But as important as foreign policy is to the president’s agenda, he knows that the greatest threat to the republic, and to his presidency, lies at home. Solving domestic problems – such as fighting Covid and inflation, passing a scaled-down Build Back Better law and protecting suffrage – will require all the bandwidth he can muster, especially as the midterm period approaches.
Countries – from China to Russia – had begun to speak of more courageous measures to challenge American influence. And the largely inadequate global response to both Covid and climate change seemed to raise serious doubts about the value of multilateral diplomacy.
In addition, the chaotic American withdrawal
from Afghanistan and the free French-fried diplomacy that alienated Paris over the submarine agreement between Australia and the United States and Britain seemed to confirm some Allies’ concerns about the competence and credibility of the Biden administration.
Moreover, the ongoing crisis in American politics – which ended with the January attack on the US Capitol – made allies wonder about the stability of the US political system and what would be left of the Biden administration’s commitments if Republicans recaptured Congress in 2022 or a Republicans win the White House in 2024.
As 2022 entices, Biden knows that the country’s future (and his) lies not only in restoring a sense of normality, but also in security and prosperity. Foreign policy is one inside the Beltway issue, far from
top of what Americans think is the most pressing issue.
That does not mean ignoring the world. On the contrary – it means engaging abroad so that foreign policy crises do not detract from or undermine Biden’s domestic agenda, or, as in the case of Afghanistan, damage his reputation. While the erroneous withdrawal was not the only reason Biden’s approval ratings fell, it certainly did not help – given the president’s exclamations about his deep experience in foreign affairs.
So where should the president begin in 2022?
Ukraine is likely to be number one in the new year. Although Biden’s use of deterrence and diplomacy prevents a Russian invasion, Ukraine is likely to disrupt US-Russian relations for some time to come, given Putin’s determination to try to stop its growing alliance with the West.
It will also complicate Biden’s domestic policy. It has the US Senate scheduled a vote
to January on whether to impose sanctions on the company behind a natural gas pipeline from Russia. If the administration opposes tougher sanctions, Republicans will accuse Biden of being weak toward Putin. If he agrees to tighten sanctions, he will alienate Germany, a critical ally dependent on access to the pipeline.
The Biden administration faces pretty much the same riddle in light of the difficult negotiations with Iran, which are likely to reach a point of success or failure early in the new year. Neither diplomacy nor deterrence seems to be working so far. Iran is closer than ever to produce
enough fissile material for one atomic bomb, even though the country, according to Israeli intelligence, is at least two years
away from actually making a deliverable weapon.
And Iran require to remove
all sanctions make it unlikely to return to the original 2015 nuclear deal. The Israelis presses
for a tougher US approach to Iran, which the Biden administration is reluctant to embrace, even while Republicans and some Democrats believe it is necessary. In fact, the last thing Biden wants now, on top of all his domestic efforts, is a major conflict with Iran, leading to declining financial markets and rising oil prices.
Then there is North Korea. Kim Jong Un has been relatively quiet lately. Truly there has not been
a long-range ballistic missile launch since 2017. If North Korea resumes long-range testing, Biden will have another headache on its hands.
So far, according to Joel Wit, a prominent fellow at the Stimson Center and a veteran North Korean expert, Biden has “only half right” his North Korean policy. While the president has strengthened ties
with U.S. East Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, he has been reluctant to engage Pyongyang directly. Instead of restarting Trumps summit-driven diplomacy,
he could quietly consider exploring the prospects of bringing Foreign Minister Antony Blinken into contact with North Korea.
Of all Biden’s foreign policy priorities, of course, is China. Landets lending practices
in much of its Belt and Road initiative, alleged human rights violations in Xinjiang, increased threats to Taiwan and the rise of sovereignty in the South China Sea, including the new administration, face major challenges.
The administration has pushed back, sanctioning
China over human rights abuses, strengthening relations with allies such as Australia and Japan and announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. But as Carnegie Endowment’s Evan Feigenbaum thinks, probably the best one could hope for – at least for now – is a kind of “controlled enmity
. “And given the prevailing attitudes on both sides of the aisle, Biden can not afford to be perceived as weak towards China.
Unfortunately, the prospects for success in all four of these areas are limited. Domestic policy limits the flexibility of the administration, and it is difficult to imagine the best deterrent and diplomacy strategy that produces stable end-states. As the midterm period approaches, the president, who was determined to devote his great efforts to repairing America’s domestic hardships, may become increasingly stuck in dangerous foreign policy challenges abroad. At best, if he is skilled and lucky, the world that Biden faces, a world to be governed, is not transformed.