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Biden at six months: How successful is his foreign policy?

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Since taking office in January, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has unleashed foreign-policy initiatives at a breathtaking pace. We won’t list them all here, but the gist will be familiar to Foreign Policy readers: From rejoining multilateral organizations and reinvigorating alliances to donating vaccines, the Biden team has been the antithesis of its predecessor. In other areas, such as strategic competition with China, there appears to be little daylight between the two.

Writing in FP, Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry recently argued Biden’s foreign-policy activism amounts to nothing less than a “revolution”—a wide-ranging reimagining of Washington’s global role not seen since the wartime presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The reality may be a little more circumscribed, but the Biden team has undoubtedly kept busy, surprising many who expected a less frenetic pace.

We wanted to get a sharp sense of how the Biden foreign-policy agenda has evolved at the six-month mark of his term. The last time we went to our stable of experts to evaluate the new administration, it was for our Biden 100-Day Progress Report. Now that the outlines of Biden’s policies have become clearer, we asked another high-powered panel of foreign-policy thinkers for their takes. This time, we included a few Americans, but our focus was on global contributors looking at how the Biden agenda is impacting different parts of the world. You can scroll down and read their takes below.

Stefan Theil, deputy editor

China: Biden Has Embraced ‘Strategic Competition’

By Kevin Rudd, president of the Asia Society and former Australian prime minister

When U.S. President Joe Biden entered office, some in Beijing assumed the new administration would move quickly to “reset” U.S.-China relations, scale back trade tariffs, and reduce sanctions imposed over the course of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. They were soon disappointed.

The Biden administration’s Asia policy team rejected Chinese invitations to resume a high-level strategic dialogue and retained virtually the entire sweep of Trump-era restrictions. At the same time, the White House has been driving a comprehensive review of U.S.-China strategy spanning the full spectrum of diplomatic, security, trade, and technology policy. That review should be completed in the fall.

But at the broadest level, the Biden administration has accepted that the concept of “strategic competition”—embraced by the Trump administration—remains the defining framework for the relationship. But within this approach, the Biden team has sought to restabilize the relationship and channel competition into precise forms rather than continue the roller coaster ride of the previous four years. This effort is best summarized by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s statement that the U.S. approach toward Beijing aims to be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”

As the administration’s China policy review nears completion, it will be critical to see how it now categorizes the various components of the U.S.-Chinese relationship: Which parts are for public rhetoric and declarations, which are delegated to the purely operational domain, and which will be determined by a substantive dialogue with Beijing? The answer to this question will influence the extent to which a more stable U.S.-China strategic framework can emerge in the medium-term future.

One major factor adding to this task’s complexity is the change in Beijing’s strategic thinking. Specifically, Beijing’s recent decision to punish Chinese technology company DiDi for its decision to move forward with a U.S. initial public offering signals Chinese President Xi Jinping has concluded a broader financial decoupling from the United States is an acceptable—and perhaps inevitable—consequence of strategic competition. It also reinforces his long-standing quest to make China a “self-reliant” economy in the face of growing U.S. pressure.

In other words, Xi is beginning to signal China is willing to walk away from significant economic components of the U.S. relationship because it wishes to be less vulnerable to U.S. economic, financial, and technological leverage. This differs from a number of U.S. assumptions that decoupling is largely a policy choice lying in Western hands alone. Xi may instead be signaling that China will cut U.S. connections of its own accord, become more self-reliant, and begin to accelerate its economic engagement with Europe and other regions of the world through a more accommodating trade and investment policy than in the past.

This points to the key missing component in U.S.-China strategy to date: trade and the economy. A protectionist Washington has refused to acknowledge that so far. Put bluntly, the United States cannot prevail in its strategic competition with China unless it opens its markets fully and reciprocally to the rest of Asia, Europe, and beyond, providing current and future friends and allies with an alternative to the great Chinese global economic juggernaut. That’s why much of the world hasn’t yet followed Washington on China—and continues to hedge.

China: Biden Has Constrained His Own Options

By Kishore Mahbubani, distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute

U.S. President Joe Biden has a major competitive disadvantage in dealing with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The former’s key preoccupations are short term: How can his Democratic Party survive midterm elections in November 2022? The Republicans would slaughter him if he went soft on China. Hence, sensible measures that would serve Washington’s long-term interests are out of reach for now, including calling off the trade war with China—which has hurt U.S. consumers, workers, and farmers—or joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

By contrast, Xi is free to carry out long-term strategic maneuvers, such as expanding the Belt and Road Initiative, to which 139 countries have signed up for, or joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which was initiated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and will connect 2.3 billion people to create the most dynamic economic ecosystem in the world. Even though ASEAN was born as a pro-U.S. organization in 1967, most Americans are unaware how critical the bloc will be in the U.S.-China contest. In 2000, U.S. trade with ASEAN was $135 billion, more than three times that of China’s $40 billion. Today, China’s trade with ASEAN is more than $641 billion, more than double the United States’ $300 billion. Where trade goes, influence follows. Effectively, the United States has been cutting itself off from East Asia. China is integrating.

