It’s safe to say that, on domestic policy, Joe Biden has surprised everybody. While still falling short of meeting what the current moment demands — instantly surrendering on the $15 minimum wage, slow-walking his already tepid debt forgiveness proposal, pushing an infrastructure bill smaller than what his most conservative party member floated, to name just a few — he’s at least partially renounced his penny-pinching ways, given the cold shoulder to bipartisanship, and generally been more ambitious than anyone familiar with his career would have expected.
But on foreign policy, it’s been an entirely different story.
Establishment media coverage of the Biden administration’s actions on the world stage has tended to cast them as a sharp break from the last four years. It signals a return to “normal” and a re-embracing of multilateralism, international cooperation and alliances, and human rights as the guiding lights of US foreign policy.
“Biden’s foreign policy is very, very different from Trump’s,” Vox assured its readers.
If only. The first three months of foreign policy under Biden have not been good, to say the least: he’s adopted a stance of belligerence toward Washington’s perceived adversaries that has undermined diplomacy; like the last guy, he’s taken up a selective commitment to human rights, invoking it only against adversaries and largely ignoring it otherwise; and on a host of issues, the choices of his administration have already caused or continued vast human suffering that can’t be called either humane or particularly responsible.
Tragically, the reason for all this is not because Biden is emulating Trump; it’s because he’s handed the reins to the very establishment that hated Trump.
Breaking From Trump
Most obviously, Biden has undone Trump’s attempts to weaken international alliances, returning the United States to the World Health Organization, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the Paris Climate Agreement. He recently ended Trump’s sanctions on top officials at the International Criminal Court, albeit only after months of pressure and while vowing to oppose the investigations in Israel and Afghanistan that had prompted Trump’s move in the first place.
Maybe more importantly, Biden has extended the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia, an important, positive step in flagging arms control cooperation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Trump was never as friendly to Russia as his public rhetoric indicated, and among the casualties of his bellicosity were a slew of arms control agreements, of which New START looked to be the latest victim.
And the Biden administration has made some moves that have lived up to its rhetoric about human rights and democracy, namely its response to the coup in Myanmar, where it has sanctioned the coup leaders and suspended all trade with the country, even if its overall strategy has been ineffective. To the extent that it matters, Biden has also resumed slipping in lofty paeans to multilateralism, democracy, and human rights in speeches, as Washington custom dictates.
If this seems like a fairly thin list of positives, well, there’s a reason for that.
Three Cheers for Tensions
Still recovering from the Trump-era hangover, the liberal establishment has been cheering Biden for what is, in reality, a dangerous, even destabilizing set of moves: namely, needlessly ratcheting up tensions with Russia and China, two nuclear powers.
Were it not for Trump, Biden might’ve set a record for creating a diplomatic rift in the shortest time in office. Less than two months into his presidency, Biden used a high-profile ABC interview to agree that Russian president Vladimir Putin was a “killer,” recount an old story of telling Putin he had no soul, and threaten another round of sanctions against Russia for some small-potatoes social media involvement around the 2020 election. (The administration had initially issued sanctions on Russia over the poisoning of right-wing Putin enemy Alexei Navalny).
While it’s beyond doubt Putin is an authoritarian with a penchant for assassinating his enemies and interfering in other countries (a description, incidentally, that applies to the last three US presidents at least), there’s a reason world leaders and officials typically refrain from this kind of public bluntness: it’s a gratuitous and provocative insult. And this is exactly how the Kremlin took it, swiftly recalling its ambassador.
Since then, Biden has issued another round of sanctions against Russia, ratcheting up tensions even further, and basing it on some pretty questionable factors. One was Russia’s alleged 2020 election meddling, which three other countries were also accused of, and none of which holds a candle to the kind of foreign interference Western governments dabble in or even what governments like Israel’s do in the United States.
More legitimate was the SolarWinds hack, suspected to have been carried out by Russia. But as Anatol Lieven has pointed out, this starts to look like another Washington escalation when you consider that such cyber espionage actions are routinely done by governments without previously being a cause for sanctions. It’s downright petty given that just days earlier, US ally Israel had carried out an actual cyberattack on Iran, and that US officials had boasted last year of regularly doing this very thing against Russia, including in one hack-and-dump operation in 2019.
