Why Standard Foreign Policy Tools Fail

(Photograph by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

It’s no secret that President Joe Biden’s foreign policy challenges are piling up at an alarming rate. In the past week alone, Russia has come close to a full-scale invasion of Ukraine (with some inept encouragement from Joe Biden), Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis have expanded their war into the Persian Gulf with a drone attack on civilians in Abu Dhabi, and North Korea conducted four missile tests. There should be no debate about why these challenges proliferate, or why traditional solutions don’t work. But until the administration understands the “why” behind its national security failures, they will continue to grow. In a word: Afghanistan.

The decision to leave Kabul in the middle of the night, to ignore the clamors of NATO allies and on the ground, to accept nothing less than an ignominious defeat – at the hands of the Taliban no less – has devastated the world position of Biden.

It is therefore not surprising that neither diplomacy nor sanctions seem to be working to achieve the objectives chosen by Joe Biden – a de-escalation of global tensions and a reduction in a set of threats as varied and dangerous as all since the end of the Cold War. The dictators behind these threats sense American weakness. On the non-proliferation front, North Korea and Iran (which is ramping up its nuclear and missile programs) have doggedly advanced, advancing weaponry and expanding the delivery reach of the world’s most dangerous weapons. know. In the case of North Korea, after years of alternating peace talks, military threats, bribes, escalating sanctions and benign neglect, absolutely nothing seems to have moved the Hermit Kingdom. of his chosen path.

Faced with this litany of failures, the Biden administration (incited by Seoul’s leftist and stubbornly pro-reunification government) is considering ending the state of war that has plagued the Korean peninsula since the 1950s. It’s unclear what the diplomatic poohbahs in Washington or Seoul think they’ll win, as Pyongyang has made it clear that all it really wants is an end to the US military umbrella over the Republic of Korea.

On Iran, while the Biden team has escalated its rhetoric (both against the Trump administration and against Iran), ever more generous offers of surrender to the Islamic Republic have yet to return the now largely irrelevant Iran deal that Biden’s former boss sealed. Admittedly, sporadic sanctions have been imposed on various Iranian officials since Biden took office, but the anti-Trumpian approach has largely relied on marrying over-eager diplomacy and a blind eye to illegal sales. of Iranian oil. Unsurprisingly, this velvet fist in a velvet glove yielded few concessions to Tehran.

More problematic for the administration, Iran’s leaders have, alongside the ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna, escalated their regionally disruptive behavior, targeting US forces in Iraq as well as the US-backed prime minister, and encouraging his Yemeni partners. , the Houthis, to expand their range of attacks from local targets, Saudi civilian targets and regional navigation to targets in the United Arab Emirates. The regime has also stepped up the frequency and quality of arms deliveries to Hezbollah, forcing Israel to step up its own air defense operations over Lebanon and Syria.

Despite the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran, Tehran’s game has become something of a sideshow due to the whirlwind of other strategic issues. Putin appears to be committed to his aggression against Ukraine and, in the face of sometimes strong rhetoric from Washington, has not backed down. After Biden promised “significant costs and significant harm to Russia and the Russian economy” (accompanied by an encouraging promise that military action “is not on the table”), Vladimir Putin ignored the threatens. Instead, Russia hit the Ukrainian government with a cyberattack, prepared for a casus belli false flag, and inserted Russian troops into Kazakhstan (at the behest of its president). And he issued a series of escalating demands, including a ban on Ukraine’s NATO membership and an end to NATO military cooperation with former Soviet states.

As disheartening as Russia’s growing predation on its neighbors is (Finland and Sweden are even talking about joining NATO), Beijing’s rumble is likely even more unsettling for Biden’s national security executives. A diplomatic boycott of the Olympics seems unlikely to achieve much, and certainly not an appeasement of the Chinese Uyghur genocide to which Xi Jinping seems so attached. Only Congress has succeeded in stirring up any anger against Uyghurs, while the Biden administration is working quietly but ultimately unsuccessfully to derail the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Law.

In Biden’s defense, there are concessions in the world of foreign policy, and, mirroring Trump-era arguments between Chinese doves (ahem, Steve Mnuchin) and Trump National Security Council hawks, there are some in the Biden White House who believe that Chinese climate concessions and support to ease inflation-causing supply chain nightmares are more important than perhaps unsuccessful efforts to save the Uyghurs. This focus on domestic policy rather than foreign policy is even more important in times of economic crisis. And there is a growing inflation/supply chain/labour force participation crisis in the US that is not getting better.

As for Russia, others argue that putting Putin in a corner is more likely to trigger a conflict with Ukraine and that now is not the time to test NATO. They look at Germany’s embarrassingly weak response to Putin and ask, “If Putin’s neighbors can’t get excited enough to defend Ukraine, why should the United States do it?” (Those who believe Angela Merkel was the only reason Germany is weak on national security are given 20 demerits.) And it’s hard not to sympathize with those in Biden’s circle who are tired of putting up with the mercantilist pacifism of Europe.

Likewise, there are different perspectives on how best to force Iran out of the nuclear abyss, get North Korea to stop firing missiles, deter Houthi terrorism, defang Hezbollah… not to mention to limit Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, threats from Taiwan and the various other Chinese communist parties have waged assaults on the world order. But there’s little disagreement that those things wouldn’t – ideally – happen. And that’s the problem. Increasingly, the standard toolbox of foreign policy solutions seems empty.

Disagreements over diplomacy versus the use of force, “chilling” sanctions versus smart sanctions versus targeted economic measures, and war versus peace are not new. But historically, the United States, or the United States and a coalition of willing allies, has been able to impose costs that outweigh the perceived benefits of the evil designs of the world’s thugs. Lately, this is no longer the case. As my AEI colleague, Chris Miller, succinctly explained in a recent Foreign Affairs article,

After Biden administration officials stepped up their threats, the Russian stock market and its currency barely budged. The markets’ collective shrug reflects the Kremlin’s view that the United States will not follow through on the tough sanctions it has been discussing.

The same calculation works in Beijing. Biden, Xi Jinping rightly felt, has no appetite for confrontation — not over Uyghurs, not Taiwan, or anything. But why? Again, in one word: Afghanistan.

Every president since the disastrous Jimmy Carter has been tested in one way or another – Ronald Reagan by the national unions at the very beginning, but by the Soviets at every turn; George HW Bush by Saddam himself; Bill Clinton by the Balkans; George W. Bush by the Chinese capture of an American spy plane and then 9/11. Shit, even Barack Obama drew a red line and eliminated Muammar Gaddafi; Donald Trump attacked the ayatollahs and eliminated Iran’s most important military leader. In each case, the US president has shown his courage in the face of foreign threats.

What has Biden done to signal to the world that he – and America’s “return” – is a force to be reckoned with? Exactly nothing. Diplomacy, sanctions, and threats from a president who doesn’t take his nation’s power and interests seriously mean nothing, and the thugs of the world understand that.

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