Five foreign policy plums ripe for Biden's picking

Five foreign policy plums ripe for Biden's picking
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Not since Hercules cleaned out the Augean stables has an incoming leader faced a messier and more difficult task than that President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse votes to condemn Chinese government over Hong Kong Former Vice President Walter Mondale dies at age 93 White House readies for Chauvin verdict MORE leaves behind. And despite Hercules’s strength and cleverness, he did not get much credit for his labor. President-elect BidenJoe BidenObama, Clinton reflect on Mondale's legacy Biden, Harris commend Mondale in paving the way for female VP Mondale in last message to staff: 'Joe in the White House certainly helps' MORE faces similar prospects of hard work and little reward in his main domestic tasks, and foreign policy challenges such as Iran and China promise further distractions rather than relief. But there are low-hanging diplomatic fruits that could give the new administration an early start and gain political capital at home and abroad.   

What should Biden look for in a foreign policy plum? First, it should further the general goals of his foreign policy strategy. Opportunity, but not opportunism. Second, it should be quick and clean. Restarting nuclear talks with Iran may be a necessity, but it won’t be quick or clean. Third, it should strengthen confidence in Biden as a leader going in a positive direction. Cleaning up after Trump is essential, but it is not sufficient for forward momentum. Here is a menu of five plums, listed in order of their ease of plucking:

  • Rejoin the World Health Organization and reconnect the global relationships of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Herd immunity implies that most of the herd gets sick, and while that is undesirable with COVID-19, it could be a much greater catastrophe with a more virulent and fatal infection. Science should be put in charge of prevention and detection.
  • A trip by Biden to the United Kingdom and Brussels to emphasize global order under new conditions. The relatively successful conclusion of Brexit provides an opportunity to articulate the intertwined importance of global order and local interests. This could be put in the larger context of the rise of new powers such as China in a world order formed by established powers. And the United States needs to rethink its interests as a global power rather than a global hegemon.
  • Use the platform of the extension of the New START Treaty in February to propose an inclusive summit of nuclear powers on the future of nuclear defense. Thus far, policies such as New START have been prudent steps back from the Cold War but have not addressed the role of nuclear weapons in the new era. At present, only China has a policy of no-first-use. Could this be a common policy? Sponsoring a multilateral, forward-looking discussion of nuclear issues would put the United States in the leading position on a vital issue of global security. While the least plummy of the plums, it will be important to do something that moves defense policy beyond its default focus on cold wars.

To appear innovative and decisive is not easy for a big-tenter trying to return to normalcy. As Garrison Keillor once observed, it is hard for a group of Minnesotans to cross the road. Each of the opportunities above includes a public action as well as a venue for a new policy articulation.  Each is related to messier policy areas that will involve the usual domestic and international mud-wrestling, but each also gets something done and provides direction. For example, Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Cuba readies for life without Castro Chelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' MORE’s call to rationalize defense spending is reasonable, but closing bases and canceling weapons systems is dirty work. If it can be linked to multilateral progress and strategic rationales, it might be more palatable. 

Biden needs to step out and step forward, not just to bend and shovel.  

Brantly Womack, an expert on China, holds the C.K. Yen Chair at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.