Not content with raising tensions with the world’s largest nuclear power, Biden has also decided to antagonize an emerging one in China. Despite the urgent need for international cooperation on climate change, the most dire threat facing human civilization today, Biden has continued Trump’s saber-rattling toward the country, blaming it (as Trump did) for the coronavirus death toll in the United States, and getting into the diplomatic equivalent of a food fight in the first high-level meeting between the two countries in March.
In brighter news, despite all this, the two countries have recently agreed to work together on tackling climate change. We’ll have to see if and how long this can last in the face of mounting conflict and if relations between the two on other matters deteriorate, along with the fundamental incompatibility of climate action with massive military buildup. But it’s a positive step in any case.
What might be most notable about all of this is how little it makes sense even on the administration’s own questionable terms. If Biden’s top priority is countering China — and every indication suggests it is — then his continued antagonism of Russia and Putin is counterproductive, threatening to push the two countries closer together, and making it harder to isolate China. This incoherence clashes with the administration’s media portrayal as a safe pair of expert establishment hands, and it’s hard to escape the inkling that it’s driven by domestic politics, letting the president posture to Washington insiders as someone totally unlike his predecessor.
Comforting the Comfortable . . .
But Biden’s biggest similarity to Trump on the world stage, and his sharpest break from his campaign-era rhetoric, is in his coddling of dictators.
The administration has backed the Jordanian king’s April crackdown on opposition, and, in a brazen U-turn from his position as a candidate, sold nearly $200 million worth of weapons to Egypt’s dictator, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The administration then stepped in to shield a former Egyptian official from a lawsuit brought against him by Mohamed Soltan, a US citizen tortured by Sisi’s government.
The arms sale came only days after members of Soltan’s family were arrested in Egypt, and in the wake of Egyptian forces not only brutally torturing and killing a different American, but hundreds of Egyptians, including children. Trump’s embrace of Sisi early in his term had sparked a stream of liberal outrage at the time, setting the tone for the rest of his years in office: Trump as a uniquely amoral, villainous figure taking the United States down a dark path the country had never been down before. Naturally, Biden handing Sisi weapons as he persecutes the family of no less than a US citizen he tortured has received hardly any attention at all.
The same at least can’t be said for Biden’s decision to effectively let Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman off the hook for murdering opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Despite harshly criticizing both Saudi Arabia during the campaign — he would turn them into “the pariah that they are” and have them “pay the price,” he vowed — as well as the Trump administration for going easy on them, Biden has effectively trodden the same path as Trump here, all to protect the US-Saudi relationship and keep the “war on terror” going. Though the move received attention, the administration has largely gotten away with it without the massive public and media pressure Trump faced.
Biden’s promise to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen has gone a similar way. After reaping an early round of glowing publicity for a carefully worded executive order purporting to do that, as well as ending Trump’s terrorist designation of the country’s Houthis, Biden has continued to sell some weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, isn’t using any diplomatic leverage to end the war, and is stonewalling congressional inquiries into what exactly Washington’s role in the war continues to be. To make matters worse, Biden is resisting calls to pressure Saudi Arabia to lift its famine-creating blockade against the country, repeating Saudi claims that a blockade doesn’t exist.
And while it’s not ruled by a dictator, Biden’s Israel policy so far fits squarely in this reluctance to confront right-wing regimes even when the US government holds enormous leverage over them. While restoring aid to Palestinians, Biden is also keeping Trump’s inflammatory move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, continuing the flow of unconditional aid to Israel even as it builds more illegal settlements, and appears to have simply given up on the Middle East peace process, not even bothering to appoint a special envoy for the task, unlike previous presidents.
All of it makes confident assurances issued as late as this February that “Biden will end the Trump sugar high for Israel and Saudi Arabia” a bad joke.
. . . and Afflicting the Afflicted
Of course, that’s not to say Biden has entirely abandoned holding autocracies to account. As with all presidents, the administration has continued to put selective pressure on repressive, undemocratic states, namely those like China and Russia that Washington views as geopolitical foes.
Most foolish has been the administration’s choice to do this with Iran. The nuclear agreement that Barack Obama (or Obama-Biden, if you like) struck with the country was not only successful in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and improving diplomatic relations between the two nations but was widely viewed as one of that administration’s most important victories. After Trump spent years trampling on the deal — baselessly accusing Iran of violating the deal he himself was violating, loading the country up with economy-destroying sanctions, assassinating one of its most popular leaders, and all but starting a war with it — restoring the agreement was supposed to be a top priority for an administration all about responsible, outward-looking statesmanship.
