The surprise of President Biden’s first press conference on Thursday was that he presented himself as, quite possibly, the right person for the job at this time—principled but pragmatic, calm but impassioned, attentive to big pictures and fine details, and, above all, humane in his approach to a problem. Some have made this point about his remarks on domestic issues, but it also fits his comments on foreign policy.
Just 65 days into his term, this may, of course, be wishful thinking. Biden faces serious challenges on every continent. America may be “back,” as he’s proclaimed, but its interests and values have rarely been so imperiled.
China, Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan form the top stratum of his national-security agenda. On the first three, it’s hard to say which way Biden will be going; on the fourth, his direction is clear, but how he gets there is problematic. Interagency “policy reviews” are underway on all four and much more; but, meanwhile, on the most pressing cases—potential crises that could reach turning points in a matter of weeks—Biden’s team has faltered in its first steps.
The most puzzling case is Iran. President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, even though Iran was in compliance; he re-imposed sanctions, which had been lifted in exchange for the dismantlement of Iran’s nuclear program; a year later, after seeking a way around the obstruction with the Europeans, Iran resumed enriching uranium, citing Paragraph 36 of the deal, noting that if one side breaks its commitments, the other can respond in kind. During the 2020 campaign, Biden promised to return to the deal. (He had been vice president when President Obama and five other world leaders negotiated it.) Yet, upon entering the office, he said that the Iranians would have to make the first move—they would have to throw out their enriched uranium before he would lift the sanctions. The Iranians, not unreasonably, refused. They hadn’t been the ones to tear up the deal; why should they unilaterally mend it, why should they trust the U.S. to follow suit?
It is a mystery why Biden, in his first days as president, didn’t work out an arrangement where the U.S. and Iran could make their moves simultaneously, perhaps under the European Union’s auspices. In mid-February, the French foreign minister announced that he would hold host talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Europe’s top diplomats to discuss saving the Iran nuclear deal. It looked like this would be the forum where such a formula would be arranged. But Iran’s officials refused to attend—and the talks were canceled.
So Biden blew it by seeking a diplomatic solution too late. Then the Iranians blew it by brushing off a meeting where a solution might have been broached. Will there be a third opportunity? Not necessarily. Iran holds presidential elections in June. Trump’s withdrawal from the deal bolstered Tehran’s most hardline political factions; Biden’s hesitancy to repair Trump’s damage reinforced their appeal. It may be that Iranian politics won’t allow a restoration of the nuclear deal—even though both sides want one.
China is a more complicated case. President Xi Jinping has been stepping up his aggressive actions and rhetoric; yet the U.S. and China also share common interests in combating climate change, terrorism, and nuclear non-proliferation. The challenge is to navigate a course that contains China’s ambitions where our interests conflict while courting its cooperation where they coincide.
Yet, in their first meeting with Chinese diplomats, in Anchorage, Alaska, earlier this month, Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan went for all-out confrontation, itemizing Beijing’s sins at home and abroad, in front of reporters and cameras. They should have known China’s top diplomat would bite back, and he did, in a 16-minute tirade. But Blinken seemed surprised and launched a second fusillade; Sullivan chimed in with an explanation—which the Chinese termed naïve and condescending—of why the American system is superior.
There’s nothing wrong with standing up to China for U.S. values and interests, but Biden and his diplomats were in the midst of a campaign to win back allies after the four grim years of Trump. Some of these allies were inclined to join a side-alliance against China, but some were not, and very few would welcome signs of war—whether cold or all-out—between Washington and Beijing.
The good news is that Biden seems to know this. Asked at his press conference on Thursday whether the tension at Anchorage bodes hardline trade policies toward China, Biden replied that those issues “only touch a smidgen of what the relationship with China is all about.”
Biden noted that he’s known Xi for a long time: they talked at great length when both men were vice presidents; when Xi called to congratulate him on his election victory, they talked for two hours. They made clear to each other that, as Biden put it, “we’re not looking for confrontation, though we know there will be steep, steep competition.” China’s goal is to become the leading country in the world. “I don’t criticize it for having the goal,” Biden told the reporters, but added, “That’s not going to happen on my watch.” He will “hold China accountable” to follow international rules and will stand up for human rights. “We don’t always live up to our expectations” on this score, Biden allowed, “but it’s a value system,” and “the moment a president walks away from that, as the last one did, is the moment we begin to lose our legitimacy around the world.”
