It’s been an extraordinary year in foreign policy, dominated by an ongoing, brutal war following the February Russian invasion of Ukraine. NATO, struggling with its mission before 2022, appears more emboldened and unified than ever.
Meanwhile, tensions have continued to roil between the U.S. and China on a number of fronts, not the least, the fate of Taiwan.
In the Middle East, Biden’s post-Russian outreach to Saudi Arabia and inability to stop assistance to Riyadh in the Yemen war underscores the problematic nature of Washington’s relations with despotic governments there, while trying to maintain an “autocracies vs. democracies” approach to geopolitics in other parts of the world.
After two years in office, the Iran nuclear deal looks “dead,” while the U.S. slaps more sanctions on Tehran in the wake of crackdowns on protesters and reported drone transfers to Russia.
With so much going on, we asked our own Quincy Institute experts to weigh in on the following prompt:what needs to happen almost immediately in 2023 for U.S foreign policy to start out on the right foot for the year? Why?
The Biden administration should start the year by stemming the tide of ever rising Pentagon budgets. The current budget is one of the highest since World War II, and the increase from FY2022 to FY2023 alone is higher than the entire military budget of every other country in the world except China. Large portions of these funds are wasted on price gouging, cost overruns, and weapons that aren't useful for the current challenges we face. We can provide a more effective defense for less by cutting waste, eliminating dysfunctional and unnecessary weapons programs, and pursuing a more restrained, non-interventionist foreign policy that truly puts diplomacy first.
Congress and the president must, finally, enact meaningful reforms to curb foreign influence in the U.S. Behind most U.S. foreign policy decisions are agents working on behalf of foreign powers — in both illicit and legal influence operations — that often push U.S. foreign policy in a decidedly more interventionist and militarized direction. This is usually in the interests of these foreign governments, not the U.S. national interest.
To thwart this malign influence or, at the very least, to increase the public’s awareness of it, a number of reforms are needed. This includes improvements to the Foreign Agents Registration Act, requiring think tanks to disclose all foreign funding (particularly when those think tank’s scholars are testifying before Congress), and providing more resources to the Department of Justice and other government agencies investigating illicit election interference operations like those launched by Russia and the UAE.
The first priority for the Biden administration in 2023 should be to seek a ceasefire in Ukraine, leading to peace negotiations. The longer the war continues, the greater the damage to the world economy and to key U.S. allies in Europe.
Ukraine has preserved its independence and saved or reconquered the great majority of its lands and has little more of real importance to gain in this war. Further major Ukrainian advances would threaten Russian control of Crimea and risk nuclear war. They would also take Ukraine into territories whose populations are in fact loyal to Russia.
In the meantime, Russian bombardments are causing great harm to the Ukrainian population and economy, and the exigencies of wartime are increasing authoritarianism in Ukraine. Only when the fighting ends can Ukraine begin the process of reconstruction, political reform, and moves to join the European Union.
While continuing to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian aggression, the Biden Administration, with the help of the international community, must start encouraging a feasible end to the war through the use of diplomacy. Concomitantly, a long-term security agreement for the future of Europe should be reached to ensure lasting peace on the continent. Through the use of political pragmatism, Washington must help open a path to a peace that would ensure Ukrainian sovereignty, end the ongoing suffering, uphold international law, create lasting peace in Europe, and ease current ripple effects on the world economy
The United States should do two things to start off the new year. First, return, through concrete actions, to the One China policy that has been a solid foundation for peace and stability in Asia for decades. The current drip-drip undermining of this policy is a dangerous, slippery slope that is generating a major risk of great power war. Second, discard counterproductive tropes that stretch credibility such as "democracy v. autocracy" and "rules-based order" when engaging the Global South. Instead, begin the hard work of finding intersections of interests and fashioning new bargains that retain or expand non-militarized U.S. influence in the region.
The Biden administration should end all U.S. support for Saudi military actions in Yemen. If the administration fails to take action, Senator Bernie Sanders should reintroduce the Yemen War Powers Resolution to end U.S. involvement in that devastating conflict. Biden could transform U.S. policy towards the Middle East overall by rethinking America's support for dictators by reducing arms sales to these governments, and instead prioritize partnership in the realms of economic development, education, and technology.
The U.S. should declare a renewed focus on climate change and international public health challenges, especially early warning systems; schedule a major address on the administration’s trade and diplomatic initiatives, especially in Asia and Africa. A policy is emerging but a statement would be useful for Congress and in foreign capitals. In the State of the Union address in January, broach the topic of a national security budget that would allocate resources to agencies and departments outside of the Pentagon; and, hearkening back to days of old, declare a renewed commitment to science education and research funded out of DoD resources.
Stop digging the hole.
In Asia, the United States needs to discard any remaining aspirations for regional dominance, listen more closely and respond more realistically to the concerns and needs of the middle powers, including key U.S. allies such as South Korea and Japan. Most of these powers want to work with both the U.S. and China to develop a more economically-oriented, inclusive, and positive-sum set of policy objectives that reverse the polarization of the region, lessen the securitization of virtually every policy sphere, and provide a revised set of regional norms and standards that most countries can support, including China. Many of these nations also want the Taiwan situation stabilized on the basis of a revived commitment by the U.S. and China to One China and peaceful unification, respectfully.
The U.S. could start this process by framing these efforts as a search, in consultation with other Asian nations, of a model for constructive, beneficial forms of peaceful coexistence among all political systems.
This is broad and aspirational, but as a first step, requires serious listening and the dropping of the usual political slogans.
Washington needs to recalibrate its engagement in parts of the world where U.S. military intervention and its side-effects dictated relations for decades, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and the greater Middle East. Drawdowns and reductions in U.S. troops should not spell diplomatic and economic disengagement. Military cooperation and force are occasionally useful tools to augment diplomacy, but for too long they have eclipsed it altogether. Traditional diplomacy was relegated to putting out fires for failed U.S. military interventions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Our generals became reckless, while our diplomats grew risk averse.
Now what is needed is a creative rethink of how diplomacy, aid, and economic engagement is conducted. These tools are less blunt than military intervention, but their results are inherently more sustainable. Washington must possess the humility to accept the conditions it cannot positively influence, strategic patience and foresight to tackle what it can, and self-awareness to know the difference.
The Biden administration should prepare a hard pivot to U.S.–China cooperation on issues of global significance, to launch at Blinken’s upcoming visit to Beijing. The administration devoted its first two years to organizing the most powerful countries in the world against China, from steady condemnation of China’s system and its foreign policy, to initiatives countering China’s overseas endeavors and cutting off its economy from advanced technology, as well as increasing saber-rattling around Taiwan.
The Biden record signals that China cannot survive and prosper in the world the U.S. seeks to shape. If the administration devoted as much energy and resources to working with China on the truly existential threats facing humanity — including necessary revision of some of the most hostile and coercive policies of the last two years — then the relationship could be diverted from the current path of destructive conflict toward constructive coexistence.