President Biden pledged in his inaugural address to “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again” — a bold and sweeping bit of rhetoric. But what does that look like on the ground? And how does this administration undo four years of damage from the wrecking ball that was Trump foreign policy?
A boatload of weighty foreign policy decisions loom in the near term — a New START Treaty with Russia, a renewal of the Iran nuclear deal, a jockeying with China over trade even as that country tests US resolve by flying fighter jets over Taiwanese airspace.
Fortunately, Joe Biden is among the most experienced “new kids” ever to take over the Oval Office when it comes to foreign policy, and his team is seasoned too. But experience and good intentions go only so far. This nation’s divisions, the recent testing of its own democratic institutions, are no secret to the rest of the world — especially to autocrats looking to test American will.
Biden promised his foreign policy agenda “will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats.”
There is, however, some skepticism about whether that is desirable or even doable.
“I don’t think that’s possible,” said Michael Glennon, former dean of Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at a recent seminar. “We should be grateful to have a seat at the table [let] alone be at the head of the table.”
A pandemic, an economic downturn, and a closely divided Senate (which would be called on to approve future treaties and trade agreements) all mitigate against that “head of the table” notion.
Restoring the US relationship with NATO will help. Biden has said the 70-year-old international alliance is “at the very heart of the United States’ national security, and it is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal.”
That should come as a relief to the Baltics and Eastern Europe, forever looking over their shoulders as Russia’s Vladimir Putin covets their return to the old Soviet fold.
Four years of Donald Trump virtually rolling over and playing dead for Putin precludes Biden from attempting the usual “reset” of the relationship, whereby the parties would let bygones be bygones. But last Tuesday, in Biden’s first phone conversation with Putin, the two men took steps toward a five-year extension on the New START treaty that limits nuclear missiles, bombers, and nuclear-armed submarines. The pact is set to expire Feb. 5.
At the same time, however, a White House summary of the phone call shows Biden was hardly shy about confronting the Russian leader on interference with the 2020 election, its role in the recent Solarwinds cyberhack, the bounties allegedly placed on US soldiers in Afghanistan, and the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The latter’s recent imprisonment upon his return to Russia has sparked massive protests and, with it, massive numbers of arrests in Russia.
“We can both operate in the mutual self-interest of our countries, [such] as a New START agreement, and make it clear to Russia that we are very concerned about their behavior, whether it’s Navalny, whether it’s SolarWinds, or whether it’s the reports of bounties on the heads of Americans in Afghanistan,” Biden told reporters Monday.
The US relationship with China, long fraught during the Trump years, isn’t starting off on a particularly auspicious note, as China sent formations of warplanes over the democratically governed island of Taiwan days after Biden’s inauguration. The administration issued a statement accusing Beijing of trying to intimidate the self-governing territory. A US aircraft carrier and its battle group just happened to be on a “scheduled deployment” in the nearby South China Sea. Sometimes in foreign affairs, timing is everything.
The “Buy American” plan Biden announced Monday can’t make China happy either. But when it came to trade policy and China, Trump was like that proverbial broken clock that could still be right twice a day. China’s theft of intellectual property is ongoing and presents a challenge that must be dealt with.
Biden, while under no illusions about the conduct of Iran on the world stage, is nevertheless committed to rejoining the nuclear deal that for a time halted that nation’s enrichment of uranium and, with it, the possibility of its use in nuclear weapons. It is not too late to do that and undo the damage already done, but with Iran’s impending June presidential election — and with it the possibility of a more hard-line leader, the window of opportunity is narrow.
The hot spots are many and varied. And it shouldn’t take a terror attack, genocide, or the outbreak of a deadly disease for an administration to focus its attention on Africa or the Middle East.
But critical to dealing with all of that, plus the inevitable humanitarian crises, will be a rebuilt foreign policy infrastructure at the State Department and the US Agency for International Development — both decimated by budget cuts, early retirements, and resignations. Not simply replenishing the number of career diplomats who represent this nation in every corner of the globe, but also reimagining a diplomatic corps fit for the 21st century.
This may not be the American Century, but American respect for the rule of law still has value on the world stage. So too do American strength and resolve and consistency. Joe Biden’s most powerful international weapon may well be his basic decency — that alone should win back this nation’s “seat at the table.”
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.