Biden Administration’s Foreign Policy Initiatives Hindered by Domestic Troubles

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The Biden administration is facing pressing national-security challenges from Russia and Iran, but efforts to respond are being hindered by persisting domestic troubles, U.S. and foreign officials say.

As President Biden begins his second year in office, he is still grappling with many of the issues that consumed much of the first year: trying to bring the pandemic under control, shore up the economy and foster unity in a deeply divided country.

Before taking office nearly a year ago, Mr. Biden linked his foreign and domestic agendas, with the view that defeating the Covid pandemic and boosting the economy was critical to restoring U.S. influence abroad and competing with China around the world. But with the pandemic still raging, those foreign-policy goals have become increasingly challenging—and new crises are looming. Russia is amassing troops near Ukraine in what U.S. officials say is a possible prelude to invasion. Iran’s nuclear program, the administration says, is weeks away from producing a nuclear bomb. And China’s muscle-flexing toward Taiwan is raising concerns of a potential conflict there as well.

Military helicopters carrying Taiwan flags rehearse National Day celebrations above Taipei amid China’s growing military pressure.

Photo: Daniel Ceng Shou-Yi/Zuma Press

“Ongoing political polarization [in the U.S.] has extended into every facet of the Biden presidency, including his foreign-policy agenda,” says Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. “That doesn’t mean his goals are impossible to execute. But it does mean that issues that might have once found bipartisan support, like repairing the U.S. relationship with European allies, are now being used as political footballs for domestic purposes.”

Mr. Biden and others in his administration have largely linked some of the barriers they face to circumstances inherited from the previous administration. But they acknowledge that getting the domestic house in order will be necessary before they can seriously advance their diplomatic agenda.

“The president’s commitment to reinvest in education, in research and development, in infrastructure, resonates,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month at his year-end news conference. “In each of these areas, we used to lead the world. We’ve fallen way, way back, and the president wants to change that.”

“That’s not only important for our standing here at home. It is important for our standing around the world,” Mr. Blinken said.

Many allies have welcomed the Biden presidency, given his decades of foreign-policy experience as a senator and vice president. For some, the Biden diplomatic approach has been a switch from the more sharp-elbowed approach of the Trump administration. President Biden immediately rejoined some pacts and international bodies from which his predecessor withdrew, including the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization.

He restored ties with the Palestinian Authority, a relationship severed under the previous administration, and with Egypt’s help, he quickly brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas fighters last year.

While many of his policies have signaled an end to U.S. interventionism in the post-Cold War era—in particular, the withdrawal from Afghanistan—working with allies is central to Mr. Biden’s foreign-policy objectives, especially seeking collective action in opposition to China, which lacks the network of alliances the U.S. has.

The policies that Mr. Biden has articulated toward China thus far are largely a continuation from the Trump era, including its genocide designation for China’s crackdown against ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang, and his decision to maintain tariffs on Chinese imports. Biden administration officials have said that any new competitive measures by the U.S. regarding China can only happen once the pandemic is under control and the economy has strengthened.

From his home in Delaware, President Biden speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin about Russia-Ukraine tensions.

Photo: Adam Schultz/The White House/Zuma Press

One of the biggest domestic upsets to interfere with the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts has been Democrats’ failure to pass the president’s Build Back Better social-spending legislation in Congress, which attempted to allocate tens of billions of dollars for climate-change resilience. That failure has undermined Mr. Biden’s goal of making the U.S. a climate-policy leader.

The surge of Covid-19 cases due to the Omicron variant, in addition, has complicated the administration’s pledge to help distribute vaccines abroad, U.S. and foreign officials say.

Some rough spots in recent U.S. international relations can’t be blamed on domestic politics or a divided nation. Mr. Biden’s bid to rejoin the multilateral accord on Iran’s nuclear program has dragged on inconclusively. And this week, North Korea fired its third missile in 2022 alone, after a six-month hiatus. Efforts to restart talks with Pyongyang that began under the previous administration have thus far failed.

The U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, meanwhile, compromised Mr. Biden’s aim of rebuilding America’s image as a steadfast global partner. The decision to withdraw, while the product of successive administrations, upset European allies who contributed troops to the war and viewed the withdrawal as serving U.S. interests at the expense of global security. Those allies scrambled to evacuate large military and diplomatic presences in Afghanistan in the chaotic weeks of August when the U.S.-backed Afghan government and military collapsed.

“It was in our lessons from the evacuation and relocation that we’re learning for the future,” Mr. Blinken said in December. “When it comes to regrets, to looking back, there’ll be a lot of time for that in the years ahead.”

France, one of those U.S. partners in Afghanistan, took a further blow when it was caught off-guard this fall by an agreement the U.S. and U.K. reached to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, which then canceled a planned purchase of French-made conventional submarines.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, meets with French officials in Paris to patch up relations after a U.S. submarine deal with Australia caused controversy.

Photo: lewis joly/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The deal is intended to strengthen ally Australia against China’s expanding navy. France, which recalled its ambassador in the U.S. over the deal, has also been enlisted in the effort to counter Beijing, especially in shoring up U.S. influence among South Pacific nations.

Restoring trust among allies in the post-Trump era, “has been a challenge and will be a challenge,” a senior administration official says, noting that allies remain wary of entering into long-term agreements with the U.S. given the political volatility at home.

But new agreements, particularly with European allies, are exceedingly important at the moment. How the U.S. deals with Iran and Russia will likely further test the administration’s ability to work with European allies. A coordinated campaign of economic pressure may be needed to persuade Iran to curtail its nuclear program. Russia’s troop buildup near Ukraine has been accompanied by demands for new security guarantees from the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Many in the Biden administration view deterring a Russian invasion of Ukraine as crucial to U.S. credibility in Europe and in Asia, where Beijing is ramping up military pressure against Taiwan, a U.S. partner, like Ukraine.

Ms. Salama is a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal. She can be reached at vivian.salama@wsj.com.

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