WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden makes no secret of the speed with which he plans to bury “America First” as a guiding principle of the nation’s foreign policy.
He says he will reenter the Iran nuclear deal, assuming the Iranians are willing to reverse course and observe its limits.
He would sign up for another five years of the only surviving nuclear arms treaty with Russia and double down on U.S. commitments to NATO after four years of threats from President Donald Trump to withdraw from the alliance that guided the West through the Cold War.
At the same time, Biden says he will make Russia “pay a price” for what he says have been disruptions and attempts to influence elections — including his own.
But mostly, Biden said in a statement to The New York Times, he wants to bring an end to a slogan that came to define a United States that built walls and made working with allies an afterthought — and, in Biden’s view, undermined any chance of forging a common international approach to fighting a pandemic that has cost more than 1.2 million lives.
“Tragically, the one place Donald Trump has made ‘America First’ is his failed response to the coronavirus: We’re 4% of the world’s population, yet have had 20% of the deaths,” Biden said days before the election. “On top of Trump embracing the world’s autocrats and poking his finger in the eye of our democratic allies, that’s another reason respect for American leadership is in free fall.”
But it is far easier to promise to return to the largely internationalist approach of the post-World War II era than it is to execute one after four years of global withdrawal and during a pandemic that has reinforced nationalist instincts.
In interviews in the past several weeks, Biden’s top advisers began to outline a restoration that might be called the Great Undoing, an effort to reverse course on Trump’s aggressive attempt to withdraw to U.S. borders.
“Whether we like it or not, the world simply does not organize itself,” said Antony J. Blinken, Biden’s longtime national security adviser. “Until the Trump administration, in Democratic and Republican administrations, the United States did a lot of that organizing, and we made some mistakes along the way, for sure.” Now, however, the United States has discovered what happens “when some other country tries to take our place or, maybe even worse, no one does, and you end up with a vacuum that is filled by bad events.”
Those who have known Biden for decades say they expect him to move carefully, providing reassurance with a few big symbolic acts, starting with a return to the Paris climate accord in the first days of his administration. But substantive rebuilding of U.S. power will proceed far more slowly.
At 77, Biden has his own back-to-the-future vision of how to dispense with “America First”: “This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs in March.
Yet Biden was never pressed on how the current iteration of superpower competition differs from what he remembers from early in his political career.
He never stated what kind of “price” he had in mind for President Vladimir Putin of Russia to pay, though one of his longtime foreign policy advisers, Jake Sullivan, offered a bit of detail. Just before Election Day, he said Biden was willing to impose “substantial and lasting costs on perpetrators of the Russian interference,” which could include financial sanctions, asset freezes, counter cyberattacks and, “potentially, the exposure of corruption by the leaders of foreign countries.”
The sharp change on Russia offers a glimpse of the detailed planning that Biden’s transition team has engaged in to reverse Trump’s approach to the world.
But its plans show some notable breaks from the Obama administration’s strategy.
The most vivid example, officials say, will come in rethinking China strategy. His own advisers concede that in the Obama years, Biden and his national security team underestimated the speed with which President Xi Jinping of China would crack down on dissent at home and use the combination of its 5G networks and its Belt and Road Initiative to challenge U.S. influence.
“Neither carrots nor sticks have swayed China as predicted,” Kurt Campbell, who served as the assistant secretary of state for Asia, and Ely Ratner, one of Biden’s deputy national security advisers, wrote in a Foreign Affairs article in 2018 that reflected this shift. “Diplomatic and commercial engagement have not brought political and economic openness. Neither U.S. military power nor regional balancing has stopped Beijing from seeking to displace core components of the U.S.-led system.”
Afghanistan and the Use of U.S. Force
Robert Gates, the defense secretary who served both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, famously declared that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”
That assessment included Biden’s view on Afghanistan — where he argued, in the early days of the Obama administration in 2009, for a minimal force focused on a counterterrorism mission. Gates later recalled that Biden was convinced that the military was trying to put the squeeze on the president to send more troops for a war the vice president thought was politically unsustainable.
Biden was overruled.
Biden, according to Sullivan, “wants to convert our presence to a counterterrorism capability” aimed at protecting the United States by keeping al-Qaida forces or the Islamic State group from establishing a base in Afghanistan.
As president, Biden will have to deal with a Russia whose arsenal includes 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons and a raft of tactical nuclear weapons that it has been deploying freely, even before Trump exited the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
How would Biden end the downward spiral? He would start with a five-year extension of New START, Blinken said, because the treaty lapses 16 days after inauguration. Then he would seek to expand the treaty. And he would play on Putin’s growing economic fragility.
“We will deter, and impose costs for, Mr. Putin’s meddling and aggression,” Blinken said. “But there’s a flip side” to dealing with Moscow, he added. Putin is “looking to relieve Russia’s growing dependence on China,” Blinken said, which has left him in “not a very comfortable position.”
On Iran, a Resurgent Crisis
“Oh, goddamn,” Biden fumed in the Situation Room in the summer of 2010, according to participants in the meeting, as news began to leak that a highly classified effort by the United States and Israel to destroy Iran’s nuclear program with a cyberweapon was about to be exposed. “It’s got to be the Israelis. They went too far.”
A decade later, that effort to undermine the Iranian nuclear effort appears to be the birth of a new age of conflict. Biden favored the covert effort, because he was looking for any way to slow Iran’s progress without risking war in the Middle East. He later told colleagues that he believed the covert program helped bring the country to the negotiating table for what became the Iran nuclear deal.
Now Biden says the first step with Iran is to restore the status quo — which means reentering the deal if Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is willing to return to production limits announced in 2015. But the Iranians have indicated there will be a higher price to pay for Trump’s breach. And some of the key restrictions on Iran begin to lift soon.
Biden’s aides say returning to the deal Trump exited “shifts the burden” back on Tehran.
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