No US presidential administration’s foreign policy can be truly assessed until it faces something wholly unexpected, an event that forces it into a reactive posture where the promises of the campaign trail no longer apply. Think September 11, which spawned the War on Terror; or the Arab Spring, which led to the US intervention in Libya; or the 2017 Saudi-Qatari diplomatic crisis, which gave us an incoherent and thus quite Trumpian US response. Joe Biden has yet to face a challenge of that type, one hundred days in.
What we can do, however, is begin to assess Biden’s foreign policy against his own standards. In the March/April 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, the then-candidate penned a lengthy commentary titled “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump.” The title speaks to Biden’s intent, which is to restore a pre-Trump foreign policy status quo, albeit with some updates to address problems — among them climate change, infectious disease, and the growth of the global far-right — that he argued had grown worse during Trump’s four years in office.
There is plenty of reason to take issue with the fundamental worldview that underpins Biden’s essay. It is rooted in the same basic principles — US global leadership, “American exceptionalism,” massive military spending — that helped create many of the problems Biden says he wants to resolve. But for our purposes, let’s use Biden’s own framework to measure his performance. Even granting this, Biden’s foreign policy has been awful.
In his Foreign Affairs essay, Biden groups his ideas under three main headings: “Renewing Democracy at Home,” “A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class,” and “Back at the Head of the Table.” Under the first heading, Biden argues that America’s “ability to be a force for progress in the world and to mobilize collective action starts at home.” For the most part, this section lays out markers for domestic reform — in areas like policing, voting rights, and education — that require congressional approval.
But there are other areas where Biden could act immediately. Consider refugee policy, for instance. In his Foreign Affairs piece, Biden argues that reversing Donald Trump’s ultra-restrictive, punitive approach to migrants and asylum seekers would “prove to the world that the United States is prepared to lead again — not just with the example of our power but also with the power of our example.” He pledged to review Trump’s policies and, specifically, to “set our annual refugee admissions at 125,000, and seek to raise it over time, commensurate with our responsibility and our values.”
Has Biden stuck to his plan on this front? All signs point to “no.” Earlier this month Biden capped 2021 refugee admissions at 15,000, the same pitifully low number as his predecessor. The White House later insisted that Biden had always been planning to set a new, higher cap in May, but there’s nothing to suggest that was true — and the White House announcement came only after sustained public outcry.
Meanwhile, Biden has essentially maintained the Trump administration’s draconian migrant policies, which outsourced US immigration control to Mexican and Central American security forces and produced appalling human rights abuses. Biden is proposing to send $4 billion in aid to Central America to address the “root causes” of migration. But as historian Aviva Chomsky writes, that money will underwrite perhaps the single biggest root cause of migration: a toxic mix of free-market economics and militarized policing that has been the focus of US aid to Central America for decades.
Biden also pledged to revitalize “pro-democracy” efforts worldwide, first by holding a “Summit for Democracy” that has not yet happened (and frankly probably shouldn’t), and second by using the example of the United States to “inspire” others around the world. Here Biden talked about the need for the United States “to stand for the values that unite the country — to truly lead the free world.” Leaving aside deeper questions about whether it is desirable for the United States to “lead the free world,” or even what the “free world” is in 2021, over thirty years removed from that term’s Cold War framing, what kind of example is Biden setting?
Again, it is early, but so far it hasn’t been particularly good. Take Saudi Arabia.
In his essay, Biden argued that the United States should rally the world to oppose authoritarianism and stand up for human rights. Specifically referring to the ultra-authoritarian Saudi monarchy, candidate Biden said back in 2019 that as president he would treat the kingdom as a “pariah,” particularly for its brutal war in Yemen and the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, likely ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
Has he followed through on that statement? You probably already know the answer. Biden did announce early in his presidency that he was ending US backing for offensive Saudi military operations in Yemen, but these days his administration has reverted to parroting Saudi talking points about the conflict while refusing to say whether it has cut off or even reduced its military support. And last month, Biden followed the publication of a US intelligence report fingering MBS for the Khashoggi murder by doing precisely nothing to penalize the crown. So much for standing up to authoritarianism and standing up for human rights.
