions and pausing “relevant” arms sales — were welcome. Yet the administration has failed to clarify U.S. military involvement in Yemen, despite requests from Congress. Biden must pressure Saudi Arabia to lift the blockade, as the use of starvation as a weapon of war is both morally reprehensible and constitutes a war crime, thereby undermining Biden’s stated commitment to the international order and rule of law. The status quo in Yemen continues to incentivize violence: to shift these dynamics, Biden should push the U.N. Security Council to revise Resolution 2216 and to bring non-armed groups to the negotiating table, especially women and youth.
The decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan was the right one. President Biden resisted pressure to transition from one flawed strategy that seeks to defeat the Taliban militarily to another one that attempts to dictate a negotiated settlement using U.S. troops as leverage. There is a distinction between short-term leverage and leverage that can actually produce lasting results. President Biden correctly recognized that U.S. troops could never provide the latter. The Biden administration was also right to encourage robust diplomacy between Afghans. But it fell short by trying to rush fragile negotiations in the hopes that Afghans could reach a peace deal prior to a U.S. withdrawal. Both the Trump and Biden administrations learned that convincing adversaries to talk and walking away with a deal are two very different things.
Watch Stephen Wertheim discuss Biden’s first 100 days, in conversation with the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser and FT columnist Gideon Rachman: