It may be difficult to see through the fog of war but 2022 marked the emergence of a new U.S. foreign policy doctrine that has united defenders of democracy and set back authoritarian regimes from Russia and Iran to Budapest and Brasilia.
President Joe Biden’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign neighbor seeking alliance with the defense and economic blocs of Western Europe, brought together the often-squabbling partners of NATO and the European Union.
Informed by his 50 years of foreign policy experience before entering the White House, Biden made clear to U.S. allies that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pursuit of a new empire presages an assault on the freedom and independence of countries far beyond Ukraine.
The massive Kremlin attack on Feb. 24 destroyed almost eight decades of an agreed world order, that borders cannot be changed by force of arms and that rape, summary execution and destruction of civilian infrastructure constitute war crimes.
The galvanizing message of the Biden Doctrine is much like the founding principle of NATO, that an attack on any one of the alliance’s 30 member states is an attack on all and must be collectively defended. Ukraine is not a member of NATO nor of the EU but its aspirations to eventually qualify to join those alliances are the pretext Putin has used to justify his unprovoked aggression.
Putin claims to be fighting off NATO encroachment into what he considers Russia’s historic sphere of influence, that countries and territories dominated by Russia and the Soviet Union for centuries are his assets to be recovered by whatever means necessary.
NATO states and neighbors of the former Soviet bloc have correctly perceived that if Putin prevails in conquering Ukraine that Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, other former Soviet republics and ex-Warsaw Pact partners are also in the Kremlin leader’s sights for rebuilding a new and more powerful Greater Russia.
Autocracies like Putin’s Russia usually end in disaster, either with defeat on the battlefield or at home when the warmongering drains manpower, munitions and the national treasury. Napoleon’s Waterloo, Hitler’s suicide in a Berlin bunker, North Koreans’ abject poverty and isolation as Kim Jong-un bankrolls his nuclear weapons pursuit. What doesn’t kill a bellicose dictator makes him and his country weaker.
Putin’s disastrous overreach in thinking his corruption-riddled armed forces could take Kyiv in a matter of days has yet to result in the calamitous end that awaits Russians but the signs of that looming conclusion abound. Unable to hold territory taken in the early weeks of the stunning invasion, his disjointed forces of mercenaries, ethnic warlords and ill-equipped and demoralized conscripts have retreated to eastern Ukraine regions held by Russia-aligned separatists, hunkered down to await the Kremlin’s shift from territorial conquest to destruction of Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and its unique national culture and identity.
The Ukraine war dominated U.S. foreign policy in Biden’s second year but his strategy of projecting strength through the unity of democratic allies drives the international response to other global crises and challenges.
Biden spent his first year in office trying to show U.S. allies abandoned by his predecessor that “America is back.” After Biden took office, the United States rejoined the 2015 Paris climate accord binding 195 states in a mission to save the planet. Donald Trump withdrew from the pact early in his presidency. The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act passed in August commits $37 billion a year in investments in renewable energy, electric vehicles and emissions control throughout industry, setting a high bar for allied nations to emulate.
The former president also scuttled the Iran nuclear pact that united the most powerful countries in the world in agreeing on an oversight and inspection regime to ensure Iran’s nuclear facilities were not engaged in weapons production. After tensions soared between the U.S. and Iran during the Trump years Biden administration efforts to resurrect the nuclear deal have stalled.
“We continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a speech on Dec. 4 at a Washington foreign policy conference, after Tehran ceased attending talks in Vienna aimed at rescuing the scuttled accord. “But should the Iranian regime reject that path, its leaders should make no mistake that all options are on the table to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon.”
Washington’s relations with Tehran have also been chilled as senior administration officials speak out against beatings, arrests and executions of Iranians protesting the Islamic regime in the greatest outpouring of social unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew a repressive monarchy. The protests were sparked by the death in September of a 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, in the custody of Iran’s morality police for improperly wearing the mandated head scarf. The protests have swelled to vent anger about government corruption, a stagnant economy and a dearth of jobs or opportunity for Iran’s disproportionately young population, nearly 40% under the age of 25.
The U.S. Council on Foreign Relations lists Iran as one of five major foreign policy challenges for the new year, asking “Will the Islamic Republic of Iran still exist on December 31, 2023?”
Aside from the dismal condition of Iran-U.S. relations, other Middle East states have proven a challenge for U.S. diplomats and negotiators. Biden as a candidate in 2020 promised to withdraw from the Middle East and pivot to tackle conflicts in Asia, primarily rising tensions between China and U.S. allies. He downsized the U.S. presence in Iraq and relocated some military installations in the Gulf. He deemed Saudi Arabia a pariah state after the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the gruesome elimination of a regime critic that Western intelligence agencies said had to have been greenlighted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader.
The war in Ukraine and Russian oil trade sanctions forced a rethinking of U.S. policy with the Gulf oil giants. Biden’s trip to the Middle East in July, including a meeting with MBS that started with the fist bump heard ’round the world, became a diplomatic slap in the face when the Saudi leader sided with Putin to keep oil output restricted and gas prices soaring. Biden has also made little progress toward his stated goal to deprive Saudi Arabia of weapons and diplomatic backing for its airstrikes against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, an offensive coalition of Arab Gulf states originally backed by Western democracies until Saudi airstrikes targeted Yemeni civilians.