The 21st-century world will be rich and complex: multicivilizational, multipolar, and multilateral. It’s unwise for Biden to base his policies on the notion the world is in a black-and-white contest between democracies and autocracies. Instead, the U.S.-Chinese contest may well be, as I document in my book Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy, a contest between plutocracy in the United States and meritocracy in China. That’s a contest China can win.

Most countries are quietly beginning to accept China will inevitably be the largest economy in the world. Few want to join Washington’s campaign to isolate or cut off Beijing. Within a decade, most countries will be doing more business with China than the United States. If the latter cuts itself off from China, China will not be isolated. Instead, it may be the United States that finds itself isolated. When dealing with Beijing, Biden therefore needs to better factor in long-term calculations than he’s been doing so far.

Russia: Engage and Push Back

By Angela Stent, director of Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies

When U.S. President Joe Biden came into office, Russia was a toxic domestic issue in the United States. It had polarized the country during the tenure of former U.S. President Donald Trump because of his unprecedented praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the belief in some U.S. quarters that Russia helped elect Trump. By criticizing Putin and the Kremlin’s policies, Biden has succeeded in removing Russia from the domestic agenda and can deal with it as a foreign-policy challenge. In fact, one of his first foreign-policy actions, when he took office, was to renew the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty for five years, the only remaining treaty regulating the nuclear arsenals of the world’s two nuclear superpowers, which was set to expire in February.

So far, Biden has pursued a familiar dual-track policy with Russia: engaging where it is in the United States’ interest and pushing back against adversarial Russian actions. In April, the administration imposed sanctions on Moscow for its 2020 election interference and other malign activities, including cyberattacks. But Biden also met with Putin in Geneva in June after calling him a “worthy adversary.” Three hours of talks produced an agreement to return U.S. and Russian ambassadors to their posts (they had been withdrawn earlier this year amid rising tensions) and to begin a series of talks on strategic stability and cyber issues. Biden gave Putin a list of 16 critical U.S. infrastructure sectors, a cyberattack against any of which would produce retaliation. Climate change, the Artic, Ukraine, and Syria were also on the agenda. In their separate news conferences, the two presidents made their differences clear, but both described the summit as businesslike and pragmatic.

Biden has said he will give Russia six months to see whether the meeting was indeed a success and Russia ceases its cyber interference. But since the summit, there have been more Russian cyber and ransomware attacks, and it remains to be seen how Washington may retaliate. Biden said he would like a “stable and predictable” relationship with Russia, but it is too early to say whether he can achieve that. As he reminded people during his Geneva press conference, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.”

Europe: Divided on China

By Robin Niblett, director and chief executive of Chatham House

For Europe, the election of U.S. President Joe Biden was a godsend. Gone is the unpredictable, confrontational team of former U.S. President Donald Trump, which disdained the European Union, most traditional allies, and all forms of multilateralism. In are urbane, experienced trans-Atlanticists who believe strong alliances are the bedrock of U.S. foreign policy. Biden quickly rejoined the Paris Agreement and World Health Organization as well as underlined the United States’ commitment to NATO.

But now, six months into Biden’s term, two issues are emblematic of persistent trans-Atlantic tension.

The most important is how to manage China. U.S. officials stress the growing military, economic, and technological risks emanating from Beijing. Biden has exhorted Americans to “win the 21st century” rather than cede it to China. Chinese President Xi Jinping marked the 100th anniversary of his Communist Party on July 1 by warning that those seeking to “bully or oppress China” will “crack their heads and spill blood on the Great Wall of steel built from the flesh and blood of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

Europeans watch the emergence of a Manichean struggle between the United States and China with growing trepidation. The European Union’s economic health is dependent on strong export performance, and China is now its principal—and growing—export market. Despite increasing disputes over Chinese domestic human rights abuses, Europeans still hope to build a win-win bilateral future.

The Europeans’ answer is to stand by Biden rhetorically as they did with recent joint declarations at the G-7, U.S.-EU, and NATO summits, all of which highlighted China for the first time as an issue of joint concern. Their ultimate goal is to buy influence in Washington for a balanced trans-Atlantic approach to China.

