Less than six months after being sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden’s domestic policy agenda could not be clearer—though perhaps unattainable given puerile Republican obstructionism and the continuing use of the filibuster in the Senate. It’s easy to see what Biden is trying to do at home: reverse the immense damage to the body politic wrought by Donald Trump, halt the COVID-19 pandemic, ease the financial burden on the working and middle classes, address global warming, and restore dignity to and trust in the executive branch of government. Some might even argue that Biden aspires to be the 21st century version of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), who also believed that the public sector should be stronger than the private sector. Biden, like Roosevelt, is eager to roll up his sleeves, deal forthrightly with multiple crises, solve problems, and create jobs. FDR’s first three administrations prepared the way for U.S. global domination after World War II, which was itself the springboard for the American Century.
Biden’s foreign policy agenda is not as clear, however. That’s not entirely his fault, though. Trump didn’t pay much attention to foreign policy, other than spewing invective at China and cultivating close patron-client relationships with other narcissistic and tyrannical leaders like himself—Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Bibi Netanyahu, Muhammad bin Salman, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, and Rodrigo Duterte. Under Trump’s watch, the U.S. foreign service suffered numerous body blows, was led by the incompetent and bombastic Pompeo, and saw many gifted career diplomats take early retirement while crucial diplomatic posts remained unfilled abroad. As president, Biden has excoriated bin Salman and called Putin a “killer,” but talk is cheap, and not equivalent to policy reversals.
On the military front, other than bombing the Shayrat Airbase in Syria in April 2017 and overseeing the drone assassination of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January 2020, Trump satisfied American nativists on the right who wanted to forget the rest of the world existed, as well as the American far left, by not invading any countries or bombing civilian populations, which many feared Hilary Clinton would have done had she been in the Oval Office. Trump paid minimal attention to the forever war in Afghanistan and shrugged at the continuing fragility of Iraq. ISIS/Da’esh was in abeyance for most of his administration, so he didn’t have to deal with that nightmare.
Where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was concerned, Trump simply subcontracted his administration’s policy-making to Binyamin Netanyahu and his son-in-law and special advisor, Jared Kushner, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, letting Israel claim the Golan Heights as its own in contravention of international law, turning a blind eye as Israeli settlements expanded in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, ignoring Gazans suffering under a crushing embargo, and, most significantly, axing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement between the P5+1+EU negotiated under President Obama’s administration to put the brakes on Iran’s nuclear capabilities. One of the strangest foreign policy developments of Trump’s administration is the emerging alliance between Israel and Gulf oil states, which also signaled the final death throes of Arab support for the Palestinian people.
China was Trump’s bête noire; he eagerly whipped up anti-Asian sentiments once the COVID-19 virus raged across the United States, referring to it as the “Kung flu,” and fostering anti-Asian hate that has now led to the murders of several Asian-Americans. Drawing on the anger of struggling American farmers and unemployed industrial workers in the nation’s heartland, Trump blamed China for America’s financial woes, but the trade war he launched against China actually hurt struggling Americans and some U.S. allies more than it impacted the Chinese economy.
Biden’s foreign and economic policy teams are also focused on China, which is now the largest and most troubling long-term challenge to U.S. global hegemony, economically, technologically, and militarily. The next chapter in world history will be China’s to write, and there is little that the United States—or any other country—can do about that. There are certainly ample reasons to criticize China—its treatment of the Uighurs is tantamount to genocide, its foreign aid policies are unconstrained by human rights considerations, and in Africa come with a big price tag for aid recipients; its economic development projects and its industries are fueling global warming, its repression in Hong Kong is worsening, its current leadership is saber-rattling and making forays into the waters of neighboring Asian countries, and it is even possible that the COVID-19 virus was an experimental bio-weapon that escaped from a Wuhan laboratory. Not only the United States, but many other countries, have good reasons to be wary of China.
If Biden is focused on cleaning up Trump’s mess at home, he’s now busy cleaning up George W. Bush’s twin messes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021—the 20th anniversary of the Al-Qaida attacks on New York City and Washington, DC—was a bold move, but the implications and repercussions are already being felt across partisan lines in the United States. Democrats and Republicans alike wonder what contingency plan will be in place once the Taliban inevitably retakes Afghanistan. So far, it looks like Biden’s answer is to deploy drones and missiles for aerial strikes as the need arises, which is not a solution, but rather, a further provocation to the Taliban and any other groups that sympathize with them. Afghanistan’s descent into yet another, deeper, circle of hell will certainly have spillover effects on Iran and Pakistan, but the State Department seems not to be thinking that far ahead.
Similarly, Biden’s approach to the troubled and blurred border between Iraq and Syria is also to bomb first, and think later. Where Lebanon is concerned, it’s hard to define anything resembling a coherent policy, other than a desire to wash America’s hands of this chronically dysfunctional country misruled by corrupt Mafiosi. Why send aid money to Lebanon if it will just end up in some venal politician’s off-shore bank account? Of course, Hezbollah’s increasing influence also hinders coherent US policy in Lebanon, given America’s stance towards Iran. It’s likely that the U.S. will happily delegate the Lebanon file to France.
While Trump let Netanyahu and Kushner design his so-called policies with respect to Israel and Palestine, Biden seems likely to resurrect outdated Clinton era approaches focusing on the two-state solution (which is irrevocably dead in the water), while trying to reinvigorate “Peace Process” attempts at “conflict resolution” and “dialogue” efforts. The fact that a majority of Democratic voters, and nearly half of Democrats in Congress, are fed up with this approach and increasingly critical of Israeli Apartheid doesn’t seem to bother Biden—at least not yet.
The attrition of the United States’ global hegemony is well underway, and with numerous and serious challenges at home—not least of which is a deeply divided populace roiling with White supremacist ideologies and domestic terrorists in the midst of a brutal pandemic—Biden cannot afford to take his eye off the domestic policy front, even as he and his administration struggle to cobble together a coherent foreign policy agenda. As the American Century comes to a close, it’s becoming clear that the United States has neither the will, the stomach, the capacity, nor the finances for significant projections of U.S. military force across the globe–which may come as a relief to both Americans in straightened circumstances and civilian populations abroad.
The problems on the home front are profound, unprecedented, and troubling—only the Civil War era posed more perils to the survival of the Union. It’s conceivable that the U.S. electorate will cast its votes on domestic, rather than foreign policy, issues in the 2022 mid-term elections, so the lack of coherence in Biden’s foreign policy agenda might not be a significant impediment to Democrats seeking reelection.