Is America back? U.S. President Joe Biden came into office vowing to reset the United States’ standing in the world and repair ties with its allies after its tumultuous Trump era. But his first year in office has been rocked by a series of foreign-policy crises—from Kabul to Kyiv—that have thrown a wrench into the president’s “America is back” agenda.
Biden has tried to repair relations with U.S. allies in Europe, but those efforts have been overshadowed by renewed Russian aggression toward Ukraine. U.S.-China relations have continued to deteriorate as Biden’s administration takes a hard-line approach to its superpower rival. Biden’s fateful decision to pull the plug on the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, ending a 20-year war, erupted in chaos and precipitated a massive new humanitarian crisis as the Taliban took control of the country. His efforts to tackle climate change have hit hurdles in Washington thanks to partisan gridlock. And all the while, the COVID-19 pandemic continues its deadly march around the world as international vaccine rollouts fail to live up to early promises.
We asked more than 30 experts to grade Biden’s foreign policy during his first year in office, offering their analysis on 11 key regions and issues that dominate the United States’ engagement abroad. (Some have been edited for clarity and length.) Here’s FP’s report card.
China and East Asia
By Malcolm Turnbull, former prime minister of Australia
Biden has restored a more traditional approach to U.S. foreign policy that has been welcomed in this region. While he has eschewed the erratic style of former U.S. President Donald Trump toward China, in particular, he has not been able to come to a new, settled modus vivendi. But it does take two to tango.
Now, Biden has to persuade the United States’ friends and rivals in this region that just as Kabul was an inevitable and necessary withdrawal from an unwinnable war, so was France’s humiliation over AUKUS, the Australia-U.K.-U.S. submarine deal, a one-off diplomatic bungle. He also has to persuade the region that continued divisions within U.S. politics and society are not going to disable consistent American leadership in the world.
On the positive side, continued commitment to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) is welcomed. But diplomacy requires skill. In its competition with China, the United States needs more friends. Trump’s foreign policy undermined trust in the United States, and it will take more than fine speeches to offset that. In particular, the United States has to reflect that just because an initiative is labeled “standing up to China” doesn’t mean it isn’t counterproductive. The search for a more stable Indo-Pacific will require continued, strong U.S. commitment, but it will also require diplomatic finesse, respect for friends and allies, and political consistency all too rare in Washington today.
By Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program, German Marshall Fund of the United States
The Biden administration’s China policy is based on the accurate assessment that the United States and China are engaged in a long-term strategic competition. It deserves high marks for coordinating policies and approaches toward China with allies and like-minded partners as well as for bolstering existing coalitions like the Quad and creating new ones like AUKUS. Credit is also due for building on Trump-era policies to impose trade restrictions, such as barring U.S. companies from selling to Chinese companies with ties to its military. Also welcome is Biden’s greater emphasis on human rights, including his administration’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics and Biden’s “rock-solid” support for Taiwan.
Although the administration hasn’t clearly articulated the goal of its China strategy, it appears to be in competitive coexistence with China while slowing down Beijing’s ability to overtake Washington and its allies. The Biden team has fallen short on strategic communication: Its Indo-Pacific strategy report has yet to be released, and his much-anticipated, high-level China policy speech has yet to be delivered. Another area of weakness is trade and economic policy. Effectively competing with China in the Indo-Pacific and restoring U.S. credibility and influence around the world requires joining multilateral trade agreements, such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement. It remains to be seen whether Biden’s new Indo-Pacific economic framework will provide a credible alternative.
By Patricia Kim, David M. Rubenstein fellow at the Brookings Institution
The Biden administration has made great strides in its first year to unequivocally repudiate the previous administration’s transactional view of alliances and revitalize U.S. partnerships to effectively compete with China across all domains. But there’s still work to be done. Although the Biden administration has notably expanded efforts to provide public goods through multilateral mechanisms like the Quad, its Asia strategy desperately needs a compelling trade component, which Washington needs to remain a relevant and competitive partner in the region. There’s been little progress on establishing a sustainable working relationship with China, though the fault does not lie primarily—let alone solely—with Washington. Although Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have talked about ensuring competition does not veer into conflict, the challenging and complex tasks of judiciously recalibrating bilateral ties (economic and otherwise), advancing risk reduction and crisis management mechanisms, and cooperating on pressing transnational and regional challenges for the good of the world remain. Visionary leadership and diplomacy to lay the foundations for responsible competition with China at this critical juncture will be essential to stop drifting toward a more divided and conflict-ridden world.
By Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia
After more than two decades of the global war on terror, followed by the Asia pivot, and then a detour into four years of absurdity, it’s no longer clear what a good U.S. European policy for the 21st century would be. For at least the beginning of Biden’s term, even dull and mediocre would have been a relief.
Biden’s response to Ukraine has consisted of lots of high-flown rhetoric but little substance, characterized by a milquetoast agreement on Nord Stream 2 that Germany already announced it had no intention of fulfilling even if Ukraine was invaded. More broadly, there has been no attempt at a much-needed transformation of trans-Atlantic relations in the 21st century. Instead, Europe should be satisfied with the status quo ante: Trump. There are no major or serious trade, economic, tech, or even political initiatives that would allow the democratic West to better compete with its main competitor China—and no serious efforts to take on the corrosive corruption of politics that is the Achilles’ heel, foot, and leg of the West, as should have been abundantly clear to do after four years of Trump.
By Constanze Stelzenmüller, Fritz Stern chair on Germany and trans-Atlantic relations, Brookings Institution
The Biden administration thought it could pivot to China, cut France out of a submarine deal with Australia, and leave Afghanistan without a negative blowback to its relationship with Europe. Those mistakes proved costly. It is now bending over backward to keep Europe close; nowhere is that clearer than with the United States’ bilateral relationship with Germany and its sanctions waiver on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But that commitment will likely now be severely tested by Russian brinkmanship.
By Michel Duclos, former French ambassador to Syria
I think the Europeans—and maybe the world—are bewildered by Biden’s foreign policy. You have a conjunction of two factors: The United States’ expected return to professionalism is not totally convincing, and Biden’s tilt to Asia is more seriously implemented than it was under Trump or former U.S. President Barack Obama. Hence: a botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, which made the British and the Germans furious; the AUKUS issue, not well received in France; and a lack of real leadership in fighting COVID-19. In addition, foreign leaders see no end to the United States’ domestic Cold War. All that explains why Europeans are nervous about how the Biden administration handles the Ukraine crisis—which, itself, may be a result of Russia assessing that the administration is weak.
By Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group
The more appropriate grade may be passing a Ph.D. comprehensive exam: The student has learned what they need to know, they are capable of putting it to use and communicating it effectively, but they haven’t blown the examining committee away. The Biden administration is faced with a tremendously difficult situation with no easy answers. It recognizes this and has taken, in my view, the appropriate approach. Although it stumbled a bit early with hopes that European security and Russia could somehow be resolved and then treated as a secondary issue, it now appears to recognize that this is going to be a continuing challenge that requires consistent attention. The Biden administration has been straightforward with Russia about the repercussions of aggression toward Ukraine. It has also responded to Russia’s stated security concerns and desires seriously—all while consulting with U.S. allies and partners.
This is the right approach. However, it may not work if Moscow is willing to accept the costs of escalating to get a better deal. Nonetheless, the only way forward is to keep talking and to act on both threats and promises.
By Daniel Fried, former U.S. ambassador to Poland, Weiser family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council
Early strategic misjudgment: The Biden administration sought a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia. That’s a reasonable objective but pointless because, as it turns out, Russian President Vladimir Putin has no interest. Instead, Putin seeks to redivide Europe and reestablish Moscow’s domination over as much of the former Soviet Union, which includes much of Central and Eastern Europe, as he can. Moscow’s control over unwilling countries would have to be maintained by repression, intimidation, and (as recent experience shows) war. First term grade: C-.
Reassessment and recovery: When faced with Putin’s threats and ultimatums, the Biden administration pivoted. It rallied its European allies and, in a week of impressive diplomacy, presented Putin with a joint U.S.-European rejection of his threats while offering to discuss and even negotiate improvements to European security that did not undermine the post-Cold War settlement Russia had signed. Second term grade: A-.
