The Memo: Biden’s five biggest foreign policy challenges
President Biden’s early months in office have been dominated by his domestic agenda as the nation tries to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden has expended most of his time, energy and political capital on passing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill and on beginning the process of selling an even larger infrastructure package.
But the world beyond America’s borders is already knocking on his door — not least in the shape of the influx of migrants that have brought the U.S. immigration system to the point of crisis.
Here are five other major foreign policy challenges that Biden faces.
Countering the rise of China
China is a singular threat to the U.S. position of global dominance.
Its economy could supplant America’s as the world’s largest by the end of this decade.
Beijing has also been expanding its influence massively in trade and investment in other nations. And it has been flexing its military muscle.
An initial conversation between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in February lasted two hours. The tension between the two sides was plain, with Biden pressing Xi on human rights and the Chinese leader bridling at what he sees as Washington’s meddling in its internal affairs.
The president has cast the battle for supremacy with China as one of pivotal importance. Last month, Biden said it was up to the U.S. to prove that “democracy works.”
Derek Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation, pointed to a whole number of points of strain — including the fate of Taiwan, tension in the South China Sea, and the perennial struggles over intellectual property and cyber espionage — to conclude that “unfortunately U.S. China-relations are at perhaps their lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979.”
What can Biden do about it?
China’s economy is not going to suddenly shrink. But Grossman is among those emphasizing Beijing’s vulnerabilities, including a relative lack of allies around the world — and the amount of resources it spends surveilling and controlling its own people.
Biden is expected to play a long game, too, firming up alliances in the hope of containing Chinese spheres of influence.
The Trump administration followed a similar path, but that also came with incendiary rhetoric from the former president about “the China virus” and starting trade wars.
Exploring a return to the Iran nuclear deal
Former President Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Tehran breached the terms of the accord the following year, having complied up until that point.
The original deal, signed in 2015, had been painstakingly stitched together by Iran, the United States, five other major nations and the European Union.
Now distrust is rife. But the Biden administration is hoping that things can get back on track. On Thursday, the State Department said the U.S. was “prepared to take the necessary steps” to restore the deal, including “lifting sanctions that are inconsistent” with the accord.
The problem is that there is plenty of ill feeling lingering from the Trump-era breach.
Trita Parsi, an Iran expert and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, noted that careful choreography was required since both the U.S. and Iran are demanding verification that the other side will follow through on its promises.
While the reasons for Washington’s skepticism of Tehran are well known, “you have on the Iranian side a tremendous loss of confidence in the U.S. as a whole — not only because of what Trump did but because they are not confident the U.S. has the capacity to fulfill its obligations,” Parsi said.
The arduous path to a resumption of the deal will also be played out against a tense backdrop. In late February, Biden ordered airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria.
Seeking progress between Israel and the Palestinians
The Biden administration announced last week that it would restore aid to the Palestinians, which had been frozen during his predecessor’s time in office.
That decision alone will likely result in the flow of about $235 million to the Palestinians.
The decision was criticized in Israel — and by some in Washington.
Much of the aid will be administered through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Israel contends that UNRWA harbors an anti-Israel agenda, citing examples including the textbooks it supplies to schools.
Meanwhile, some Republicans in Congress contended that Biden should have used the offer of restoring aid as a bargaining chip with the Palestinian Authority.
The Trump administration had pushed a vigorously pro-Israel position, including a purported peace plan helmed by the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner that went nowhere.
The Biden administration may temper that position, but there is no sea change at hand — notably, the new administration has said it will not reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
More broadly, a stable solution to the long struggle between Israel and the Palestinians has proved elusive. It’s been almost three decades since former President Clinton watched then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then-Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat shake hands and sign the Oslo peace accords on the White House lawn.
The optimism of those days is long gone, and there is no compelling reason to think it is about to return.
Complicating the issue further, the Israeli government is in flux, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu trying to patch together a coalition to keep him in power.
The Russia question
Foreign policy experts are divided on how serious a threat Russia really poses to the United States.
On one hand, its election meddling has been a huge story since Trump won in 2016. And Moscow is capable of causing Washington real embarrassment — it is almost universally blamed for the SolarWinds hack that targeted thousands of American security networks, including major government departments.
Doubters cast Russia as a nation straining to preserve an illusion of greater strength than it actually possesses. The economy of the former superpower does not rank among the 10 largest in the world, lying below those of Italy and Canada, among others.
Biden has promised to be tougher on Russia than was Trump. And he caused a mini-furor last month by agreeing with a description of Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a killer.”
The Biden administration announced new sanctions against Russian officials last month, contending that the Kremlin’s intelligence services were responsible for poisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalny. There is also some talk of a cyber counterstrike in response to the SolarWinds hack.
Clarity on Cuba
Biden faces competing pressures on Cuba.
Hawks — mostly but not universally Republican — want the new president to continue Trump’s hard line on Cuba. This included designating the government in Havana as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rick Scott (R-Fla.) are among those advocating for this position, and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) is another long-standing hard-liner on Cuba.
But 80 House Democrats have also pushed Biden to return to the more open posture toward Cuba pursued by former President Obama. Restrictions on travel and remittances were lifted by Obama, who in 2015 also reopened the U.S. Embassy in Havana, which had been closed for 54 years.
Politically speaking, the direction of U.S. policy toward the island, with a population of 11 million, would not be so important were it not for the pivotal importance of Cuban American voters in the key swing state of Florida.
Biden performed poorly in Florida last November, though there is some evidence that this was rooted more in a successful GOP effort to tar Democrats as “socialists” rather than in the nuts and bolts of Cuba policy.
Professor William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington, D.C., praised Obama’s approach as “extraordinarily successful” at encouraging cooperation on areas of mutual interest.
“Now, if your criteria is ‘Did Cuba become a multiparty democracy?’ the answer is obviously no. But neither did it become one during the 60 years of hostility before.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki recently said that a shift in Cuba policy is “not currently among President Biden’s top priorities.”
During the 2020 campaign, Biden said he would “in large part … go back” to Obama’s approach between the U.S. and Cuba.
In office, he appears to be setting a more cautious course.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.