Skip to main content

April 24, 2021
International Challenges for the Biden Presidency

By: Geoffrey Van Orden CBE, Distinguished Fellow

In international relations, and in politics more widely, perception is often more significant than reality. In many overseas countries, Donald Trump was widely seen as an unsuitable, even dangerous, President - unpredictable and narcissistic, acting on instinct and unnerving friend and foe alike. Yet nearly half of Americans continued to vote for Donald Trump. Foreigners don’t vote and for all the harm Donald Trump was seen to have done to the US image abroad, clearly many Americans had a different view, or at least didn’t like the alternative. The fact is, he shook up the international system, caused rethink of the Iran nuclear agreement, and pressured western allies into spending more on defence. His unblocking of the situation in the Middle East, dangerously frozen for decades, opened the potential for massive and benign change with far-reaching consequences – a succession of Arab states have now recognised the state of Israel. Clearly, these are substantive gains that have to be separated from the rhetoric and built on by the new administration.

We know something of President Biden’s personal attitude to foreign policy issues from his eight years as Vice President from 2009, from his chairmanship before that of the Senate foreign relations committee, and keynote policy statements that he has made over the years. There is a moral thrust to his approach, underpinned by a belief in consensus, in multilateralism and working closely in partnership with allies. He also has a sentimental emphasis on his Irish roots which now add to his enthusiasm for what many Americans imagine the European Union to be. He would err on the side of caution before committing the military to robust action. But he must take care that any efforts to cast himself as the polar opposite of Donald Trump do not compromise his calls for American bipartisanship and unity or indeed, the advances made by his predecessor.

Within 3 weeks of taking office in 2009, Vice President Biden spoke at the Munich Security Conference where he deployed the phrase “the example of our power must be matched by the power of our example”, repeated in his Presidential address 12 years later. He made it clear that Obama and Biden were determined to “reset” America’s relations with a number of hostile or difficult countries.

The consequences of this approach were at best, disappointing. A power vacuum was created which was rapidly filled by others who were less judgemental. And new challenges exist to add to the threats identified in 2009, most of which persist in a worsened state. Iran’s nuclear weapons programme may have been delayed but it remains in being and can rapidly be upgraded. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya are unstable and significantly controlled by forces not aligned with the Western democracies.

Russia continues to be dangerous. She has a declining economy and population but has invested disproportionately in upgrading her military capabilities and does not shrink from using them. She seeks control of European gas supply and has intervened to weaken potential rival sources of supply. Germany in particular is dangerously reliant on Russian energy. Russia’s submarine presence in the North Atlantic has returned to Cold War levels, she has a formidable Arctic capability unmatched by any other country and is extending her reach with bases not just in Syria but also in Sudan. In both Eastern Ukraine and in Libya she has used proxy forces against those aligned with the West. She maintains an intense cyber assault on Western economic, security and political institutions and actively sows disinformation among our citizens through social media – all to create instability and weaken attachment to Western governments.

China has extended her reach and relative power massively over the past ten years. Ironically, as the source of the Covid-19 pandemic, China almost alone has experienced continued GDP growth while western economies have taken a massive hit. China’s defence spending has almost doubled in a decade. It now has the world’s largest navy, passed a carrier strike group for the first time through the Taiwan Strait, has developed effective anti-ship missiles and is putting massive resources into AI and into offensive capabilities in space. There is now a Chinese military base in Djibouti in addition to port facilities in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Previously the West, led by the United States, has framed the economic and legal institutions accepted internationally. China is now challenging this system through parallel institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). It has become a massive, often primary, trading and investment partner in much of Asia, Africa and Latin America as well as making inroads into Europe. These developments create real dilemmas for many friends and allies who may understand the dangers but cannot resist a desire for involvement – a classic poisoned apple.

There has been no halt to the development of weapons of mass destruction and the Covid pandemic can only have excited the dark imaginations of those bent on apocalypse for the West. In spite of setbacks, hydra-headed Islamist fundamentalists such as ISIS and AQ remain a potent threat with tacit support from rogue states. They occupy ungoverned spaces, are not short of volunteers from the angry and hopeless, and can draw on the sympathy of radicalised citizens, often dormant, in our own countries.

While we do not see queues of migrants trying to get into China or Russia, their power is respected. The western model of freedom, liberal democracy and free-market capitalism has lost its automatic appeal in many parts of the world. Outsiders see our countries divided and racked with self-doubt. Our economies have stalled. We no longer monopolise innovation. It is not just Covid that has led to restrictions on freedom and loss of self-confidence but self-inflicted ‘wokeism’, brewing over decades. And the nature of many foreign interventions undermined the West’s moral high-standing as well as its record of inevitable success. The vectors of subversion have been extremist groups and conspiracy theorists in our own societies, feeding fake news from internal and external sources, their influence hugely amplified by social media.

It is not just the potential aggressor states that will present difficulties for the new American administration but troublesome allies as well, bruised over trade and tariff issues and with their public opinion no longer well-disposed towards America. Confidence even in NATO was shaken by doubts raised by President Trump over the automaticity of Article 5 - the vital underpinning of deterrence - and the continued commitment of the US to the defence of Europe. This was in spite of subsequent assurances from President Trump, an enhanced forward presence of US forces and increased investment in the European Deterrence Initiative.

