The 46th President of the United States comes into office with the weight of the nation on his shoulders—one currently in the middle of a storm of domestic problems, from an ongoing pandemic and a wobbly economy to significant social polarization. The world, however, won’t stop with a new administration. President Joe Biden won’t have much time to settle in. Indeed, his first 100 days in the Oval Office will be met with a large to-do list on foreign policy, much of which encompasses self-inflicted problems and unfinished business left over from the previous administration.
1. Extend New START: U.S.-Russia relations are experiencing a death spiral of sorts, where bilateral arms control regimes are shredded apart and the U.S. and Russian militaries are intercepting one another’s combat aircraft so often that it could almost be considered normal. The pragmatism former President Donald Trump talked about instilling into the U.S.-Russia relationship was largely limited to pleasant words at the leadership level; the actual Washington-consensus on how to approach Russia hasn’t changed.
Arms control, however, is one area of commonality the world’s two largest nuclear weapons powers can address together. The United States and Russia both have a national interest in ensuring there are some rules and iron-clad, verifiable agreements that preserve strategic stability and open communication, if for no other reason than to minimize the prospects of an inadvertent crisis. New START is the only remaining bilateral U.S.-Russia arms control accord on the books today. It expires on February 5. Extending it as Presidents Biden and Vladimir Putin have called for is a no-brainer that would not only prevent the bilateral relationship from falling off the cliff, but provide U.S. and Russian negotiators with the time needed to launch more comprehensive negotiations.
2. Deescalate with Iran: Iran is a mid-tier Middle Eastern power with an economy the size of Michigan’s. But throughout the Trump administration, you could be forgiven for thinking it was the twenty-first-century equivalent of the Soviet Union. U.S. B-52 bombers have been dispatched to the Persian Gulf on four separate occasions over the previous two months. The USS Nimitz’s stay in the Middle East was extended in early January in what the Trump administration said was a necessary action to deter Iran. Over time, these extended deployments and military exercises wear down equipment, shorten maintenance time, strain the joint force, and increase the very tension the U.S. seeks to eliminate.
Then there is the maximum pressure strategy on Iran, which over the last three years has failed to meet even a single U.S. policy objective. Biden’s presumptive secretary of state, Antony Blinken, stated in his confirmation hearing that the Biden administration will seek to deescalate relations with Tehran through diplomacy. This is the right course of action, but the strategy can only occur if maximum pressure is left in the dustbin of history.
3. Get out of Yemen: The U.N. has ranked Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. The Arab world’s poorest country is in the sixth year of a brutal conflict in which all of the combatants—the Houthis, the Yemeni government, separatist forces in the south, and the Saudi-led coalition—have been accused of war crimes. There are no good guys in this conflict. And yet the United States remains wedded to the war, continuing to provide Saudi Arabia with the diplomatic back-up, military support, and weapons sales that are so essential to waging it.
This support needs to stop—and it needs to stop immediately. Biden should do what he promised to do on the campaign trail by cutting off all U.S. links to this war, rescinding the Houthi terrorist designation in order to ensure humanitarian assistance isn’t needlessly obstructed, and sending Riyadh and the other Gulf states a clear signal that U.S. interests—and U.S. interests alone—will determine U.S. foreign policy.
4. Keep to the withdrawal schedule in Afghanistan: President Biden will be feel significant pressure in his first 100 days to either slow down the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan or approach the Taliban to renegotiate certain aspects of the February 2020 Doha agreement. Yet both options will almost certainly be rejected by the Taliban, and any unilateral U.S. decision to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past the May 1 withdrawal date runs the high risk of nullifying the entire agreement, destroying a fleeting intra-Afghan peace process, and putting targets on the backs of U.S. troops. The U.S. military is not responsible for bringing peace to Afghanistan. As Biden himself said nearly a year ago, “the idea of us…[using] our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists throughout the world is not within our capacity.”
5. Keep restraint in your mind: There could come a time in Biden’s first 100 days when something, somewhere in the world goes horribly wrong. It could be a new civil war, a long-range North Korean missile test, or an accidental clash in the South China Sea. The tendency in Washington in the event of a crisis is to respond quickly and aggressively. What Biden and his national security team should do instead is debate honestly and forthrightly what direct U.S. security interests are at stake, whether the U.S really possesses the capacity to solve the dispute at hand, and what the unintended costs and consequences of U.S. action would be.
We should all wish President Joe Biden well in what is a difficult and frustrating position on the best of days. Correcting our previous mistakes would go a long way in helping Biden navigate the job.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at Newsweek.