A Rocky Start to Repairing Relationships
By Kate Munro
During a July 11, 2019 speech in New York City, candidate Joe Biden promised “as president, I will do more than just restore the historic partnerships, I will lead an effort to reimagine them to better meet the challenges we’re grappling with today in the next 20 or 30 years”. He added that President Donald Trump had “alienated us from the very democratic allies we need most”.
Many Americans and non-Americans breathed a sigh of relief when Biden won the presidency, assuming his administration would differ from Trump’s in its dealings with other countries. The era of policy by Twitter and coddling dictators would give way to a White House dedicated to revitalizing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), ending forever-wars, combating climate change, fighting authoritarianism, and launching an ambitious domestic social agenda. “America First” was replaced by “America is back”, suggesting that repairing the damage done to America’s international standing by former President Trump was a high priority for President Biden. The confidence and experience of the new administration foreshadowed a well-oiled foreign policy machine.
That has yet to appear. To the administration’s credit, the U.S. has rejoined the Paris climate agreement, renewed engagement with the United Nations, restarted indirect talks with Iran over its nuclear program, and re-engaged with NATO allies. Biden coordinated with the European Union and Canada when imposing new sanctions on Russian and Chinese officials. The administration is collaborating on COVID-19 pandemic responses in the Indo-Pacific with regional partners. These successes are not insignificant. Repairing alliances and improving diplomatic relationships take time, and no one should expect Biden to achieve his ambitious foreign policy agenda during his first year in office.
Yet, Biden is nine months into his presidency, roughly 20% of his term, and aspects of his foreign policy performance are worrying. Talks with Iran are stalled, with little apparent communication and no agreement in sight. The administration took nearly five months to send COVID-19 vaccines abroad, despite America’s supply far exceeding domestic demand — squandering an opportunity to build goodwill with allies and partners who have been wary of vaccine monopolies. The new administration pledged to place human rights and democracy promotion at the center of its foreign policy. This commitment has not been honored. The U.S. has tabled concerns about human rights violations by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in order to deepen ties between the U.S. and Philippine militaries. Biden’s administration has also ignored the human rights hazards posed by the rise of Hindu nationalism in India to avoid criticizing a regional counterweight to China.
There are parallels between Biden and Trump’s foreign policies. Biden did not move to lift the Trump-imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports until the end of October 2021, despite the negative effects on European allies. Last month, Biden angered France, one of the U.S.’s oldest partners, by striking the AUKUS deal with Australia to sell them nuclear-powered submarines. This decision, taken without consulting the French president, resulted in the cancellation of a multi-billion dollar defense deal for France. French foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian drew comparisons between Biden and Trump, saying that “this brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr. Trump used to do”. America’s disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan drew the ire of NATO allies, who said they were not fully consulted on a decision that could put their own national security at risk.
Making decisions without consulting allies or taking actions that negatively affect friendly nations are not just “the wrong things to do”; the real danger of alienating allies and partners is that isolated actions can affect larger goals. For example, the Biden administration’s core foreign policy goal of countering Chinese influence and expansion. Exiting Afghanistan freed up resources to focus on China, but it strained relations with allies and undermined the administration’s human rights pledge. The AUKUS deal could alter the balance of power in the Pacific, but doing so antagonised France, which may be willing to play a strategic role in Asia but has been hesitant to confront China. The submarine debacle will not encourage France to follow the U.S.’s increasingly hard line on Beijing. Other allies, still vexed by the last administration’s behaviour, may not be willing to align with America’s great-power-competition approach to China and Russia. Allies have resisted calls to limit trade and investment with Beijing and Moscow in certain sectors.
The foreign policy of any presidential administration will include contradictions and unrealistic aspirations because of America’s global interests and ambitions. No action or decision will satisfy all our allies and partners. The Biden administration should be evaluated on its own record, not on whether it “fixed” the former administration’s shortcomings in foreign policy. But, Biden has made promises that have created high expectations in the domestic and international spheres. Poor communication and either ignorance or disinterest have contributed to the new administration’s disappointing start in the international arena.
If Biden wants to prove to the international community that “America is back” is not a sugar-laden version of “America First”, he needs to take a leadership role in major international issues while collaborating with allies. Two opportunities for this will be the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, which begins on October 31, and the Iran nuclear talks once they resume. The international community will be watching closely, eager to see whether Biden will truly recommit to global engagement or whether America will continue to expect allies to fall in line with its priorities rather than fostering a consultative relationship.