Now, the hard part: Putin will hardly back down after one week of solid Western resistance. Next Kremlin moves may include cyberattacks, limited military incursions, assassinations, sabotage, and possibly full-scale war against Ukraine. This crisis will not abate soon. The Biden administration passed an early tough test. The next one could be sterner. Third term grade: incomplete.
By Tatiana Stanovaya, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center and founder of political analysis firm R.Politik
If Biden’s goal was to appease Russia while ousting its problems from the international agenda to create more room for the U.S.-China relationship, his grade would be poor: C-. After a year of Biden’s presidency, the Russia challenge has only intensified. The current situation appears to be tense and insoluble: The West can’t deliver written security guarantees while Russia appears to be stubbornly obsessed with obtaining them. But is that Biden’s fault?
There is reason to suggest that without Biden’s efforts to begin a substantial dialogue with Russia, the current crisis would have emerged earlier and could have been more impetuous and devastating. For the first time in 30 years, Washington proposed the kind of dialogue Moscow could not have even hoped for years ago. Putin values this respectful and serious way of negotiating, without negligence and arrogance, even if it comes with the threat of sanctions. This is something Putin would be reluctant to lose; thus, it might work.
The main problem of Biden’s position is the kind of compromises he may have to make to avert military escalation, especially as Moscow amasses troops against Kyiv, Ukraine. War would threaten Biden’s personal standing domestically and internationally. That is why some in Moscow have made the bet that Biden may only serve one term in office—and is therefore willing to sacrifice his domestic standing in favor of European geopolitical stability. Considering all this, it’s hard to imagine how Biden could do any better.
By Khaled Alyemany, former foreign minister of Yemen
Once Biden arrived in power, he was caught between two forces: the forces of promise and democracy promotion in the Middle East and the forces of realpolitik. The Biden administration cannot ignore the views coming out of Israel, but it also cannot ignore the views out of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as they are U.S. partners. There’s no need today to reinvent the wheel. The Americans should continue to work with such partners to strengthen U.S. policy in the Middle East.
I don’t see a Biden Syria policy. There was a serious deterioration and failure of U.S. policy for a long time before Biden, with the United States supporting the uprising, and in the end the United States is facing the reality that Russia held up Damascus’s rule, and it has to deal with this reality. On Yemen, this administration, different from other administrations, presented a vision for ending the war. That vision, although very difficult to implement, is not impossible.
By Kirsten Fontenrose, former senior director for the Gulf at the White House National Security Council
Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East thus far has been sometimes reactive (Afghanistan, Egypt), sometimes contradictory (won’t sell arms that might violate human rights, but greenlights human rights violators in Syria and Afghanistan), sometimes short-sighted (Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates), and sometimes not evident (Libya, Lebanon). But Biden never said the Middle East would be his focus, so we should not expect a quality effort.
Biden has yet to put forward a positive vision for the Middle East. The countries in the region are either under new leadership or in leadership crisis, so this is the time for the United States to lead. Many Arab countries are fervently pursuing medium-to-long-term vision plans, which provide a cheat sheet for U.S. policymakers in determining how the goals of these nations align with our own. Biden could create strong partnerships with regional heavyweights in areas he cares about, such as energy transition, but so far he has not.
By Danny Ayalon, former deputy foreign minister of Israel and Israeli ambassador to the United States
I would say that in the first few months of the Biden administration I was expecting it to go full force forward cementing the Abraham Accord alliance. It is in America’s interest to galvanize and to take this alliance further, to cement the relations. It would serve as the main deterrence for Iran in the Middle East. But I’m not sure the United States has done enough to instill confidence. The rumors are that America is leaving the Middle East. The United States has to project strength. I remember during the Henry Kissinger era the U.S. strategy was always to be able to fight in two theaters at one time. The United States is strong enough to back its interest vis-à-vis China and at the same time continue to be a force in the Middle East. With regard to the Iran nuclear deal, the jury is still out.
By Shaharzad Akbar, former chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission
Many Afghans hold a lot of anger—or, at best, confusion—about Biden’s Afghanistan policy. He was really married to these arbitrary dates and withdrawal timelines that held more importance for domestic politics than the lives of millions of Afghans.
