biden's foreign policy

Biden’s foreign policy lacks strategic clarity

The US is stuck in the Cold War-era thinking on Russia and lacks a road-map on China. Partners will be concerned

Last week, the newly elected president of the United States (US), Joe Biden, delivered his first foreign policy speech, with the aim of resetting America’s foreign policy agenda after four years of Donald Trump’s disruption. Biden’s choice of the State Department as the venue for his address was a show of support to the foreign service bureaucracy, and a signal to the world that standard diplomatic engagement and multilateralism would be the preferred mode of operation.

Trying to strike an explicit contrast with Trump on Russia, Biden stated: “I made it clear to President [Vladimir] Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions… are over.” Underlining his intent “to raise the cost to Russia and defend our vital interests,” Biden linked it to America’s democratic values and the need to rebuild “the muscles of democratic alliances that have atrophied from four years of neglect”. But the Trump administration, for all of Trump’s fondness for Putin, sanctioned Russia across the spectrum for the last four years. As such, it is not entirely clear what else Biden will be able to do.

And then there was China. Biden argued that America will confront Beijing’s “economic abuses, counter its aggressive, coercive action to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance”. But how this will be done, once again, remains in the realm of speculation. Biden is right that China’s President Xi Jinping doesn’t have “a democratic, small D, bone in his body” and his Secretary of State is also right in letting Beijing know that Washington “will continue to stand up for human rights and democratic values, including in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong”. But if the only instrumentality they can come up with is “international rules of the road”, then it doesn’t generate much confidence in Biden’s ability to shore up a credible posture vis-à-vis an increasingly confident China.

Biden’s first foreign policy speech was certainly in tune with the changing domestic political dynamic in the US. But its lack of a strategic vision will be concerning to America’s partners. For all his desire to forge a “united front” against Beijing, Biden has not been able to articulate a compelling vision of America’s role in the world so far. Strategic patience is in short supply around the world today.