But after calling Trump’s Iran policy a “dangerous failure,” Biden has largely kept it going, rebuffing calls from European leaders to lift what can only be described as near-genocidal sanctions on the country, and taking the absurd position that it’s Iran that must recomply with the terms of the deal first — a deal the US government had decided to tear up before attacking the country. If it’s true Biden’s choices here are driven by a need to not look like “a pushover,” this is as pathetic and monstrous as any of the irresponsible behavior Trump’s own personal inadequacies led him to.
There is good news in recently restored discussions between the two countries around restarting the deal, but the damage may already be done. This bipartisan aggression has soured even some of the country’s reformers on rapprochement with the United States, while strengthening the position of the country’s hard-liners and potentially handing them an election victory this year, which may end up permanently jeopardizing the future of the deal.
The administration has taken a similar tack when it comes to governments it doesn’t like in the Spanish-speaking world. In spite of limited reengagement with Cuba being one of Obama’s prized foreign policy legacies, Biden is staying the course on Trump’s sanctions against the country. His administration has criticized the Bolivian government for prosecuting its former president over a coup that was not unlike the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, only far more violent, coherent, and actually successful. And he’s keeping sanctions on Venezuela, despite their horrendous human cost, so crippling that even Washington’s man in the country, Juan Guaidó, is asking Biden to unfreeze some money to let the country buy vaccines.
One bright spot in Biden’s foreign policy has been his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, a for-once welcome continuation of Trump policy. Under Biden’s timetable, the pointless war will finally end just one month short of twenty years after it began.
Less good is that Biden didn’t so much decide to withdraw as decide to delay a pre-set withdrawal that Trump had negotiated for May, increasing the chance of it falling apart, while planning to remain militarily involved in the country, only less intensely. At the same time, Biden has been in talks that suggest no speedy end to US involvement in Iraq, a country that, some keen-eyed readers may recall, US troops were supposed to have already left a decade ago and were expelled from a year ago. Between this, Biden’s speech on the Afghanistan pullout, and his illegal airstrikes in Syria, both his campaign promise to end Middle Eastern “forever wars” and the long-forgotten liberal goal of ending the ruinous “war on terror” are looking pretty remote.
Meanwhile, Biden continues to resist mounting calls from US voices, hundreds of former world leaders, and a hundred other countries to waive intellectual property laws on COVID-19 vaccines that are preventing other countries from manufacturing cheaper versions of the drug, a move that is not only cruel, but self-defeating, given the virus’s tendency to mutate into more virulent strains resistant to existing vaccines. Likewise, he’s hanging onto Trump’s embrace of land mines as a weapon in the US arsenal, which had reversed Obama’s own 2014 directive mostly ending their use. Neither of these decisions is particularly weighted toward human rights or sensible, globally facing statecraft.
Worse Than Disappointing
If Biden’s domestic policy is so far surprisingly decent but lacking, his foreign policy is an outright travesty, already doing profound damage to human populations and global stability, and seemingly pegged more to a small group of tastemakers in Washington than a coherent idea of what’s best for the planet. It is here that the gap between reality and propaganda is most yawning for the administration.
Far from rejecting the world’s authoritarians, Biden has selectively picked and chosen which of them to embrace and which to pressure. Instead of human rights, US policy under Biden is swiftly turning out to be oriented around US dominance at whatever human cost. And for all the talk of multilateralism and responsibility, his administration is out of step with world opinion on a host of critical issues, and with negative consequences we’re already seeing. In the process, Biden has fallen largely to the right of even the previous Democratic administration, which he served in.
If this means that Biden resembles his predecessor, it’s because Trump himself resembled most other US presidents on the world stage, too, his personal eccentricities notwithstanding. And that’s deeply inconvenient.
Like on the domestic front, the American liberal establishment is deeply invested in crafting a narrative that the current administration represents a radical break from the last four years. Since Trump was, in their telling, a dangerous exception to business as usual — and not, as he was in reality, an ugly outgrowth with more in common than not with what had come before — so the country’s return to the safe, experienced hands of yore has to be something entirely different.
After all, if it wasn’t, it would make a mockery of just about everything we heard over the last five years.