A very deep wound has been inflicted on my country, and the United States is now offering some Band-Aid (in the form of humanitarian assistance), but the response is not at all sufficient to address the misery my people are suffering. I do welcome the administration’s recent sanctions exemptions for aid, which made it easier for humanitarian organizations to have access to the country and distribute aid. But it is insufficient for a population to live on humanitarian aid—no one aspires to a life of waking up every day and waiting in line for food.
Decisions made by Presidents Trump, Obama, and earlier piled up over time. But it ended with Biden. Maybe it shows how naive we Afghans were about Biden and his promises on a human rights-centered foreign policy, but we just did not expect this outcome. And that just makes it sting harder.
By Lisa Curtis, senior fellow and director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security
His first mistake was failing to renegotiate or scrap altogether the faulty Trump administration agreement between the United States and the Taliban, which made far too many concessions to the Taliban at the expense of the Afghan government and security forces. Biden’s second mistake was refusing to leave a small U.S. counterterrorism presence in the country, supplemented by several thousand NATO forces, which would have provided the United States leverage in peace talks with the Taliban. Third, once the decision to withdraw was made, his administration mismanaged the process by abruptly pulling out all U.S. forces and 16,000 contractors at once without a plan to safely evacuate Americans and Afghan allies.
The hasty withdrawal and chaotic evacuations have left a stain on America’s global image and Biden’s foreign-policy record. If it weren’t for the administration’s recent decisions to continue to funnel humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people and to appoint Rina Amiri as special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights, Biden would merit a flunking grade.
By Kamissa Camara, former foreign minister of Mali
Biden’s administration has shown a lot of goodwill toward Africa. It could certainly do much better. His term started with positive signs for U.S.-Africa relations. Key appointments such as Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to the United Nations and Samantha Power at the helm of the U.S. Agency for International Development were signs that we were heading in the right direction. Yet, the excitement of the early days quickly fell flat. The travel ban imposed on eight southern African countries after the emergence of the omicron variant of the coronavirus and the removal of Ethiopia, Mali, and Guinea from the African Growth and Opportunity Act were discouraging. Likewise, Biden’s Summit for Democracy took us back to some old-fashioned lessons on principles that are already widely shared among the 17 African governments that participated. African countries need a U.S. foreign policy that consolidates American economic and diplomatic ties while beholding Africa as a continent with endless human, industrial, and trade potential.
By Mark Green, president, director, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center; former USAID administrator and U.S. ambassador to Tanzania
We need to see the Biden team lay out their vision for Africa: What do they envision for Africa and for U.S.-Africa relations? Crises in such places as Sudan and Ethiopia are currently taking up a great deal of their attention. The damage and destruction and human cost in both crises are devastating. There’s clearly more to be done, and the U.S. role is an irreplaceable one. What we need to do is have a vision for a way out of humanitarian assistance. We have to craft policies that not only take care of immediate humanitarian needs but also provide a ladder out of those displaced settings. That to me is the great policy challenge that we face in Africa.
By Jendayi Frazer, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs
The Biden administration gets an A- grade for positively changing the tone of U.S.-Africa policy and setting COVID-19, climate, and conflict as priorities of mutual interest. The grade falls on execution to a B-, especially since Biden has only invited one African leader to a White House meeting (Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta) and held only one call with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris meeting with Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo and newly elected Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema, as well as Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s November 2021 trip to the important U.S. partner countries Nigeria, Kenya, and Senegal, positively boosted the administration’s engagement, as did Thomas-Greenfield’s meeting with a dozen African heads of state during the U.N. General Assembly. The announcement of a U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in 2022 is also a positive signal for future engagement.
Still, the Biden administration has lots of room for improving its engagement, including empowering a strong Africa team at the National Security Council, Department of Defense, USAID, and State Department. However, the increasing appointment of Middle East-focused diplomats and envoys to Africa posts effectively marginalizes the Africa-experienced diplomats. The overall grade is an incomplete. The administration must put action and resources behind its sensibly articulated Africa policy.
By Heraldo Muñoz, former foreign minister of Chile
Latin America and the Caribbean has never been a priority in U.S. foreign policy, except in times of major crises. Biden’s policy toward the region follows this pattern. Expectations were high in the region regarding Biden’s policies, given his knowledge of the hemisphere and the disrespectful and incoherent attitudes shown by Trump.
