Biden’s First Year on the World Stage

By James D. Boys

For over a year now, executive power in the United States has rested with Joe Biden. What can be gleaned from his first year in office regarding US foreign policy? Despite the joy many felt upon his election, early assessments of U.S. foreign policy during Biden’s first year in office have been less than encouraging. Notwithstanding the anticipated critiques from his political opponents, even his erstwhile supporters have found few significant benefits from Biden’s first year in office, other than his reversal of Trump’s excesses. 

Biden has struggled to impose himself on the world stage or to have forged a close working relationship with foreign leaders. This is surprising considering his decades of service on Capitol Hill, including service on the Foreign Relations Committee, and his eight years as vice president, when his age and experience in foreign affairs was intended to off-set Barack Obama’s youth and inexperience. Biden’s first year on the world stage can be viewed through the prism of reversals and reactions. Reversals of President Trump’s directives and reactions to the actions of other state players, particularly Vladimir Putin. 

Elected as the apparent antidote to the Trump presidency, Joe Biden has spent his first year seeking to undo a series of actions implemented by the Trump administration. These include re-joining the Paris Climate Accords, terminating the Keystone XL pipeline, and re-starting negotiations with Iran regarding arms control agreements. Biden’s actions reflect a patten of behavior that has been apparent in recent decades that has seen U.S. foreign policy undulate on a partisan pendulum as one party spends its time in office reversing the acts of its predecessor. During his time in office, Barack Obama repeatedly sought global forgiveness for the foreign policy decisions of his predecessor, George W. Bush. In the following four years, Donald Trump attempted to reverse the signature achievements of Obama’s presidency, in particular the Iran nuclear deal and the normalization of relations with Cuba. When faced with such schizophrenic, partisan foreign policy undulations, it is unsurprising that foreign governments have struggled to identify core values in U.S. foreign policy in recent years.

As America’s second Catholic president there were concerns in London that Biden’s faith and family disdain for the British may sour the Special Relationship that existed between the UK and the United States. Having rolled out the red carpet several occasions for President Trump, Downing Street faced a new administration and a new challenge: dealing with a president with very different political views to the prime minister and with a history of anti-British sentiment. One year on and little appears to have developed. 

Although Downing Street appears to be in a state of flux due to apparent violations of COVID lockdown regulations, the Conservative Party’s term in office appears secure until the end of its mandate in May 2024, ensuring that President Biden will be dealing with this administration for the majority of his term. Key to any success are talks regarding a bilateral trade deal in the wake of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Such an agreement is in the interest of both countries and both administrations, each of which would benefit from such an achievement. The schizophrenic approach that has defined US foreign policy for decades, however, threatens even this prospect. Barack Obama warned that the UK would have to take its place ‘at the back of the queue’ in the event of a pro-Brexit vote; Donald Trump insisted this would not be the case but failed to reach an agreement during his four years in office. One year into the Biden presidency and a deal is still not in place, ensuring that there is little to show for his tenure in office thus far in regard to US-UK relations. 

The relationship will hardly be aided by Biden’s choice of ambassador to the Court of St James, Jane Hartley, since he has continued the lamentable tradition of appointing top donors to key diplomatic posts. Awarding these positions to the highest bidder/fundraiser diminishes the work done overseas by the permeant diplomatic staff and makes a mockery of diplomacy when conducted by amateurs with too much money and too high an opinion of themselves. These appointments ensure that Biden’s ambassadors will be of little help in times of international crises, such as he faces with Russia’s apparent intent to annex Ukraine. The lack of an assertive response from the White House has exacerbated divisions in Europe and can only embolden Vladimir Putin and his expansionist ambitions.

Already a quarter of the way through its term in office, the Biden administration still feels as though it is waiting to get started, while its personnel still appear to be settling into their respective roles. Indeed, many of the challenges faced by the administration stem from its personnel. None of his current national security team, particularly Secretary of State Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, have made an impression on the world stage and appear, instead, to be understudies desperately awaiting the return of their heads of department. Meanwhile, the decision to name Dr Susan Rice as a Director of the Domestic Policy Council, having spent her career in foreign affairs, remains one of the most bizarre appointments in recent White House history. The personnel flaws extend to the domestic policy appointees and the White House staff, particularly the Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, who must shoulder the responsibility for the lack of progress regarding key legislative priorities. The increasingly fractious relationship between the White House and Congress will undermine not only the domestic agenda, but also how the administration is viewed overseas, since weakness at home undermines international support, vital for diplomatic success.   

These personnel and political challenges have been compounded by poor communications and policy implementation, as exemplified by the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the unveiling of the AUKUS trilateral security pact between the U.S., UK, and Australia. Both initiatives were welcome in principle, but their implementation was poorly handled. The withdrawal from Afghanistan resulted in death and chaos, and undermined President Biden’s international credibility. Likewise, the AUKUS deal was unveiled without first consulting with the French, whose exclusion added further embarrassment to the White House communications staff.

During his first year in office, Joe Biden has demonstrated his ability to reverse aspects of Donald Trump’s policies, both foreign and domestic. As he moves into his second year, he must find forward momentum to demonstrate that he is capable of being more than merely reactive to Trump’s legacy. At this point there is little sign of an emerging Biden Doctrine, and the longer he waits, the less likely one is to be espoused. Not being Donald Trump got Biden elected in 2020, but as he seeks to find his own path forward on the world stage Biden will need to establish his own approach to the office that enables the United States to address the many challenges it faces. The best that can be said so far of Biden’s first year on the world stage is that it could be worse, but that’s hardly sufficient. 

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