US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy to-do list is long, complicated, and may soon hit speed bumps left by his predecessor.
In the past four years, tensions with China and Iran have grown, Russia has gone rogue, North Korea has become a greater nuclear threat and relationships with allies have been damaged. But perhaps the biggest impediment to Biden is that much of the previous president’s overseas dealings were shrouded in secrecy.
At his inauguration, Biden’s message to allies — and by implication to America’s enemies too — was simple: “to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.”
But engagement won’t be easy, as his picks for top administration jobs revealed during confirmation hearings the day before. Biden’s predecessor was unorthodox in the extreme, meeting with enemies like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un one-on-one, leaving many in his administration and the world wondering what he’d agreed to.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for Secretary of State, told a Senate hearing several times that the new administration doesn’t know the scale of the problems they are inheriting.
In Afghanistan, where a US troop drawdown continues, based on the previous administration’s agreement with the Taliban, Biden’s team has yet to be made aware of the full details concerning the deal.
Blinken told his Senate confirmation hearing, “we have to look carefully at what has actually been negotiated … to understand fully what commitments were made, or not made by the Taliban.”
Several Afghan officials, speaking in the past year on the basis of anonymity to protect their government’s relationship with the previous administration, said they were opposed to the US-Taliban deal because it endangered Afghans, and want Biden to end it.
Saudi Arabia, another US ally, also presents Biden with challenges.
Blinken told senators the administration’s priority would be discovering the extent of America’s involvement in Saudi’s war in Yemen “first and foremost, making sure we understand exactly what support we’re actually currently providing.”
Relations with Saudi, a particularly close ally of the last administration, could get rocky. Blinken told the hearing, “we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen,” though he also hinted they might be prepared to find a degree of compromise, saying, “we need to do to help defend Saudi Arabia against aggression directed at Saudi Arabia, including from Yemen.”
Perhaps where the bilateral relationship risks greatest damage is over the lingering fallout from the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 at the hands of a hit team sent from Riyadh.
Biden’s new Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, said she would release an unclassified report into Khashoggi’s murder to Congress, telling senators, “absolutely I will follow the law.”
Relations with close ally Israel won’t be straightforward either following the last administration’s tight embrace. Biden will keep the US embassy in Jerusalem, but according to Blinken will reset to the traditional US policy of pushing for a “two-state solution” saying, “the challenge of course is how to move forward.”
But it is America’s enemies, according to Blinken, that will take priority, with Russia being “very high on the agenda.”
In a break with many in the last administration, Blinken openly criticized Russia’s President over the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. “It is extraordinary how frightened Vladimir Putin seems to be of one man,” he said, adding that the challenge posed by Russia “is urgent.”
It is China, however, that poses the biggest test to US power, according to Blinken, who said “there is no doubt that it poses the most significant challenge of any nation state to the United States.”
Biden’s pick for Secretary of Defense, retired General Lloyd Austin, said the same during his hearing: “Asia must be the focus of our efforts and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department.”
Evidence of that came shortly after Biden was sworn in, with Beijing imposing sanctions on 28 former members of the previous US administration, accusing them of “a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs.”
The move followed a series of final moves by the outgoing White House targeting China, including sanctions aimed at officials and a declaration on its final day that the Chinese government had committed genocide against Uyghur Muslims and ethnic and religious minority groups in its western region of Xinjiang.
When Blinken was asked by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham if he agreed with his predecessor that the Chinese Communist Party had “engaged in genocide regarding the Uyghur Muslim population,” Blinken said “yes.”
However, Beijing has also appeared to indicate it is willing to cooperate with Biden’s new administration. At a regular press briefing Wednesday, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry asked Biden to look at China rationally and objectively, meet China halfway and, in the spirit of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit, push China-US relations back towards the right track of healthy and stable development as soon as possible.
Biden’s answer has already begun, signing executive orders, including re-joining the Paris climate change accord his predecessor withdrew from, and in so doing, according to Blinken, mustering vital support from allies that will provide a “source of strength for us in dealing with China.”
The early signs for Biden are good, and the outpouring of support from allies has been strong.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, speaking for almost half a billion European Union citizens, said Wednesday: “This new dawn in America is the moment we’ve been waiting for so long. Europe is ready for a new start with our oldest and most trusted partner.”
Atop the EU’s priorities is getting Biden to reverse the previous administration’s course on Iran and rejoin the 2015 multinational nuclear deal. According to Blinken, that could be possible “if Iran comes back into compliance. We would too.”
A question possibly emerging now is who jumps first. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that “the ball is in the US court now. If Washington returns to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, we will also fully respect our commitments under the pact.”
Jen Psaki, Biden’s communications director, told reporters in the administration’s first news briefing that Biden wants to “lengthen and strengthen the nuclear constraints on Iran and address other issues,” all of which Iran has previously rejected.
Iran’s foreign minister said Biden’s predecessor had been “relegated to the dustbin of history in disgrace,” adding, “Perhaps new folks in DC have learned.”
In the meantime, Iran continues increasing its illegal stockpiles of low and medium enriched uranium, as well as making prohibited uranium metal shortening its path to a nuclear bomb.
At his hearing, General Austin testified, “If Iran were ever to get a nuclear capability, most every problem that we deal with in the region would be tougher to deal with because of that.”
President Biden has indeed inherited a plate full of pressing foreign policy problems. If he plays them right, America’s allies will help, and the world can get a little safer.