The centerpiece of U.S. strategy, though, will be to invest in American workers and American science. The U.S., he said, once invested 2 percent of its GDP in pure science; today it invests just 0.7 percent. “I’m going to change that” and move back closer to 2 percent.
This monologue, which was spoken without reference to notes, embodies the mix of idealism and pragmatism implicit in traditional American diplomacy. More, it emulates the principle articulated late in life by the legendary diplomat George Kennan: “It is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts its most useful influence beyond its borders.”
Blinken was already correcting his misstep in Anchorage. On Wednesday, the day before Biden’s press conference, in a speech at a NATO conference in Brussels, Blinken stressed:
The United States won’t force our allies into an “us or them” choice with China… We know that our allies have complex relationships with China that won’t always align perfectly. But we need to navigate these challenges together…to close the gaps in areas like technology and infrastructure, where Beijing is exploiting to exert coercive pressure. We’ll rely on innovation, not ultimatums. Because if we work together to make real our positive vision for the international order—if we stand up for the free and open system that we know provides the best conditions for human ingenuity, dignity, and connection—we’re confident that we can outcompete China or anyone else on any playing field.
Biden sees the fundamental conflict in the world—not just with China but with several countries, including sometime-allies, and even within our own borders—as democracy vs. autocracy. And though he often spouts blithe optimism (“we can do anything…we’re the United States of America”), he knows the contest is very much open.
“I predict to you,” he told the reporters at Thursday’s press conference, “your children or grandchildren are going to be writing their dissertations on whether democracy or autocracy succeeded. How will democracies solve the problems?” Xi believes democracy can’t function in a complex world. Is he right? “That’s what’s at stake here,” Biden went on. “We have to demonstrate that democracies work.”
This is what Biden emphasizes in most of his foreign-policy pronouncements—playing up our strengths more than rattling on about others’ weaknesses. This is what Sullivan, in his better moments, means when he talks about the convergence of foreign and domestic policy. In this sense, the test of Biden’s success or failure may not be clear when his time in office is over.
Meanwhile, shit happens.
In Afghanistan, an agreement struck by the Trump administration calls for all U.S. troops to leave the country by May 1. At his press conference, Biden said it was logistically impossible to get out by then, but he will get out soon. Asked whether U.S. troops might still be there next year, he replied, “I can’t picture that being the case.” How to pull out in coordination with NATO allies, and without seeing the country fall apart—that’s a harder question. He may have decided that ultimately there’s little we can do about this, so, after 20 years of fighting, it’s time to leave—a decision he urged Obama to make as well.
North Korea is a knottier problem. Kim Jong-un is not going to give up his nuclear weapons. China is not going to make him. Now Kim has upped the tensions—the only way he knows how to draw attention to himself and exert leverage—by test-firing two ballistic missiles into Sea of Japan. Asked what he’s going to do about it, Biden noted that the tests violated a U.N. Security Council resolution, he’s consulting with allies, he “will respond accordingly,” but he’s also “prepared for some form of diplomacy.” It was an honest answer, given that there’s not much we can do about it at the moment.
Like most presidents, Biden would prefer to ponder and solve the big issues. He recently met with a group of historians to talk about Franklin Roosevelt and the other great presidents and how they dealt with their problems. Obama did this a few times too. Obama also wanted to “pivot” to Asia Pacific and deal with the challenges of the globe’s most dynamic regions, rather than remain mired in the sectarian battles of the Middle East—then proceeded to get mired there anyway.
The world doesn’t stop spinning, ancient feuds don’t pause, power-mad tyrants don’t stop flexing their muscles, while grand strategies are formulated or competing global visions of political philosophy—the stuff of future dissertations—play out. It’s hard—it must be impossibly wearying—to wrestle with the daily hammerings while staying focused on the ultimate goals. That’s what Biden is trying to do. That’s what’s all presidents are supposed to do. That’s the job. He seems to know it. The story for all of us to keep in focus is whether he does it.