The tone and constructive discourse announced initially by the Biden administration were valued, but good intentions do not constitute a policy. So far, Biden has focused on migration from Central America. Verbal support for democracy and action on climate change are welcome objectives, but investment and resources have been scarce. Competing with China will require more. This June’s Summit of the Americas, hosted by Biden, will be a last-chance opportunity to put forward a sound project toward the region that meets expectations.
By Laura Chinchilla, former president of Costa Rica
A bird’s eye view on Biden’s policy toward Latin America should start by celebrating a 180-degree turn in the tone and vision with which he addresses the region. In contrast with Trump’s offensive and contemptuous narrative, Biden’s is assertive and respectful. Trump’s vision reduced it to another field of dispute over conflicting interests with China and exploited the perception of threat to the stability of the United States due to migration. In contrast, Biden’s perspective is comprehensive and considers the multiplicity of factors influencing the development of these nations. Unfortunately, his administration has not been able to act as quickly and as effectively as required, something that has aggravated the migratory and humanitarian crisis on the southern U.S. border and facilitated the consolidation of a North Korean-style dictatorship in the heart of the Americas, namely Nicaragua. Further, it has not achieved a clear and coherent articulation of policies toward the region with two key institutions, the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank. Time passes, and expectations turn into skepticism. However, since Biden’s administration is only one year old, I give it the benefit of the doubt and rate it with a B- overall for now.
By Sharon Burke, fellow at New America
The fact that last year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference was not the abject failure so many predicted it would be alone would merit a passing grade, but I would give the Biden administration an A for completely changing the narrative on climate change in U.S. foreign policy. It’s no longer just the province of the climate negotiator. Plus, progress at home is inseparable from a successful foreign policy, and Biden’s infrastructure bill alone could be a game-changer for clean energy. That injection of confidence and urgency matters in a tangible way, including for getting those all-important investment dollars moving. But the catch is that next year’s grade depends entirely on actually delivering on all the executive orders, reports, and promises. So, maybe this is really an incomplete. Great work, but please turn in the rest of your assignments.
By Gernot Wagner, visiting associate professor of climate economics at Columbia Business School and author of Geoengineering: The Gamble
It would be all too tempting to grade the Biden administration’s climate policy as an F. After all, the world is failing to curb greenhouse gas emissions fast enough. U.S. policies—or lack thereof—are a major factor in that failure. But domestic politics are the major impediment here. That starts with the failure, so far, to pass even the pared-down $555 billion climate portion of the Build Back Better Act. The administration also sent the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which aims to rein in hydrofluorocarbons, to the Senate for ratification, but the Senate has yet to act. On the foreign-policy front, things look a bit better. Rejoining the Paris climate agreement, of course, was the bare minimum. The Global Methane Pledge, a promise to cut methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030, was a major deal spearheaded by the United States.
By Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress
I’d give Biden a C or an incomplete. This time last year, Biden looked like the president the climate needed—and just in time. He created two entirely new cabinet-level positions dedicated to global warming. He appointed an A-team of environmental leaders—including a former Environmental Protection Agency administrator as national climate advisor, a former secretary of state as the special presidential envoy for climate, and the first-ever Native American interior secretary. In his first month, he signed a flurry of climate-focused executive orders, including some that might have given other Democrats pause, such as canceling the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. But then Biden ran into the Senate, where the meat of his climate agenda, in the form of the Build Back Better Act, remains embroiled in a bitter intraparty dispute—ironically mostly over social rather than environmental policy.
By Wafaa El-Sadr, founder and director of ICAP at Columbia University
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration is facing one of the greatest challenges of any U.S. administration in recent memory, and, overall, it is doing an admirable job in focusing on what matters. It should be commended for remaining staunchly on the side of science and evidence—especially in the face of relentless political pressures to minimize the severity of the crisis and to reject the sensible proven measures that we know work. The administration should be applauded for its focus on vaccination and booster uptake as the highest priority in facing this pandemic. The trust placed in public health experts such as White House chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky is vitally important as they continue to speak truth to the American people. The rapid authorization by the Food and Drug Administration of new treatments for COVID-19 brings great hope for those who acquire this infection and who may be vulnerable to severe disease because of age or underlying conditions. Finally, the administration’s efforts to secure the economic and social well-being of the most vulnerable in the United States are integral to effectively addressing the pandemic.
