Weakness walked us here
How is President Biden going to explain his foreign policy record in his State of the Union address?
This is not just another column about Ukraine. It is intended to be an assessment of the Biden administration’s foreign policy record following President Joe Biden’s first year in office. Such analysis is especially relevant considering tonight’s State of the Union address.
I’m not alone in assessing that President Biden has performed worse than expected. The failures started with the generally embarrassing diplomatic meeting with China in Anchorage, Alaska, where Chinese diplomats made it condescendingly clear they no longer considered the United States the preeminent world power.
Following this, even when Biden’s team scored strategic successes, they still found a way to blunder. AUKUS, the technology and intelligence sharing security pact between Australia, the U.K., and the United States, is an important step in countering China. However, the new pact scrapped a $37 billion deal between Australia and France for diesel-powered submarines and scuttled France’s own strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Adding insult to injury, a blindsided France only found out about the termination of its deal a few hours before it was made public. The diplomatic row that followed was an unnecessary embarrassment, even as the move may well improve Australia’s national security. But the goal could have been accomplished without humiliating a key ally.
Elsewhere, Biden’s efforts to better coordinate global efforts to contain COVID-19 have continually suffered, he’s failed to fill key diplomatic posts around the world, and there’s been little success in communicating priorities regarding the—admittedly many—policy concerns facing the United States. This inability to identify policy priorities is surely explained by the apparent lack of any overarching doctrine through which Biden can conceptualize the United States’ role and subsequent actions in the world—and by which he can identify necessary trade-offs and points of focus.
Surely, the debacle of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan stands as the culminating example of this administration’s incompetence. In the wake of it, China, Russia, and Iran are all emboldened and more aggressive. As meetings in Vienna conclude, Iran appears poised to secure a new nuclear accord far more favorable than the original deal. China continues its rise as a global power, and Russia—well, Russia just launched the largest military assault in Europe since the Second World War, which brings us back to Ukraine after all.
Biden’s mistakes in Afghanistan were numerous: failing to renegotiate the Trump administration’s concessions to the Taliban, not heeding the advice of his generals to leave a U.S. counterterrorism presence—housed at the Bagram Air Base and supported by a few thousand NATO personnel—and not pulling out all his fighting elements before first evacuating U.S. civilians and Afghan allies. The pitiful—and predictable—spectacle that followed Biden’s failure to do these things left a stain on America’s global image that had far-reaching geopolitical consequences.
Observers from Ukraine, who have long considered the United States a key ally, regarded the United States’ allowance of a Taliban takeover as a grim sign. They understood that Biden’s steadfast commitment to withdrawal despite clear evidence of the catastrophe that would follow had repercussions for its own defense. These concerns were confirmed by Biden’s strident defense of his actions. “To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan,” he railed, “I ask: What is the vital national interest?” That was presidential malpractice with global consequences.
A practical people, the Ukrainians understood the limited interest the United States holds for the status of Ukraine. They understood that limited interests would lead to limited intervention.
Putin, of course, observed all of this as well. Biden’s relaxing of sanctions pressure on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, arguably signaling his preference for improving relations with Germany over Ukrainian security concerns, exacerbated Ukrainian fear and Russian confidence. His directive last fall for the Pentagon to reduce exercises the U.S. military employed in recent years in Europe to deter Russia—and his cancellation of naval deployments to the Black Sea—further signaled his desire to deescalate tension in the region. Worse, Biden then slow-rolled delivery of key weaponry to Ukraine. On top of it all, he seemed at pains to assert that he has no intention of deploying U.S. forces to Ukraine, not even to rescue Americans. While most observers agree with the reluctance to put U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine, few think it’s a grand idea to say it out loud—and so often.
And now Ukraine is burning. While Biden’s foreign policy blunders are not the only sign that gave Putin the confidence to invade, they have not helped to deter him. They have signaled weakness and a lack of seriousness about maintaining U.S. preeminence. It’s worth noting that Biden’s foreign policy record can be summed up by the fact that U.S. allies and partners appear no more confident of the current administration than they were of the last one, and by the fact that our enemies seem more heartened. We are about to learn how President Biden will explain all this tonight in his State of the Union address.
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