But this intention could be undermined by the second issue. Both the U.S. and European governments are focused above all else on delivering a more inclusive and equitable economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis than they did from the 2008 financial crisis. The Biden administration’s economic stimulus programs are echoed in Britain’s “leveling-up” agenda and Brussels’s NextGenerationEU recovery package.

The next six to 12 months will test whether leaders on either side of the Atlantic Ocean can square their domestic economic priorities with the potentially conflicting need for cooperation on China. They will need to come to an agreement over key economic recovery issues, including a carbon border tax, a minimum corporate tax, taxing the global profits of U.S. tech giants and other multinational corporations, and removing Trump-era tariffs on European steel and aluminum exports.

If not, the U.S. view of China principally as a strategic threat and Europe’s view of China as a necessary economic partner could weaken the trans-Atlantic relationship despite the Biden administration’s positive start.

Middle East: Inaction Will Haunt Washington

By Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House

Six months of Biden administration policies on the Middle East point to one goal: containment of the region’s problems. Gone is aggressive U.S. intervention under former U.S. President George W. Bush, inaction masked by inspiring rhetoric under former U.S. President Barack Obama, and unpredictable but limited action under former U.S. President Donald Trump.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s tenure appears to be marked by seeking a “good enough” approach from a U.S. perspective: Engage just enough to keep the Middle East’s troubles at bay so they do not spill beyond the region or form a threat to U.S. national interests. This approach is leading the United States to try containing Iran’s regional involvement in the Levant and Iraq—but Iran’s wider role remains unaddressed. The deals now being struck among regional actors, such as rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt, are seen by Washington as a load off its shoulders. U.S. troops continue to be present in places like Syria and Iraq to guard against any resurgence of the Islamic State and as a pressure tool on Iran, but this is not the starting point for expanding the United States’ military presence or other involvement in the region. Limited U.S. diplomatic and military activities with the goal of containing active conflicts in the Middle East and limiting Iran’s role in the region support Washington in focusing on other areas of the world as foreign-policy priorities.

However, U.S. disengagement from the region is entrenching Russian and Iranian influence, especially in Syria and Lebanon, respectively. It is also paving the way for China to play a greater role in the Middle East. And the continued lack of accountability felt by most of the region’s regimes toward the international community and their own people will, over time, translate into a resurgence of citizen grievances. Biden may fend off Middle Eastern headaches for the foreseeable future of his term, but disengagement is never neutral: Inaction has concrete consequences that will come back to haunt Washington further down the road as conflicts transform and regional actors feel emboldened.

South Asia: Staying the Course

By C. Raja Mohan, director of the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies

In advancing along the course set in South Asia by his recent predecessors but bringing greater competence and purpose, U.S. President Joe Biden is accelerating geopolitical change in the subcontinent and reorienting the terms of engagement between Washington and the region. The clear focus on coping with the China challenge has helped the Biden administration make several early and consequential decisions.

Although former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump had both concluded the war in Afghanistan couldn’t be won, they were reluctant to follow through. Biden has bitten the bullet and decided to pull out. Although the retreat will be ugly and generate political costs, it will help Washington focus on the Indo-Pacific. Biden has rightly bet making a clean break in Afghanistan is better than persisting with a military presence that had little chance of success. The decision also significantly reduces U.S. strategic dependence on Pakistan, which has been a constant since the 1979 Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly then, Biden has shown little interest in any political outreach to Pakistan.

If Islamabad edging closer to Beijing has made it even less attractive to Washington, New Delhi’s contradictions with Beijing have only sharpened. This has made India quite critical to Biden’s China calculus. To be sure, during the Trump years, India and the United States acknowledged their shared interest in balancing China, promoted the Indo-Pacific concept, and revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (known as the Quad) that brought them together with Australia and Japan.

Biden has lent greater weight to the Quad by convening a leaders’ summit within a few weeks of taking charge at the White House. His pressing forward was based on the assessment that the Quad must be the foundation for a sustainable U.S. strategy toward the vast Indo-Pacific theater. Put another way, Biden’s bet on the Quad is also a political wager on the Indo-Pacific salience of India, which is not a U.S. treaty ally like Australia and Japan. Beyond the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, India is also critical for Biden’s pursuit of more ambitious climate policy goals, the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and building a new global coalition of democracies. An “India first” U.S. policy for South Asia, long dismissed as a fantasy in Washington and New Delhi alike, could well become a reality under the Biden administration.