If there is one area where the administration could do better, it is in taking the necessary steps to lead the way to improving vaccine access around the world, especially in countries where vaccination rates remain unacceptably low and where there is reason to fear that treatment access will lag as well. It is an urgent moral imperative. And we need to act now. Until those critical steps are taken, we and the rest of the world will continue to wrestle with the pandemic and all the disruption and anguish it is causing.
By Annie Sparrow, assistant professor of population health science and policy at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
I’d give Biden no better than a C, which is disturbing since the bar was so low to begin with. The administration has put too much emphasis on vaccines without requiring employers to make workplaces safer (or giving schools the resources they need) and bowed to pressure from employers at the expense of employee health and safety. It has been very slow to catch on to the necessity of rapid tests, and it is still not focused on the public health imperative of clean air. Some of this is the fault of the CDC, which is a very powerful agency, but the White House needs to get a backbone and start listening to scientists.
Trump’s bunkerized approach to global health ignored the growing crisis, and he chose to walk away from the World Health Organization (WHO). Although Biden reversed the decision to leave WHO (the bare minimum), the U.S. government hasn’t gotten behind it. This is problematic since, to a large degree, it’s the U.S. backing WHO in a way that gives the WHO negotiating muscle and the political cover to be more aggressive. Only the United States can provide the political counterweight to China. Pfizer and Moderna are shipping a lot of doses now that they are not forbidden to export by the government—a plus—but it still feeds into this one-dimensional fixation on vaccines as a silver bullet and ignores the fact that we cannot vaccinate our way out of this pandemic. In terms of global public health leadership, this is a pants-around-the-ankles situation.
By Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and former commissioner of the New York City Health Department
Given the enormous constraints it faces at home and abroad, the Biden administration has done a good job in its pandemic response—both nationally and globally. On a global level, the United States has been a leader in donating vaccines, pledging to donate at least 1.1 billion doses for global use before 2023, with more than 355 million having been delivered thus far—more than any other country. The United States has restored funding to WHO, and the administration has been supporting efforts to establish a new international commitment to pandemic preparedness and response.
However, there is work to be done. Vaccinating the world and closing the horrific equity gap is our only way through this pandemic. Donations alone are not sufficient to close this gap; increased production through technology transfer and more support for effective distribution are both needed. Moderna’s vaccine was mostly paid for by American tax dollars and developed by the National Institutes of Health. The Biden administration needs to encourage Moderna to transfer technology, establish mRNA manufacturing hubs in different regions of the world, and provide technical oversight of manufacturing.
Finally, the United States has a golden opportunity as the host of the upcoming Global Fund replenishment to promote preparedness. If it doesn’t bring this to fruition, resulting in a substantial increase—by billions of dollars a year—in critically important resources to reduce the risk of future pandemics, the United States will have failed at one of the most important opportunities to protect public health of our lifetimes.
The United Nations and Humanitarian Affairs
By Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group
The Biden administration is still sorting through the diplomatic wreckage that Trump left at the United Nations. Biden’s team has done a good job of improving the tone of U.S. diplomacy in New York and has returned to most of the U.N. mechanisms Trump quit, including the Human Rights Council and the Paris climate agreement. But diplomats at the U.N. sense that Washington is more focused on building up new coalitions to counter China than working through existing international institutions. China continues to position itself as a leader on international development, and Russia continues to be a spoiler in the U.N. Security Council. Biden could be doing a lot more through the U.N. and international financial institutions to convince smaller, poorer countries that the United States will help them deal with the economic, social, and political aftershocks of the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council
Seen from outside, there is no doubt that the Biden administration’s foreign policy is a huge improvement over that of its predecessor. Given the isolationism and unpredictability of the Trump years, the return to internationalism and diplomacy of the Biden team has made international relations a much better place since January 2021. For those of us absorbed by crisis management and humanitarian operations, it is a pleasure to work with a State Department, a U.S. Agency for International Development, and a U.N. delegation more committed to humanitarian principles. The reason I would give Biden a B rather than an A is the messy, unplanned retreat from Afghanistan and the slow response to the freefall of the sanctions-laden Afghan economy. Equally, the continued U.S. disengagement from the deepening crises in and around Syria and Yemen, as well as from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, needs to be replaced by proactive U.S. leadership in 2022.
