After weeks of working out what he’d been left by his predecessor, US President Joe Biden has finally put his foreign policy into overdrive. Simultaneously striking in several capitals, his plans are in play and can’t be taken back.
Early results are mixed — predictable perhaps — but nevertheless a reality check on Biden’s diplomacy now it is out on the open road.
Since getting into office, Biden has been shifting up the foreign policy gears, pausing, analyzing before implementing campaign promises.
Allies in Kabul, adversaries in Moscow, and putative climate partners in Beijing all got to kick the tires on Biden’s plans. Saudi Arabia and Iran have already road tested his policies and the results are rocky.
Putin took barely 24 hours this week to repay Biden’s expulsion of 10 Russian diplomats from Washington DC with 10 of America’s from Moscow. Tit for tat, and more may come. Biden’s built-in plan — an off ramp — is an offer to Putin of a face-to-face summit this summer. It’s too soon to know though if that’s going to put a brake on this week’s deterioration.
Biden’s problem was that, while he was deciding how Putin should “pay” for interfering in the US 2020 presidential elections, the Russian President was already plotting and implementing his own counter moves, a headline-grabbing military build-up on the border with Ukraine.
Undoubtedly Biden knew tangling with Putin would be tough; the two have history. In 2011 Biden said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw he had no “soul.” Last month he called him a killer. Putin wished Biden good health, which in Russian media-speak translates roughly as “doddering old fool.”
So it’s little surprise that the Russia policy is facing immediate unequivocal push back from the Kremlin already.
But even where Biden chased seemingly low-hanging diplomatic fruit — making one of his first major foreign policy moves resetting America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia mid-February — it’s already getting some blowback.
As former US President Donald Trump’s leadership wound down, leaving reams of uncoiled foreign policy in its wake, everyone knew Biden was bringing change — he had said so. But it’s only now as his policies have broken free of Washington DC’s beltway that they are getting their first real-world reality check.
From the chill corridors of the Kremlin to the scorching desert battle fields of Yemen, Biden has made himself topic number one.
The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was Biden’s first foreign policy target.
In early February Biden said the US would end all support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen. Within days, the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who seized power from the Yemeni government in 2014 upped attacks on the government and Saudi Arabia, according to the Yemeni and Saudi governments.
Sheltering in the shade of a thorn tree a few miles from the fragile front line separating his forces from the Houthis, Yemen’s army Chief of Staff General Sagheer bin Aziz told CNN last week he was “saddened” by Biden’s decision. “We all thought [Biden] supported security and peace and stability,” he said.
In Riyadh and in Yemeni government strongholds, officials think Biden has got his policy wrong — far from helping an ally, he is enabling America’s enemy, Iran.
By revoking the Houthi designation as a foreign terrorist organization in his first raft of foreign policy reforms, Biden has left his actual allies wondering about his real intent — to help Yemenis or make his talks with Tehran easier.
In Yemen the real-world effect of dialing back pressure on the Houthis that Biden hoped would ease humanitarian suffering and speed up an end to the war is, according to Yemen’s information and culture minister Moammar al-Eryani, doing the opposite and helping Iran. “This was a gift for the Iranian Houthi militia, and a wrong message,” he told CNN last week.
It’s unlikely Biden was trying to leverage favor in Tehran, and if he was, it doesn’t seem to have done him any good.
Biden wants back into the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, that Trump walked away from in 2018 and for Iran to come back into compliance with its terms. Tehran wants US sanctions lifted first.
Biden initially seemed hopeful. He offered Iran a tried and tested diplomatic olive branch, modest concessions, lifting travel restrictions placed on Iranian diplomats to the United Nations that limited them to their missions and the grounds of the UN in New York. Iran stonewalled — another reality check.
Eventually Biden was forced to accept an EU offer of mediation leading to proximity talks in Vienna earlier this month, but even that momentum may be stalling following a suspected covert Israeli attack on one of Iran’s uranium enrichment sites, the Natanz nuclear facility.
Iran reacted by upping uranium enrichment to 60%, almost 20 times purer than permitted — its highest level since the 2015 deal was signed, leaving Biden’s team stressing. His spokeswoman Jen Psaki questioned Tehran’s “seriousness” in regards to the nuclear talks.
In Tehran Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei redrew Iran’s line in the sand, demanding the US lift sanctions first, then Iran will come into compliance, warning protracted negotiations “would be detrimental” to Iran.
Where Biden’s foreign policy sounded consistently in sync with his allies is on Afghanistan, but even that hasn’t been without its blips.
Late March, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stood shoulder-to-shoulder with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, declaring: “We went in together, we have adjusted together, and we will leave together when the time is right.”
When Biden announced the time was right this week, not all allies were happy. The UK’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Nick Carter hinted at British reservations, telling the BBC on Friday the withdrawal of forces by September 11 this year was “not a decision that we’d hoped for.”
The Afghan government fears the implications. One senior official told CNN this week he regretted his countrymen had not used the 20 years of international help more wisely — with Afghan rival groups working together rather than for individual gain or ethnic advantage. The result could have led to potentially less corruption, less division and less factionalism, he said.
Infighting is a real prospect, and the Taliban is threatening to attack US forces in Afghanistan for not getting out fast enough.
China — Biden’s biggest foreign policy challenge — is the one major piece of his international politics yet to get a full road test. The groundwork is shaping up as planned. Allies, including the European Union, United Kingdom and Canada, are following the US position sanctioning Chinese officials for human rights abuses of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
China’s groundwork is also shaping up as they planned, with increased military exercises around Taiwan and in the South China Sea, strengthening control in Hong Kong.
None of this will be shocking for Biden. Foreign policy has been his forte for decades. His challenge will be the erosion of American power in that time, managing adversaries who think a multipolar world order has already arrived.
From here on, his foreign policy journey will be less about following his own plan and increasingly about reacting to the response it gets.