Both the American and British foreign policy establishments have long cherished a romanticised view of the European Union based on its founding motives. Many mistakenly compare the development of the EU with the American national story. The welcome enlargement to the east following the fall of communism also fits the dream of a “Europe whole and free”. But the motives of the past are no longer relevant to the world today. The EU has changed. That’s why Britain left. It will no longer be an automatic partner to US-led endeavours and has already revealed its vindictive and protectionist features through its handling of Brexit and the Covid vaccination issue.

President Biden will have to shake off the habit of equating “Europe” with the EU - great European nations such as Britain, Norway, Switzerland and for that matter Turkey, are not EU members and Poland is treated by the EU as a pariah because its government does not wholly toe the EU line on ‘ever closer union’. He should remember Madeleine Albright’s insistence that EU defence ambitions “must avoid preempting Alliance decision by de-linking from NATO; avoid duplicating existing efforts; and avoid discriminating against non-EU members”, as 20 years later this is exactly where it is heading.

For a long time Britain was a restraining hand on French ambitions to absorb continental European countries into an integrated, protectionist state as a “strategically autonomous” global actor. Britain’s departure from the EU has enabled these ambitions to be fuelled.

In the Far East, the Trump overtures to Kim Jong Un had little impact on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme but unnerved regional allies. This at least had the effect of encouraging stronger defence commitment by those allies and a readiness for more effective alliances in the Indo-Pacific region but it sowed mistrust.

The most negative overall consequence of American foreign policy during the previous Obama/Biden years was the erosion of American leadership which created a vacuum soon filled by others. Russia re-emerged as a force in the Middle East. China’s economic statecraft has given her a strong foothold, not just across east Asia but in Africa, in south Asia and even in parts of Europe and she now has military capabilities able to challenge automatic American dominance.

What is to be done?

President Biden will have to reassure key allies such as Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, and continue to broker reconciliation between them. He should acknowledge the advances made by the previous administration in advancing Israel’s security and regional cooperation. His moves to reassure the Palestinians must be conditional on their cooperation in ending and suppressing terrorism and on return to the conference table in a positive spirit. There is great scope then for initiatives such as a ‘Middle East NATO’ and regional “Marshall plan” to include Lebanon and the Palestine Authority areas, to which Arab countries and others would also contribute.

In the Indo-Pacific region there are already moves to expand regional alliances such as the Quad which should be given more substance. Britain, with regional bases, a newly deployable carrier group and long-standing connections in the region can be a key ally in this and also in enhancing the relationship with India, an emerging superpower. We need to do far more to support India’s economic development and demonstrate that a Western alliance is both reliable and consistent so that she does not continue to feel the need to rely on Russian support.

Russia despises weakness and seeks great power recognition. Her strategic aim of separating Europe from America has not changed but it is not in our interests to stoke endless hostility. Any efforts at an accommodation with Russia will have to be carried out from a position of strength and Western unity. The worst development would be separate EU overtures which would only play into Russia’s hands.

Unlike the old Soviet Union, China is becoming an economic as well as a military superpower. Its huge, increasingly prosperous and aspiring, population represents the world’s largest potential market. And it is the world’s largest single contributor to carbon emissions. These three facts mean that policy towards China should be marked by engagement from a position of strength, rather than hostility or indeed, neediness. The West will have to push back against Chinese influence in Africa, which contrary to EU views, is clearly not some uniquely European preserve. It is in the interests of the democracies to assist the security and development of the major African countries and to help them overcome the many obstacles on their path to economic prosperity and stability.

President Biden looks out of the windows of the Oval Office facing enormous challenges beginning with the pandemic and the need for rapid economic recovery. He knows that America’s relative position in the world has weakened but that the intrinsic strengths of individual and national freedom, of free market economies, and the rule of law will continue to give the democracies and their allies overwhelming advantage, provided they work together. Previous remedies haven’t worked particularly well and there is some urgent repair work to be done.

While a “Democracy Summit” may seem a marvellous idea, taking the moral high ground, care needs to be taken. There will be an immediate problem in deciding who among America’s friends and allies qualify for attendance and how to avoid undue influence of NGOs with their own political agendas.

The Biden administration should inject fresh pragmatism into its international relations. In mending fences with the EU it should continue to insist on NATO’s role as the primary Western defence alliance and forum of crisis management. It should discourage initiatives which distract from this core commitment. It should actively develop a global network of other regional alliances. It must encourage and support and listen to its reliable allies, and first amongst these is the United Kingdom – not only the preeminent military power in Europe but with global reach. Significantly, this year the UK will chair both the G7+ and the UN climate change conferences.

The new US administration faces great challenges but enormous opportunity as the world seeks recovery from the disruption of the pandemic. The democracies and their allies are fundamentally strong. Our hopeful expectation is that the US will not just engage, but lead – not by unilateral initiatives but in consultation with those it can most trust.

Nonprofit political insitutes in Washington, D.C.