In a Biden foreign policy report card published by The Daily Beast, veteran foreign policy analyst David Rothkopf wrote that Biden “not only demonstrated the greatest foreign policy mastery of any U.S. president (in three decades) but has transcended his achievements by being the first president to create a post-Cold War foreign policy that meets the moment—one defined by a recognition of new priorities, threats, opportunities, and challenges.” He ended the sweeping reflection on the president’s first two years in office giving him an overall A- or B+, lavishing his strongest praise on Biden for ending America’s costly war in Afghanistan, having “recognized that prolonging America’s longest war would advance no national interest.”
It was a chaotic exit from a hopeless mission launched by President George W. Bush twenty years earlier to rid Afghanistan of its terrorist havens for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
“The U.S. misread the speed with which the Taliban would seize the country and that with which the government we had supported would fold,” Rothkopf said of the end of the Afghanistan occupation. “The loss of life associated with a bomb attack on U.S. troops and innocent Afghans was tragic. Many of our allies were left behind.
“But behind the scenes, the U.S. also engineered one of the biggest airlifts in history and a global effort to bring the war to a conclusion. Many critics of Biden focus on the two weeks at the very end of the war and miss the bigger picture. A hugely costly 20-year war is finally over.”
What ranks as the longest-standing and most uncompromising Communist power has been at the top of the Biden administration’s foreign policy concerns.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has consolidated power and set himself up to rule for an unprecedented third term, likely for life. Xi, 69, orchestrated the power grab at the party’s 70th anniversary conference in 2022, continued to bridle Hong Kong’s autonomy, flexed maritime muscle to antagonize Asia-Pacific neighbors with seizure and expansion of disputed islands in the South China Sea and stayed silent as ally Russia rampaged through Ukraine in the most destabilizing violence since World War II.
Biden has maintained previous U.S. administrations’ efforts to halt Beijing’s alleged theft of intellectual property, disputed trade practices and restrictions on U.S. businesses and foreign investments in China. The president has sought to elevate U.S. diplomacy in the Asian-Pacific to demonstrate support for allies who see their territory, stability and economies threatened by an increasingly aggressive Communist leadership in Beijing.
The Biden Doctrine has focused the “Quad” – United States, Australia, India and Japan – on diplomacy to ease the region’s many frictions. It has strengthened AUKUS, the alliance of U.S. UK and Australia that has initiated a project to provide Canberra with nuclear-powered submarines marrying U.S. naval technology and British maritime training expertise. Biden has brought the United States back into Asian-Pacific alliances and trade pacts that Trump scuttled, often to the U.S. economic detriment.
The biggest point of contention between Washington and Beijing is over concerns for the self-ruled Chinese island nation of Taiwan, which Xi has vowed to bring back under Beijing’s governance by whatever means necessary. Russia’s bungled attempt to seize Ukraine is being watched closely in both Beijing and Washington for its implications in the tenuous standoff between democratically governed Taiwan and Xi’s autocracy, the latter under pressure from a population angered by nearly three years of lockdowns as Beijing pursued a “zero-Covid” policy.
China is an economic rival and a threat to security in the U.S.-allied Western Pacific. Biden has played a measured hand with Xi, engaging in meetings that focus on mutual interests of a stable global economy and a level playing field for 70,000 U.S. companies doing business in China.
Biden’s rejection of his predecessor’s anti-science views on the Covid-19 pandemic brought the deadliest affliction in a century under control in the United States after the country recorded the highest per capita infection and death rates in the world in 2020. U.S.-produced vaccines helped combat the spread of Covid in allied countries and the Third World and discredited the Trump-peddled allegations that vaccination was unnecessary and wearing masks was less a health protection than an infringement on personal liberty.
Biden reconnected with World Health Organization policy makers and downgraded political ties with chummy autocrats of the former president, including Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and an array of small-time dictators like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.
Foreign policy analysts and global health power players like Bill Gates give Biden low marks for failing to invest more time and resources in preparing for the next global health crisis. But the U.S. president’s return to international collaboration has given hope to those tasked with prevention and disaster response that Washington will play a more constructive role when the next pandemic hits.
The Biden administration is credited with leading not just the United States but much of the world out of the economic catastrophe of a world ravaged by Covid and an epidemic of illiberal policies undermining job creation and recovering stock markets.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has earned praise for establishing a global minimum tax for corporations that should halt the outsourcing of industry taking a toll on employment and compensation.
Biden administration legislation to create more autonomy in the production of semiconductors and other vital industrial technology components is expected to make U.S. industry less reliant on an international supply chain and able to avoid the disruptions experienced after the pandemic lockdowns ended but production and delivery were slow to recover.
Inflation has bedeviled all developed countries as consumer demand overwhelmed product availability, from gasoline to computer chips to baby formula.
U.S. investment in green energy under the infrastructure bill and the Inflation Reduction Act are expected to fuel an already hot jobs market and economic growth in the United States and some Western allies.
The Biden administration has been late to the competition for the hearts, minds and minerals of the African continent. China, under its Belt and Road Initiative, has been buying mines, building railroads and investing billions in African countries that can supply its voracious appetite for raw materials and outsourced labor.
Biden invited dozens of African leaders to a summit in Washington in mid-December to send a message that the United States wants to be more engaged with this region of the world. China has a massive head start in the competition for resources and influence in Africa but U.S. capital and engineering prowess could elevate the administration’s quest to challenge the current prominence of China, the No. 2 world economy.