Even if the Joe Biden presidency didn’t give us the second coming of Franklin Roosevelt on the domestic front, you could always take solace in the idea that Biden, a seasoned foreign policy hand, would restore some kind of predictability, stability, and integrity to the US role in the world. Unfortunately, that hasn’t really happened either.
Just look at the US-hosted Summit of the Americas which started this week, the first time the United States has hosted the thirty-four-country meeting since its inaugural year in 1994. As the local hegemon, this should’ve been a slam dunk, giving Washington the chance to work with the hemisphere’s leaders to hammer out a solution to some of its key concerns — migration first among them — while also projecting its influence in the region, showcasing the administration’s reengagement with the world, and serving as a subtle “fuck off” to China, which has made inroads into what Biden called “America’s front yard” through investment and infrastructure projects.
Instead, the event has turned into something of a debacle for the administration, which in the words of the Associated Press had to scramble in the lead-up to prevent it from turning into an “embarrassment.” This is because the summit is being boycotted by the leaders of several of the region’s key players, most notably Bolivia and, as of Monday, Mexico, as well as Guatemala and Honduras. The sticking point is the exclusion of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua from the summit, owing to the less-than-democratic credentials of their governments.
To be fair to Biden, it’s not entirely his doing: the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter enshrined democracy and its maintenance as a core priority for the hemisphere, and this is far from the first year Cuba’s been banned. But it’s fair to question whether it’s values or geopolitics that’s driving this when numerous other member states don’t exactly have a robust commitment to human rights or democracy — including Brazil, whose blood-soaked bigot of a president Biden had to persuade to attend with the offer of a bilateral meeting, and who’s already laying the groundwork to contest the result of this year’s election. It’s more likely, instead, that the three countries’ exclusion was driven more by domestic politics.
The end result has been a major blow to US prestige and, given the absence of Mexico’s president, the possible failure of meaningful progress on the US priority of migration. And this foreign policy debacle is far from the only recent one.
Deal or No Deal
Remember the Iran deal?
A victory for US diplomacy, the agreement was one of the signature achievements of Biden’s former boss Barack Obama, which is partly why Donald Trump did everything possible to undermine and destroy it during his term. Biden was widely expected to reverse Trump’s moves, quickly reentering the deal and restoring one of the principal legacies of the man many Democrats consider history’s greatest president. Instead, the entire project is now on life support.
The now more-than-year-long negotiations to restore the deal have been fraught from the beginning. But the latest roadblock has been the Biden administration’s refusal to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — a state body that forms an integral part of Iran’s government, military, and economic infrastructure — from the official US terrorist blacklist. Biden could do this with the stroke of a pen, but has reportedly personally made the final decision not to, jeopardizing the entire deal at the eleventh hour.
Some would argue that the administration had little realistic choice. After all, the IRGC does carry out a range of violent mischief beyond its borders that could be classified as state terrorism. And surely it’s at least as much the fault of the new hard-line government in Tehran, for refusing to let the issue go to the point of being willing to torpedo the deal.
But these are well-crafted talking points that mask just how unreasonable the administration is being. Set aside the question of why the IGRC, but not any number of entities belonging to Israel’s state apparatus — which regularly violates its neighbors’ sovereignty with air strikes, indiscriminately bombs civilian communities, and just brazenly assassinated an American journalist before attacking the mourners carrying her casket — is on the list, other than that one country is an official ally and one is an official bad guy. Second, besides the blow to Iranian prestige tied up in the terrorist label, the IRGC’s terror designation is, in practice, a travel ban for ordinary Iranians, since men over seventeen are conscripted into military service, making it even more indefensible.
But maybe more importantly, the designation isn’t some long-standing policy. It’s an unprecedented move once rejected by the George W. Bush administration and implemented by Trump in 2019, four years after the deal was actually struck, as a way to ratchet up tensions with Iran, even possibly provoke a war. The move was widely panned as stupid and dangerous at the time by a variety of voices, from US military officials and the Pentagon-funded RAND Corporation, to the centrist Brookings Institution and ex-Obama deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes. Even Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, admitted to Congress that “as a practical matter, the designation does not really gain you much because there are myriad other sanctions on the IRGC,” making the administration’s insistence on it especially head-scratching.
While Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi of course also deserves blame for the deal’s possible death, the Biden team’s consistently mulish approach to negotiations played a key role in getting him in power in the first place. The administration’s unnecessarily tough negotiating position killed the prospects of a quick reentry into the deal and, together with Trump’s concerted efforts to start a war the years previous, undermined Iran’s former reformist president and the country’s faith in the possibility of relations with Washington, helping sweep the current hard-liner into power in last year’s elections.
Reportedly, the Biden administration was hoping to use the IRGC designation as a bargaining chip to get extra concessions from Tehran that were unrelated to the deal. It also certainly looks like, as with the Summit of the Americas snafu, domestic political concerns are playing a role: Biden has been slow in general to reverse Trump policy on the world stage in order to avoid being attacked as weak, and a significant number of Israel-aligned Democrats helped pass a resolution against delisting the IRGC.
But this kind of short-term thinking has major political risks for Biden. Israeli leadership keeps saber-rattling about taking military action if Tehran keeps enriching and stockpiling uranium, which it will most certainly keep doing without the deal in place, and Israel has admitted to recently assassinating an IRGC colonel. If things escalate to an Israel-Iran conflict, it would not only further destabilize the region and threaten to draw the United States in, but would send oil prices — and so inflation more generally — into further chaos, doing further damage to Biden’s approval ratings and his party’s election chances.
What’s needed is a little bit of political courage and the willingness to weather bad headlines in the short term. But the Afghanistan withdrawal aside, it’s not clear either exists within the administration.
And then there’s just the debacles caused by a general lack of discipline. Case in point: a few weeks ago on his Asia trip, Biden caused a rash of headlines and yet another White House walk back when he seemed to commit the United States to defending Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion, seemingly contradicting Washington’s long-standing policy of “strategic ambiguity” on the matter in a single sentence. It was the third time in less than a year he made the same “gaffe.”
There’s debate about whether Biden’s verbal missteps on this topic are in reality part of the plan or not, but either way, they’re not good. “They increase the chance of damaging peace and stability between the world’s two leading powers,” cautioned historian and analyst Stephen Wertheim, who warned that ratcheting up tensions like this could provoke rash and drastic measures from Chinese leadership, turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sure enough, Beijing was not happy about the statement, and proceeded to carry out military drills and patrols close to the island nation in response.
Maybe more alarming than Biden simply shooting off at the mouth are the signs that this is deliberate policy from the administration. Other US officials have now made multiple statements that are notably more aggressive on the topic, including defense official Ely Ratner calling Taiwan “critical to the region’s security and critical to the defense of vital US interests in the Indo-Pacific,” seeming to define the country as a strategic priority for Washington.
Whatever you think about the Taiwan-China matter, the fundamental issue here is the way these kinds of statements increase tensions and heighten the possibility that Chinese leadership chooses war over peaceful means to resolve it.
It Gets Worse
These are just three recent episodes, but you could cite many more.
For instance, thanks to pre-existing supply chain issues and the disruption of the Ukraine war, Biden now feels compelled to court Saudi Arabia, hoping they’ll pump oil production and relieve the country’s current inflation woes. But the plan has already gotten marked pushback, since it breaks a campaign promise and makes a mockery of Biden’s vision of a US foreign policy defined by democracy vs. autocracy — let alone this week’s Summit of the Americas snubs. It’s not even clear if it’ll work, since the Saudi crown prince has seemed to relish humiliating Biden lately.
Or we might think about the president’s dangerous lack of verbal discipline over the course of the war in Ukraine, at various points seemingly revealing an unknown US training program in Poland and calling for regime change in Russia. On that second one — an immensely dangerous thing to say, given Vladimir Putin’s unpredictability and the thousands of nuclear warheads he has at his disposal — Biden was reportedly “furious” that his aides immediately scrambled to walk back this statement, as they should’ve, which doesn’t exactly reflect well on the president’s judgement.
Biden’s election was meant to herald the return of experts and adults to running a competent, stable, and predictable US foreign policy far from the erratic Trump years. But that hasn’t really happened. And the worst part about that isn’t a loss of prestige for the United States, but the prospect of more conflict and global chaos on the horizon.