The second of Biden’s three main foreign policy planks was titled “A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class.” Here he promised to protect US workers in new trade deals and Get Tough With China. There’s little in this section on which we can really measure his progress, but there is good reason to ask what a “foreign policy for the middle class” would actually entail and whether Biden is pursuing it.
Does nationalist saber-rattling against China really benefit US workers, particularly when there are massive global threats like pandemic disease and climate change? Though both Washington and Beijing have insisted they can separate their hostility from their need to collaborate to counter such threats, what if they ultimately cannot? Suffice to say the ramifications will be felt by workers in the United States and everyone else.
Does a skyrocketing military budget really benefit workers? Biden supports increasing the Pentagon’s funding for 2022, but an overfunded Pentagon that maintains and even expands the militarization of US foreign policy helps no one other than defense contractors. Although they’ve spent decades insisting that their largesse creates jobs, the fact is that compared with alternative uses for that money, it does not.
Biden’s third plank was titled “Back at the Head of the Table.” He emphasizes the questionable, even risible claim that the United States is entitled to global leadership, and it is here where we need to reckon with his greatest failures to date. Biden’s essay stressed the importance of ending the “forever wars,” particularly the war in Afghanistan. And indeed, this month Biden unveiled a plan to remove all US combat forces by the twentieth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Although welcome and certainly overdue, Biden’s announcement was quickly undermined by a New York Times report that the administration intends to shift significant counterterrorism resources from Afghanistan to a yet-to-be-determined country nearby (or offshore if no host country is forthcoming). While ostensibly meant only to strike at the Islamic State or a resurgent al-Qaeda, General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, the head of US Central Command, has already hinted that those US assets could be used to carry on the war against the Taliban. This would be a “withdrawal” only in the most pedantic definition of the term.
Biden’s Foreign Affairs essay also speaks of the need to make diplomacy “the first instrument of American power,” in large part by restoring the international agreements and relationships that Trump’s “America First” approach left in tatters. The Biden administration has had its successes in this regard, perhaps most importantly its agreement to extend New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia.
But it’s another story with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Biden spent the first two months of his administration dithering over a demand that Iran take the first steps to repair an agreement the United States had broken — maintaining Trump’s Iran policy despite having termed it a “dangerous failure.” The deal may still be salvaged, but those lost two months could yet prove decisive.
The most important immediate issue on the world stage remains the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is here that Biden has committed his gravest, most morally repugnant failure. The United States is, in a word, hoarding vaccines. A recent estimate from Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center concluded that by July the United States could find itself sitting on a surplus vaccine supply of as many as three hundred million doses. This would be troubling under any circumstances, but amid what World Health Organization director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has called “a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines” — and a deadly spike in COVID-19 cases that is overwhelming health care systems in India, among other places — it is grotesque.
On Sunday, in response to growing outrage, the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom announced plans to ship emergency medical supplies to India. Included in those plans are supplies of vaccine precursors but no vaccines themselves. Crucially, the Biden administration has also failed to heed calls to relax intellectual property rights around COVID-19 vaccines in order to allow India and other developing countries to produce generic versions. Drug company profits apparently take precedence over human lives as far as the rechristened “Leader of the Free World” is concerned.
On Monday, the Associated Press reported that the administration is preparing, finally, to share a portion of America’s vaccine surplus — some sixty million doses — with the rest of the world. Better late than never, to be sure, but in this case late may still have contributed to hundreds or even thousands of deaths that might otherwise have been averted. And Biden still refuses to budge on intellectual property rights.
For a president who made burnishing America’s global image the core of his foreign policy pitch to voters, it is inexplicable. There is no single thing Joe Biden could do that would more greatly improve America’s stature in the world than to ensure that every country has the tools to combat the pandemic effectively. Instead, it seems he intends to protect Big Pharma’s profits and rebuild “American leadership” on the same broken framework of empty rhetoric and militarism that has defined US foreign policy for decades.