The United States faces at least two potential national security crises that could explode in short order. First, it must try to head off a potential invasion of Ukraine by Russia in what would be Moscow’s boldest bid yet to reshape the post-Cold War order. And unless talks bear fruit soon, Iran could reach the threshold of being a nuclear weapons power, and leave Biden with an excruciating choice of whether to respond with military action that could draw the US back into a Middle East conflagration.
As grave as each situation is, both in some ways are a distraction from the epochal 21st-century US foreign policy conundrum: how to handle an increasingly powerful and aggressive China. The intense diplomatic and military attention Washington would need to devote to a showdown with Iran or Russia would delight Beijing, after its rise to prominence coincided with the US quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Of course, a restive world could present Biden with unexpected problems. For instance, no president, possibly since Bill Clinton in the 1990s, has thwarted North Korea’s nuclear march. And the Stalinist state, marking 10 years under volatile dictator Kim Jong Un, is forging ahead with missiles that could deliver its nuclear bombs to US soil.
But Pyongyang is not alone in defying the US. Biden’s political fortunes back home have been partly tarnished by rising gasoline prices following his failure to coax major oil producers in the Gulf to pump more crude. The pandemic, meanwhile, threatens to cause more upheaval overseas that could impact US national security. And the Omicron surge could again jam up global supply chains — ramping up the inflation that threatens Biden’s Democrats in midterm elections next year.
It’s not all been bad news for the President, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman who boasted on the campaign trail of his statesmanship chops. There has been some diplomatic deftness in his first year in office. Declaring “America is back,” Biden soothed allies bruised by former President Donald Trump’s tantrums and insults. He’s convinced Western governments to draw up a daunting package of punishments for Russia to deter it from breaching Ukraine’s borders — and is offering security talks to Moscow in a long-shot bid to ease tensions. Early last year, he appeared to talk Russian President Vladimir Putin down after a previous Ukraine buildup. And while Trump reset America’s course in adopting a confrontational posture toward China, Biden has done better in getting US allies in Europe and the Pacific to back US strategy.
But his diplomacy has yet to change President Xi Jinping’s nationalistic, expansionist path, after crushing Hong Kong’s remaining democracy and as fears grow that he might eventually try to reunify Taiwan with the mainland by force — a move that could suck the United States into a disastrous war with its Asian rival.
Immediate tests as the new year dawns
Biden’s foreign policy credibility will come in for early scrutiny in 2022.
The most intensive diplomatic offensive of his administration so far is seeking to convince Putin to stand down tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine. The integrity of NATO and the health of his own political position depend on Biden defusing the crisis without caving to security guarantees demanded by the Russian leader. Putin, for instance, wants NATO to pull forces from ex-Warsaw Pact nations that joined the alliance — a condition that could destroy Western credibility and incentivize further Russian adventurism.
In the latest development, the White House said Tuesday that US and Russian officials would meet on January 10. US, Russian and NATO officials will also be in touch over the following few days. Russia has been agitating for another in-person Biden-Putin summit, a piece of diplomatic choreography that would evoke old Cold War sit-downs. But Biden must walk a fine line — as he could be accused of appeasing Putin should he eventually move on Ukraine — while finding an off-ramp for the Russian leader that allows him to save face. The showdown has profound political implications for both Biden and Putin. And the Russian leader, who sees a historic task of reestablishing Russian power at the expense of the US, is a wily adversary who has outmaneuvered the last three US presidents.
As their European counterparts try to prevent a war on the continent, America’s nuclear negotiators are striving to revive the 2015 nuclear deal involving the US and Iran, which was fractured by Trump’s walkout.
Despite some optimism expressed by Russian negotiators at the latest session of talks in Vienna underway since Monday, the US has been deeply skeptical that the diplomatic track will deliver. State Department spokesman Ned Price said Tuesday that it was “too soon to tell” whether Iran’s new hardline government has returned to the table interested in negotiating. And any progress still fell short of “Iran’s accelerating nuclear steps,” Price added.
New talks — at which the US and Iran don’t meet directly — are unfolding after top US negotiator Robert Malley issued a dire warning days before Christmas. He told CNN’s Becky Anderson that Tehran’s increasing uranium enrichment meant that time was running short for a deal.
“If they continue at their current pace, we have some weeks left but not much more than that, at which point, I think, the conclusion will be that there’s no deal to be revived,” said Malley, the US Iran envoy. US officials believe Iran is now within months of acquiring the materials for a nuclear bomb. Some Israelis are talking of weeks.
Iran is demanding that the US lift all sanctions before it will roll back enrichment. The US is offering a sequenced approach. Its position is complicated by the Biden administration’s inability to pledge that a future Republican administration would honor any deal. Iran has said it is now enriching uranium up to 60% purity, its highest-ever level and much closer to the 90% threshold needed to build a nuclear bomb. Its progress exposes the utter failure of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy, introduced when Iran was complying with the Obama administration pact to cap its nuclear program.
If diplomacy fails now, Biden — or ,more immediately, Israel — will face the question of whether to launch a military strike against Tehran’s facilities that could set the Middle East aflame once again.
Biden’s fate at home and abroad is entwined
Much of Biden’s overseas leverage in coming days depends on how he is perceived by US allies and foes after a year in office.
The biggest blemish on his record so far is the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The President had pledged to Americans there would be no Saigon-style exit from Kabul, yet that’s what happened. Administration claims that the hurried evacuation was a massive success were undercut by video footage of what was really happening — and the deaths of 13 US service members and many more Afghans in a suicide bombing outside the airport.
The debacle dented Biden’s authority at home and abroad, despite claims by Democrats that Americans didn’t really care how US troops left the nation’s longest war and that they just wanted them home. The mess also offered an opening for Republicans to brand the new President as feckless — even though those GOP critics were quiet when Trump was genuflecting to global tyrants. In foreign capitals, the withdrawal that came with little warning for allies raised new questions about US staying power. As did Biden’s cold-eyed view of US interests.
Tortured domestic politics are also hampering Biden’s bid to put a stamp on the world. While his swift return to the Paris climate agreement pleased America’s friends, his capacity to keep commitments is in doubt after West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin said he couldn’t vote for the President’s Build Back Better plan, which includes a historic $500 billion investment in fighting global warming. Biden’s attempt to enlist the world’s democracies in a quest to preserve the liberal world order is, meanwhile, constantly undermined by Trump’s incessant attempts to destroy American democracy. And the prospect that the 45th President could return to the White House in 2025 means many foreign powers doubt Biden’s promise that America is back.
Presidents under fire at home often seek easy wins abroad, but Biden lacks such a luxury since he is serving when America’s global power is more challenged than at any time since World War II. At the same time, raging US political divisions back in the United States offer openings to adversaries like Putin and Xi. It’s a vicious circle that plays into the hands of Republicans determined to portray Biden as a weak failure. So, as tough as 2022 promises to be for Biden at home, he’s unlikely to get much relief overseas.