The foreign policy of the Biden administration has entered a deep and perhaps transformative crisis. Most, but not all, of the ideas the Biden team brought to the White House didn’t work. But most, but not all, of the changes required by US foreign policy will be toxic to much of the Democratic base.
Not all ideas of the administration have been discredited by events. Joe Biden was right, and Donald Trump was wrong, to see the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and democratic values as important elements of American foreign policy. NATO’s response to Russian aggression in Ukraine has been faster and more ambitious than Moscow had expected. And as Russia’s assault on Ukraine continues, the bravery and democratic values of Ukraine’s defenders remind hundreds of millions of people of the importance of democracy and how squalid authoritarian kleptocracies and brutal can become.
These successes, while welcome, are both insufficient and incomplete. As inspiring as NATO’s response was, neither the prospect nor the reality of Western sanctions affected Russia’s warfare. Undeterred by sanctions, Russian forces continue to pound Ukrainian defences, with Sunday’s strike on a facility in western Ukraine used for transshipping Western weapons signaling a Russian willingness to step up its challenge to NATO.
For now, the Russian government seems able to handle the domestic political fallout from the botched invasion with a mixture of censorship and repression. And the Biden administration, which has already had to toughen up its Russia policy thanks to bipartisan pressure from Congress, risks politically damaging fights as hawks criticize its reluctance to impose a no-fly zone or support the transfer of Polish planes. from the Soviet era to the hard-pressed Ukrainian Air Force.
Worse still, the administration’s approach to great power diplomacy has completely failed. After a year of unsuccessful efforts to “park Russia” or keep it away from China, the administration is trying the same strategy in reverse, now hoping to unstick China from Russia. We’ll see if National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s meetings this week in Rome lead to Chinese cooperation with the Western anti-Russian campaign, but Beijing won’t help Mr. Biden out of the goodness of his heart.
The Biden administration’s hope that it can pursue its interests in ‘global issues’ like disarmament, human rights and climate change even as it increases economic and ideological pressure on the two major Eurasian powers also turned out to be illusory. Between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s massive buildup of nuclear and conventional weapons, hopes for arms control are fading. Russia’s demands that the proposed deal on Iran’s nuclear program be revised to protect Moscow’s participation in the deal from Ukraine-related sanctions underscore the difficulty of simultaneously confronting and engaging anti-revisionist powers. Americans.
Mr. Biden’s climate agenda has collapsed into utter incoherence. As the administration frantically chases oil and gas around the world, it is throwing climate and human rights qualms overboard — so far, to little effect. Efforts to cultivate Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela have produced a backlash in Congress. Saudi Arabia demonstrated its contempt for the Biden team by following its rejection of the administration’s call to pump more oil with the largest mass execution in its history. Not to be outdone, Iran launched a series of missile attacks on what it claimed were Israeli targets in the Kurdish region of Iraq. China capped off a disastrous weather weekend by announcing plans to expand domestic coal mining by 300 million tonnes a year and build a coal reserve of 620 million tonnes.
Meanwhile, as inflation corrodes the administration’s position at home, the lingering effects of a resilient pandemic interact with US-China tensions and the war in Ukraine to destabilize the global economy. With major Chinese cities and transportation hubs shut down due to Omicron fears and new cases in Germany reaching record highs, the pandemic continues to fuel inflationary pressures. The far-reaching consequences of Russian sanctions – and Russian retaliation – are helping fuel commodity price inflation while increasing financial uncertainty. The economic disarray looks likely to further narrow the administration’s overseas options in the coming months while undermining its political standing as it approaches the halfway point.
The world is a difficult place. Geopolitics rules, and if you get power politics wrong, the rest doesn’t matter. Our ability to influence the behavior of others on issues such as human rights and climate change depends far more on our geopolitical power than on the purity of our hearts and the nobility of our goals. America and its democratic allies, even at their best, are not strong and united enough to meet the geopolitical challenges of the world without enlisting the help of undemocratic and even undemocratic partners. We cannot do this while simultaneously signaling how much we hate them, and their help has a price that must be paid on time and in full.
The fate of the Biden administration and many others rests on how quickly it masters these truths.
Copyright ©2022 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Appeared in the print edition of March 15, 2022 under the title “Crisis for a Chaotic Foreign Policy”.