From the earliest days of his administration, President Biden has sought to draw a sharp distinction between his approach and that of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
He pledged to put diplomacy first, repair alliances frayed by Trump’s bombastic rhetoric, and rejoin several key international agreements, including the Paris climate accords. He quickly renewed U.S. participation in the New START Treaty and pledged to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Comprehensive Program of Action, or JCPOA. He spoke of pursuing a “foreign policy for the middle class” that would elevate domestic concerns as a foundation of U.S. global strength.
With respect to the Middle East, the president used his first foreign policy speech to unveil a plan to work towards an end to the brutal war in Yemen, including a promise to “end support for offensive operations [by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates], including relevant arms sales.”
Nothing could seem further from the transactional, “America First” approach pursued by Donald Trump. But two years into the administration, the reality of Biden policy has proven to be more complicated than its early rhetoric suggested.
One of the signal accomplishments of the administration to date was sticking to its deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan despite opposition in the D.C. and media establishments. But the Afghan withdrawal did not presage an end to the forever wars or the global war on terror. Indeed, Biden underscored his continuing commitment to a global war on terror in his speech marking the pullout from Afghanistan:
“Today, the terrorist threat has metastasized beyond Afghanistan. So, we are repositioning our resources and adapting our counterterrorism posture to meet the threats where they are now significantly higher: in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”
Meanwhile, the administration appears to have failed to redeem its pledge to rejoin the JCPOA, in part due to a lack of urgency and flexibility in pursuing an agreement. In a December 4 speech, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken implied that the administration was still committed to the deal, while at the same time making a veiled threat to use force if Iran seeks a nuclear weapon:
“We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But should the Iranian regime reject that path, its leaders should make no mistake that all options are on the table to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.”
Blinken’s statement was contradicted by a November 4 statement by President Biden himself. A video of a political rally, which was only made widely available in late December, shows Biden responding to a question about the Iran deal by saying, “It’s dead, but we’re not going to announce it.” When asked about the video, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said “there is no progress happening with respect to the Iran deal now. We don’t anticipate any progress, anytime in the near future. That’s just not our focus.”
It’s not unusual for presidential plans to be derailed by unexpected crises. In Biden’s case, that crisis is the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He deserves credit for rallying NATO allies to provide ample support for Ukraine’s defense. If the latest aid package is approved, total U.S. military aid to Ukraine and U.S. NATO allies will reach $50 billion. Yet to be determined is whether the Biden administration will develop a full-fledged diplomatic strategy for trying to keep the Ukraine war from grinding on for years or escalating dramatically from its current levels. While a diplomatic solution is not in the cards at the moment, it’s not too early to prepare the ground for a possible settlement.
On its pledges with regard to Saudi Arabia, administration policy has been disappointing. After a review of U.S. security policy towards the Gulf states that included pausing weapons transfers, the administration has gone on to offer $4 billion in arms to the Saudi regime.
Furthermore, Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia last summer, hat in hand, failed to persuade Riyadh to increase oil output in hopes of lowering gas prices in the U.S. Instead, the Saudi leadership collaborated with Russia to keep prices high, even as it continues to buy oil from Moscow. This move so angered key players in Congress that members ranging from Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif) called for a suspension of some or all weapons supplies to Saudi Arabia until such time as it shifts policy on oil output and relations with Russia. The Biden administration has said there will be “consequences” for Saudi actions, but so far there have been none.
Meanwhile, the administration lobbied against recent efforts to pass a War Powers Resolution on Yemen in the Senate, which advocates say would have cut off U.S. arms and military support to Saudi Arabia as a way to prevent it from restarting attacks on Yemen, as well as to persuade it to negotiate in good faith for an agreement to end the war. The primary sponsor of the resolution, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) pulled it at the last minute under an agreement with the administration to come up with language that both sides could live with.
On the budgetary front, the administration has been as or more aggressive than Trump in pushing for funds for the Pentagon, reinforced by hawks in Congress who have moved to provide even more funding than the administration requested. Spending on the Pentagon and related items like nuclear warhead work at the Department of Energy is likely to hit $858 billion next year. That’s $80 billion more than FY 2022 levels. The increase alone is greater than the entire military budget of every nation in the world but China.
On relations with China, the administration appears to be veering off course. Despite some rhetoric about the need to cooperate with China, especially on existential issues like climate change, the Biden administration has taken a hard line against Beijing, muddying the waters about whether it would send U.S. troops to Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion and undermining the “one China” policy that has kept the peace between the two rival powers for over four decades.
Last but not least, the administration has doubled down on the Pentagon’s three-decades-long plan to invest up to $2 trillion in a new generation of nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines, complete with new warheads to go with them. This is far more than is needed for deterrence and is only likely to contribute to a new nuclear arms race.
Arms control between the U.S. and Russia is on life support. But even at the height of the Cold War, Washington and Moscow maintained communications regarding their respective nuclear arsenals. The Cold War period was marked by the conclusion of major arms control treaties including the partial test ban, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces in Europe Treaty (INF).
To its credit, the Biden administration has not given up on the prospect of new arms control agreements, as noted in its recent Nuclear Posture Review:
“Consistent with our commitment to put diplomacy first, the United States will pursue new arms control arrangements that address the full range of nuclear threats and advance our global non-proliferation interests.”
This may be easier said than done, but the fact that the Biden administration remains committed to arms control in the current global security environment offers a sign of hope.
In the larger picture, however, the Biden commitment to lead the charge of democracies over autocracies is a flawed concept. Among other things, not all autocracies are created equal – witness continuing U.S. arms supplies to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The administration would be better served by striving to preserve and strengthen democracy at home in a bid to persuade others that it is a better system of government. The $37 billion-per-year investment in addressing climate change contained in the Inflation Reduction Act that passed earlier this year is one step in the right direction, as is the administration’s infrastructure plan.
It’s hard to definitively assess an administration after just two years in office. And it’s not too late to change course. If it were to live up to its own early rhetoric, the Biden administration could sow the seeds of a more effective foreign policy that truly puts diplomacy first and enhances democracy and economic equality at home. Instead, it has squandered too many resources and too much attention on military solutions to complex security problems, crowding out its better instincts in the process. Hopefully, this will change over the next two years, and diplomacy and economic engagement will be elevated above militarized approaches to foreign policy. It will be up to a better informed and more engaged public to help make that happen.
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.