WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden in his early days in office has vowed a dramatic reordering of U.S. foreign policy from his predecessor. Yet on some of the most difficult issues, he's shown a preference for using the scalpel over the sledgehammer as he implements his own agenda and tries to move away from Trumpism.
The early preference for caution and incrementalism comes as Biden has repeatedly declared that “America is back.” But in early foreign policy tests, Biden has demonstrated, as many of his predecessors have experienced, that a push away from the previous commander-in-chief's policies is easier said than done.
“President X is almost always different from Candidate X," said Michael Green, who served as a senior National Security Council official in the George W. Bush administration. “It's just a question of how long it takes for reality to splash them with cold water."
As a candidate, Biden called Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” He vowed to get tough on Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin. And he promised to take a radically different approach on China than Trump.
But in the early going of his presidency, Biden's foreign policy decisions have frequently reflected more realism than optimism: a commander in chief approaching the world as it is versus the candidate who spoke with idealism about using American power to reshape the globe.
To be certain, Biden has begun living up to his campaign promises by working to rebuild coalitions with allies that were often neglected by Donald Trump — particularly when it comes to dealing with China — as well as by championing democracy, said Green, a senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He dispatched Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with Pacific allies Japan and South Korea for four days of talks that began Monday. Austin then heads to India to meet with his counterpart, while Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan meet Thursday with senior-level Chinese officials in Anchorage.
Biden's also rejoined the Paris climate agreement and signaled to Iran a willingness to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal, both pacts scrapped by Trump.
But critics — and some allies — point to his decision to decline to sanction Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, for the killing of a U.S.-based Saudi journalist. And while his administration recently levied sanctions targeting top Russian officials for the poisoning and imprisonment of an opposition leader, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say they want him to take tougher action against officials closer to Putin’s inner circle.
He's also notably declined to rescind hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs imposed by Trump against China or to express interest in derailing Trump efforts to delist Chinese telecommunication firms from the New York Stock Exchange, or to lift Trump bans on Chinese apps.
Sullivan pushes back against the notion that Biden's foreign policy approach has been modulated from his candidacy. He noted that Biden has recalibrated the relationship with the Saudis by ending U.S. support for the five-year Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen. Biden also has confronted Russia over the jailing of opposition leader Alexi Navalny, Russia’s alleged involvement in a massive cyber espionage campaign and reports of Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.
“The president is the ultimate optimist," Sullivan told reporters shortly after Biden met virtually Friday with other leaders in the Indo-Pacific-focused “Quad” group that includes Australia, India and Japan. Sullivan added, “At the end of the day, his metric is what’s going to advance American interests and values."
Still, the realist vs. optimist quandary Biden has faced is notable.
On the campaign trail, Biden talked about making Saudi Arabia “pay the price” for human rights abuses and “make them in fact the pariah that they are.”
A recently released unclassified U.S. intelligence report determined that the Saudi crown prince likely approved the grisly killing of U.S. resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But Biden declined to take action against the prince lest he alienate the man who is expected to someday rule the kingdom that the U.S. sees as a critical counterweight in the region to Iran.
Human rights activist Bill Browder said Biden’s decision not to hit the crown prince with the Magnitsky Act — Obama-era legislation that authorizes the U.S. government to sanction those it sees as human rights offenders, freeze their assets, and ban them from entering the U.S — sent the wrong message not only to the Saudis but to autocrats around the globe.
“I can’t think of a more self destructive, a bigger failure of a foreign policy test for the Biden administration than this first test,” said Browder, who was a key champion in getting the Magnitsky legislation passed.
Biden during the campaign described Russia as the “biggest threat” to U.S. security and alliances, and disparaged Trump for his cozy relationship with Putin.
But when the Treasury Department earlier this month ordered sanctions against several senior Russian officials and added one government research institute and 13 businesses to the U.S. list for export restrictions over Navalny's poisoning and imprisonment, even some allies suggested Biden should go further.
“Substantial work remains in restricting the ability of corrupt Russian actors to continue accessing the U.S. financial system, and I expect the administration to take additional measures to shore up our financial defenses against dirty Russian money,” said Sen. Robert Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Republicans have railed that Biden is not doing enough to halt a gas pipeline to Europe that many believe will give Russia a tool for political influence over energy-dependent Central and East European nations. They note that Biden has not made any moves beyond what the Trump administration took in its waning months to try to thwart the northern Russia to Germany Nord Stream 2 pipeline led by the Russian state gas company Gazprom.
“We are deeply concerned that the administration’s strong statements opposing the pipeline are not being matched by equally strong actions,” said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
But with Biden looking to repair the U.S.-German relationship, one strained by Trump, pushing too hard on the pipeline could prove difficult.
On China, Biden has been clear-eyed in seeing Beijing as the United States' most significant competitor.
Last month, he announced a Pentagon review of national security strategy on China as part of his push to recalibrate the U.S. approach with Beijing.
In nearly each of his calls to fellow heads of states, Biden has inevitably raised his concerns about China as a competitor and called for coalition-building to head off Beijing’s growing economic clout.
He’s promised a different approach than Trump, who regularly blamed the virus on China and mockingly referred to it using xenophobic language. But Biden has notably held on to the former Republican president’s tariffs on Chinese aluminum and other goods, at least for the time being.
Green said that the tough campaign rhetoric toward adversaries, like China and Russia, and complicated allies, like Saudi Arabia, followed by a measured approach once in office may have been “a bit calculated" and could benefit Biden in the long run.
“I think as a practical matter when you campaign with tough poetry, the prose of governing gets easier," Green said. “You want to go into these hard relationships with China, with Russia, Iran, and with the Saudis, sounding a little scary, being a little tough.”