Biden’s foreign policy takes shape

Every nation’s foreign policy is driven by self-interest and domestic politics, and the U.S. is no exception. That reality is reflected in the foreign policy actions the Biden administration announced on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Keep in mind that President Biden has been involved in domestic politics for 50 years, and has taken a deep interest in foreign policy since Vietnam. Here are some details of what’s emerging from his current thinking.

Abandoning Afghanistan

Biden announced his intentions to pull the remaining U.S. troops — about 2,500 soldiers — out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, a date obviously chosen for symbolic and political, not military, reasons.

He did so against the advice of experts and advisers, who argue that risks a Taliban takeover. It was the Taliban, you’ll recall, who hosted Osama bin laden and al Qaeda when they planned the 9/11 terror attacks against the U.S. But Biden argues al Qaeda is much weaker now, so that’s unlikely to happen again.

Why? Because he wants to use those resources elsewhere. He simply has other priorities. “What President Biden wants to do is put America in a position of strength, to be able to deal not just with great power competition from Russia and China but with the significant transnational threats that affect the American way of life: pandemics and climate change, terrorism, cyber threats,” his national security adviser told CNN. 

Afghanistan is a poor, backward, war-ravaged country. The Taliban are extreme religious conservatives. They want a society where marriages are arranged, girls aren’t allowed to go to school, and women have no rights. During the period of Taliban rule between the Soviet occupation and American intervention, their rule was arbitrary, violent, and brutal. And extremely undemocratic.

But Biden isn’t interested in protecting the much-abused Afghan people from Taliban tyranny. He’s throwing them under the bus. You could argue it isn’t any of our business. After all, we didn’t fight World War 2 to free the German and Japanese people from fascism, although that was the result. We fought because we were attacked. That was also our reason for going into Afghanistan. Perhaps Biden is spooked by the U.S. failure in Vietnam, and seeing no light at the end of this tunnel, either, wants to avoid the same fate.

Pivoting to the Asia-Pacific region

This began under Obama. No question, Biden sees China as America’s #1 strategic competitor and future threat. “Biden and his senior team believe America’s foreign policy interests overwhelmingly lie in the Asia-Pacific rather than the Middle East,” CNN says, and see the deepening conflict between America and China as “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies” and the overarching challenge of his presidency.

America’s positioning with respect to China is complicated. Beijing’s determination to seize Taiwan and the South China Sea are growing concerns and potential flash points that could lead to confrontation. China’s human rights abuses and theft of intellectual property are also on his radar. Biden has responded by, among other things, rebuilding our nation’s alliances in the region — this week he’s hosting the Japanese prime minister at the White House — and raising the profile of U.S. engagement with Taiwan by sending high-level U.S. delegations there. But he also wants to work with China on climate change and other issues where cooperation is possible.

Getting tougher with Russia

Trump notoriously cozied up to Putin, but Biden isn’t having it. During the campaign, he accused Trump of being weak, and this week he unveiled a series of sanctions — in response to Russia’s “SolarWinds” hacking of federal agencies and interference with U.S. elections — that included expelling Russian diplomats and, importantly, efforts to cut off Russia from western lending.

Meanwhile, Biden and Putin engaged in a delicate dance over Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border, which is continuing apace. Biden warned Moscow of “repercussions,” but turned around two U.S. Navy ships headed for Ukraine (photo below) after Putin warned them to “stay away” and blocked access to Ukrainian ports to foreign warships (although he’s letting commercial vessels through). Biden said he recalled the warships to de-escalate tensions and avoid what his aides called a “downward spiral,” but the move if anything appears to have emboldened Putin to attack Ukraine. If he does, what Biden will do next remains to be seem, but U.S. military involvement is unlikely and the U.S. response probably would be more and tougher sanctions aimed at Russia’s economy.

No softening toward Cuba seen yet

Raul Castro, who gave up day-to-day governing in 2018, is expected to step down as communist party leader and fully retire this month. But Cuba’s communist governance won’t change.

Obama and Raul Castro, in what became known as the “Cuban thaw” (details here), “mended long fraught US-Cuban relations, only to see those ties blown up again under the Trump administration which enacted some of the toughest economic penalties on the island in decades.” With Cuba’s tourism-dependent economy, like similar economies elsewhere, now hurting from the pandemic, former GOP Sen. Jeff Flake thinks it’s “a good time to re-engage.” But, CNN says, “so far … Biden has been reluctant” to do that “despite the most significant change in leadership in Cuba in decades.”

The bottom line

Biden isn’t copying Obama’s foreign policy. He’s his own man. Nor is he putting things back the way they were. He’s taking a tougher line against Russia than Trump did, and maintaining a tough line toward China. He’s putting a lot of work into rebuilding the alliances Trump trashed, and not allowing himself to be distracted by regions or issues of lower importance. He’s focused on America’s biggest interests, and he’s pursuing America’s self-interest, but in concert with friendly countries who share our interests.

What remains to be seen is what foreign policy crises will arise on his watch, and how he’ll respond to them. Things that could go wrong include a terrorist attack against the U.S.; a Russian invasion of Ukraine, a U.S. ally; and a Chinese attack on Taiwan, another U.S. friend and ally. These would be tough challenges for any president. But Biden has more experience to draw on than anyone in Washington, seems to have a firm grip on the world situation, and knows what he wants to accomplish during his time in the presidency.

Sources for this article

Afghanistan and China — CNN articles here and here

Cuba’s changing of the guard — CNN article here

Russia sanctions and Ukraine — Daily Mail article here

Russia hacking, sanctions — New York Times article here

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