By Jan Eliasson, former U.N. deputy secretary-general and former Swedish foreign minister
Of course, there was a sigh of relief among most Europeans I know when Biden came into the White House. We saw very positive decisions to go back to the Paris climate agreement and the U.N. Human Rights Council. It was a sign that this administration was standing for international cooperation, human rights, and democracy.
But we saw problems appear later, particularly in Afghanistan. It is understandable that Biden wanted to end the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but we expected—at least I expected—that it would be a gradual withdrawal, not so hasty. The departure from the airport will haunt the United States for a long time, as did the images of the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon in 1975. We now see very serious steps backward in the country, in the form of Taliban rule, the loss of rights for women and girls, and the ongoing humanitarian disaster. We have to find ways of helping the suffering of the Afghan people without giving legitimacy to the regime, which I think is possible. This is a test for the United States now.
Democracy, Governance, and Human Rights
By Akila Radhakrishnan, president of the Global Justice Center
Biden’s global human rights record has been thoroughly average, keeping in line with the records of his Democratic predecessors. While Biden deserves credit for reversing regressive policies and actions by the Trump administration, such as the repeal of the global gag rule, the revocation of sanctions on International Criminal Court officials, and reengagement with the U.N. Human Rights Council, it’s not enough to not be Trump. For Biden to live up to his own rhetoric of the United States as a human rights champion, we need to see lofty words translate into meaningful action. This includes the reversal of long-standing policies that violate human rights, including the continued imposition of the Helms amendment without exceptions for rape, life endangerment, or incest; the continued operation of the detention center at Guantánamo Bay; and the rejection of efforts to hold the U.S. military accountable for its actions, whether in Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan.
By Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch
By the low-bar standard set by Trump, Biden has offered a refreshing return to normality in U.S. human rights policy. But despite the promise of a foreign policy guided by human rights, Biden has pursued a foreign policy, in practice, that has been disappointingly conventional.
On China, the Biden administration signed into law the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, joined a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, and used the terms “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” to describe atrocities targeting Uyghurs, though he lacked a comprehensive strategy toward Beijing’s repression at home and efforts to undermine international human rights institutions.
Yet when it comes to repressive allies, Biden’s foreign policy shows little sign of a human rights-guided approach. With the slightest of tweaks, large-scale U.S. arms sales or military aid continues unabated to Egypt despite the worst repression in the country’s modern history, to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates despite their devastating bombardment and other atrocities against Yemeni civilians, and to Israel despite its targeted attacks on large apartment and office buildings in Gaza and its apartheid for millions of Palestinians.
By Nate Sibley, research fellow at Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative
Biden established the fight against corruption as a core national security interest for the first time in U.S. history. This culminated in the creation of a sweeping new U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption, which was released ahead of Biden’s Summit for Democracy in December, where corruption was one of the three major pillars. The strategy was enthusiastically welcomed by experts across the political spectrum. It provided structure and more resources for existing initiatives but also indicated support for reforms that many feared would take years to move forward. These include extending anti-money laundering regulations beyond traditional banks to other high-risk sectors.
The second half of Biden’s strategy moves beyond curbing illicit finance within the United States to targeting corrupt foreign officials and building international support. Here, the administration’s performance has been mixed at best. While it has made ample use of visa bans, few major kleptocrats have faced serious financial sanctions under the Global Magnitsky program, for example. The administration has also undermined its own agenda in some important ways—most glaringly, in its decision to waive sanctions on the Russia-backed Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Publishing a strategy document is the easy part, but it means nothing unless the strategy is given teeth through implementation and enforcement. Whether the Biden administration has the mettle to take on major kleptocrats, especially when doing so runs the risk of driving problematic regimes closer to Beijing or Moscow, remains to be seen.