President Joe Biden spent thirty-four years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, beginning in 1975. When he was brought on to be Barack Obama’s vice president, it was his nominal status as a national security eminence grise that reportedly attracted political neophyte Obama. Secretary of State Tony Blinken insisted in his nomination hearing that this would be a new era: “We’ll engage the world not as it was, but as it is.” But that’s a problem for Biden, whose national security credibility, such as it is, appears more attuned to a world that was.
First, however, the good news: Biden’s history is tough on the Soviets, tough on Russia. He’s a pro-North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), pro-alliances, internationalist Democrat, and after four years of contempt for America’s friends and partners, that’s a pleasant change. Perhaps Biden’s good cop will be able to follow on Trump’s bad cop and herd our European friends into a more serious defense posture. Heaven knows, the challenges are multiplying to the East and South, not to speak of a few at home in the heart of the European Union. But comity isn’t enough; absent a serious recommitment of funds and a willingness to deal with recalcitrant members, NATO is going to continue to falter. If faced, for example, with a Russian incursion into the Baltics, the Atlantic alliance will be hard pressed to front a credible response.
Then there’s the challenge of nefarious Russian influence in Europe. All the back-slapping in the world isn’t going to change the fact that Russian trolls, Russian cash and Russian little green men have wormed their way into Europe’s democracies, and are influencing decision-making about sanctions and more. Only an aggressive willingness to call out Russia’s puppets—people like France’s Marine Le Pen or Italy’s Matteo Salvini—will serve as a sufficient warning. Is Biden going to be able to talk his European buddies into a crack-down on Russian interference in politics? Nah, no more than he’ll be able to get them to do anything serious about the poisoning and arrest of Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny.
And that’s the easy part, the part where Biden’s backstory should make him a natural for success. Unfortunately, there’s another legacy Joe Biden—the one that believes anything the United Nations does must be good by virtue of it being, you know, the United Nations. Hence the new president’s immediate return to the World Health Organization with nary a mention of its failings in the early days of the coronavirus, let alone its director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ obvious willingness to bow to Beijing (whose candidate he was to lead the WHO in the first place). Ditto the U.N. Human Rights Council, an embarrassment to the very concept of human rights, whose members—Communist China, Venezuela and Russia among them—are keenly focused on that human rights scourge… Israel.
Another challenge will be in the Middle East. Here Biden inherits some good news—a new era of Arab-Israeli peace—and some leverage in the form of truly crippling sanctions on Iran. The problem is that while the region has evolved dramatically over the last decade, the conventional wisdom of Biden-style centrists has not. Worse yet, while Biden is mired in the last half century of failed Middle East tropes, his party is drifting towards squad-style Israel-hatred. What’s the result? Rather than press for more peace (Saudi Arabia would be a good candidate) or for more democracy (the Palestinian Authority just announced its first presidential elections in forteen years, maybe), or use the leverage Trump bequeathed to squeeze concessions from the Islamic Republic of Iran, the new administration has renewed aid to and diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and leapt towards rapprochement with Iran, albeit more slowly than some feared.
Still, the real challenge to the Biden administration will be the People’s Republic of China. The new president can thank his predecessor (and the coronavirus) for shifting global opinion on Beijing, but that’s only a start. Whether it’s facing up to growing aggression towards Taiwan, unrepentant genocide against the Uyghurs, or the extraordinarily dangerous Chinese appropriation of the South China Sea, there are few simple policy answers. The administration has cleverly opted to compartmentalize the China problem, separating economic, political and military problems. But Beijing is unlikely to be game for that sort of three track trick and promises to bedevil the Biden administration as it did Trump’s.
One thing that would strengthen Biden’s hand would be a genuine hand across the aisle; China and Iran aren’t Republican or Democratic problems, they’re American ones. But that’s not going to be easy with Biden’s left nipping at his heels and Republicans still furious at their treatment over the last twelve years. Indeed, only one thing is really sure for President Biden: America divided will make our enemies’ job that much easier.
Danielle Pletka is a senior fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where she focuses on US foreign policy generally and the Middle East specifically. Until January 2020, Ms. Pletka was the senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at AEI. Concurrently, she also teaches US Middle East policy at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service.