[The Biden adminstration’s foreign policy is surprising in many ways. I’ve been thinking it out. The posts summarized here set up a background for development of that foreign policy. In later posts, I’ll look at specifics relating to various countries.]
Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Asia and Europe the past two weeks, rebuilding relationships with allies. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin accompanied him to Asia. He and Jake Sullivan also met with their Chinese counterparts in Asia last week, with rhetorical fireworks.
The administration faces five big foreign policy challenges:
- The relationship with China
- The relationship with Russia
- Dealing with Trump’s promise of withdrawal from Afghanistan by May 1
- Rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement with Iran
- North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs
Afghanistan is the most time-urgent, and it looks like the administration is leaning toward delaying the deadline.
Rejoining the JCPOA also has a time-dependent aspect. Iran threatened to end cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, but Director General Raphael Rossi persuaded Iran to extend cooperation for three months, one of which has passed. Additionally, Iran has a presidential election coming up on June 18.
The other three are less time-urgent but not standing still.
None, however, can be adequately addressed without America’s allies. Donald Trump made no secret of his contempt for NATO and the European Union and picked fights with Japan and South Korea. Mending those relationships is essential to dealing with the challenges, and that is what Blinken has been doing the past two weeks.
The administration is setting expectations and positioning for negotiations. American policies must be developed in place of the previous administration’s whim-driven actions. Although many of the Biden appointees were in the Obama administration, four hard years have passed, and the world situation has changed, along with perceptions of the United States by other countries.
There was no foreign policy under Trump. There were several centers of activity – Secretaries of State, National Security Advisors, trade and arms control officials, and, of course, Trump himself. The players changed rapidly, as did positions that might have been called policy if they had been more connected. Positions were often at odds both between players and over time.
Biden’s appointees have been preparing to start anew since the campaign. Full development of policies had to wait until they could learn the status of America’s relations with the rest of the world. Trump made that as slow and difficult as possible during the transition. Blinken has said that Iran and North Korea policy are under review. Conferring with allies would be a part of that review.
Not everything revolves around the United States and its actions. Russia has experienced sporadic protests; its neighbor Belarus is in an almost continuous state of protest over a stolen election; its economy is going nowhere. China is trying to expand its influence while presenting a hostile face in diplomacy. North Korea continues its secrecy on Covid-19 (no cases in the Hermit Kingdom, they say) and pours its resources into developing missiles and nuclear weapons. Iran has an election coming up in June and is engaged in a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen.
The administration needs to define its priorities in the context of the “foreign policy for Americans” that they have put forth. Past practices, like threats of war for the defense industry and actions taken to please special interest groups like limiting relations with Cuba, could be said to be foreign policy for Americans, but Biden’s people have a larger view.
As bad as the continuing effects of Trump actions may be, changing them does not make sense until a clear plan is in place with buy-in from relevant parties. Improvisation is what brought us to where we are.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner