Politico

Does Biden’s 'normal’ foreign policy need a dash of Trump?


In northern Ethiopia, an unfolding conflict between the federal government, its allies and rebellious regional leaders has killed thousands of people, displaced hundreds of thousands more, and led to fears that an ethnic cleansing campaign is underway.

In response, President Joe Biden and his top foreign policy aides have turned to a now-familiar pattern.

They’ve publicly condemned the violence, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying the U.S. is “gravely concerned” about the situation in the Tigray region. They’ve spoken to national and international leaders, including Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, urging an end to the fighting. They are turning to global forums, such as the United Nations, to raise the political pressure, while increasing humanitarian aid to the disaster zone. There’s even the possibility the Biden administration could name a special envoy for the conflict or impose economic sanctions on the alleged perpetrators.

And, of course, they’ve tweeted about it, calling for “unhindered humanitarian access” and “independent investigations.”

But if recent history — in places like Yemen, Myanmar, Hong Kong or Russia — is any guide, none of these efforts will make much difference. In Ethiopia, as in those other crises bedeviling the Biden team, the culprits are likely to dig in and resist U.S. pressure, at least for the foreseeable future.

Yes, foreign policy is difficult, America has never been as omnipotent as it believes itself to be, and the Biden administration hasn’t even filled all its top national security jobs yet.

The added reality, though, is that Biden has inherited a sparse and increasingly weak set of tools to shape the actions of other global actors, not least because of the way his predecessor, Donald Trump, battered relations with U.S. allies, former U.S. officials and analysts say. Given public exhaustion with U.S. military intervention abroad, as well as an economy damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, Biden and his team may face more limits than usual.

“I don’t want to be too harsh — it’s been six weeks, this stuff is hard and the world is on fire,” Heather Conley, a scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the challenges facing Biden and his team. The new U.S. administration, she said, is “trying to return to normalcy for U.S. foreign policy. But normalcy is not moving the meter internationally.”

Dialing back the Donald

The Trump years were anything but normal.

The former president delighted in shattering taboos, ignoring protocol and being unpredictable. He took historic steps, like meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and extraordinary risks, such as killing a senior Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani. He did so while snubbing America’s traditional allies in Europe, Asia and beyond, while openly embracing autocrats and only selectively weighing in on human rights issues.

Biden brought with him a far more experienced team than Trump’s, one intimately familiar with the traditional U.S. foreign policy-making process. But since they took over on Jan. 20, Biden and his aides have been almost too predictable, often telegraphing their actions, several foreign policy observers told POLITICO. Some said the new team needs to show it’s willing to take unexpected risks. In other words, a dash of Trumpism.

One career U.S. national security official bemoaned how, in response to a rocket attack apparently targeting American forces in Iraq, Biden authorized airstrikes at a handful of Iranian-linked targets in Syria. The administration said the response was designed to be proportional and to prevent further escalation with Iran, a country it is trying to entice into new nuclear talks. In the days since, however, U.S. forces in Iraq have been the targets of a new attack suspected to be the work of an Iranian-aligned militia.

“The new team should be commended for acting quickly, but these perpetrators are terrorists,” the U.S. official said. “A proportional response won’t do much to deter them, and it sends a weak message to Tehran.”

A senior Biden administration official pushed back on such early concerns.

“In less than two months, we have taken key steps and put into place important tools that will serve us in the weeks, months, and years to come,” the official said. “Have we solved all of the world’s problems? No. But we have never been under any illusion that most of the challenges that have developed over the course of years or decades would be dispensed with as near-term propositions.”

So far, the Biden team hasn’t publicly revealed any new or innovative mechanisms for coercing or persuading overseas actors. That’s not to say it won’t.

Earlier this month, the administration released a set of national security principles that emphasized the need to bolster America’s economic and democratic institutions while strengthening international partnerships and organizations.

The document casts aside distinctions between U.S. domestic and foreign policy, especially when it comes to the role of trade. It also makes clear that the United States’ No. 1 geopolitical foe is China, “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

But many of the document’s stated goals are so ambitious they could take several years, maybe even decades, to achieve.

“We are used to sanctions”

Meanwhile, the Biden administration already is having to react to several foreign crises in its short time in office. While it has not shrunk from openly addressing those conflicts, its efforts have yielded few positive results so far.

Take Myanmar. Days after Biden’s inauguration, a political conflict in that country deepened as the powerful military overthrew the civilian leadership. Biden and his top aides loudly condemned the coup and pushed regional leaders to do the same. The administration also is imposing sanctions on the generals and cutting off the small amount of U.S. funding that went to the government there.

The Myanmar military, which ruled the country for decades before allowing civilian rule in recent years, appears uncowed. Its soldiers have killed dozens of civilians protesting its return to power while detaining numerous others.

When a United Nations envoy recently warned the junta that it faced potentially huge penalties, she said they told her, “We are used to sanctions,” citing the decades they spent in power despite global condemnation. When she warned the generals that they’d be isolated, she said they replied, “We have to learn to walk with only few friends.”

Yemen, the scene of a war between Saudi-led forces and Iran-backed Houthi rebels, is another telling example of where Biden yields a weak hand. The fighting has dragged on for six years; the United Nations says around a quarter of a million people have died, many from indirect causes such as a lack of food.

But conflicting priorities, including managing strained ties with longtime U.S. partner Saudi Arabia, are forcing Biden to walk a narrow path.

The president has stopped support for Saudi offensive operations in Yemen while continuing to help Riyadh defend itself from Houthi attacks. His administration reversed Trump’s designation of the Houthis as a terrorist group after being persuaded that the label had made it legally challenging for aid organizations to reach civilians in areas under Houthi control. Biden also named a special envoy for Yemen tasked with getting peace talks on track.

Still, the conflict shows no serious sign of slowing down.

In fact, the State Department under Biden has issued at least three public statements condemning the Houthis for ongoing attacks that have threatened civilians as well as Saudi territory. It’s also placed new sanctions on some individual Houthi rebel leaders. The rebels, nonetheless, have kept up their offensive, recently claiming to have seized most of a key city, Marib.

These developments have led former Trump administration officials to slam their successors for removing the rebel group’s overall terrorist designation in the first place.


Old tools, new ideas

The Biden administration has moved on other fronts to highlight how it differs from its predecessor. In particular, it has spoken out and used sanctions to promote human rights and democracy, areas which Trump emphasized only on a highly selective basis that infuriated activists.

The new administration has unveiled fresh sanctions on Russian government officials over the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, and it has signaled more are forthcoming. It imposed new sanctions and visa restrictions on Saudi officials allegedly involved in the killing of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, although it did not punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the U.S. intelligence community determined was responsible for the operation. The administration also has called on China to stop imprisoning pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong.

While for most of his presidency Trump personally embraced the leaders of China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, his administration did impose sanctions, visa restrictions and other penalties targeting those countries. But although the new U.S. administration from the top down may be taking a more adversarial approach to Beijing, Riyadh and Moscow, results so far are mixed — as they were during the Trump years.

Russian dictator Vladimir Putin shows no sign of easing crackdowns on democracy activists. The Saudis, who are technically Washington’s partners, have rejected U.S. findings on the Khashoggi murder, but they’ve also released some political prisoners. China’s communist leaders appear bent on bringing Hong Kong to heel while forging ahead with their crackdown on Uighur Muslims — which both the Trump and Biden administrations have declared a genocide.

One area the Biden administration plans to emphasize, possibly in some innovative ways, is the need to curb international corruption.

This week, Blinken announced a U.S. visa ban on Ihor Kolomoyskyy, a Ukrainian former public official, as well as members of his family, on allegations of “significant corruption.” The new administration document that lays out its strategic principles warns that corruption “rots democracy from the inside and is increasingly weaponized by authoritarian states.”

The talk of fighting corruption has led some observers to suggest that the administration declassify intelligence dossiers on adversaries like Russia’s Putin.

“Us feeling good”

At the moment, when it comes to flexing its foreign policy muscles, the Biden administration appears to be relying heavily on rhetoric and sanctions, and to a lesser degree on special envoys and rallying international partners. Those tools, even in combination, seem to be having less effect than in the past for a variety of reasons, analysts and former officials say.

Economic sanctions have always had a mixed record. Many observers credit international sanctions for helping push the South African government to end its policies of apartheid. Some also credit multilateral sanctions for pressuring Iran into negotiations for a 2015 deal to curb its nuclear program.

But regimes in places like Cuba, North Korea and (prior to its fling with democracy) Myanmar have endured many years’ worth of sanctions without falling. When such regimes have tried to open up diplomatically, they’ve often downplayed sanctions as a reason. A decade ago, when Myanmar’s military rulers decided to move toward a civilian-led democracy, some of them told U.S. officials that it was because they wanted to wean themselves off their dependence on China.

During the Barack Obama presidency, the U.S. frequently used economic sanctions, especially to push Iran toward nuclear talks. The Trump administration, however, took the use of sanctions to a new level, penalizing U.S. adversaries (and sometimes allies) seemingly every day. It’s too soon to say how often the Biden administration will use the tool, but it clearly hasn’t abandoned it.

The problem is that foreign actors appear increasingly willing to endure sanctions while seeking ways around them, analysts say. Everything from activating smuggling networks to sidestepping the U.S. financial system to relying on aid from countries unfriendly to Washington is an option. While the United States also is getting more creative in how it uses sanctions — such as by imposing them on individuals accused of human rights abuses as opposed to entire industries or institutions — it’s tough to say how those moves will pay out over time.

“Sanctions are about us feeling good. They rarely change behavior,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Other governments are acutely aware that a future U.S. president could act like Trump (or perhaps even be Trump), making them skittish about joining the United States on new ventures. In other words, when Biden says “America is back,” foreign leaders wonder for how long. In addition, even close U.S. allies have their own national and economic interests to consider; that’s one reason a country like Germany has not been entirely on board with Trump and Biden’s tough approach to Beijing.

Former officials and analysts noted that some of the Biden team’s actions on the world stage may be classified — in the cyber realm for instance. But they also warned that the administration can look weak if it frequently turns to tough, public rhetoric that adversaries seem to simply ignore.

“While statements of U.S. support are important and resonate around the world, if condemnations are issued and there are no associated actions, then it risks becoming a hollow exercise, often leading to disappointment,” said Nadia Schadlow, a former senior U.S. official on the Trump National Security Council. She added that many experts also believe that it can sometimes be fruitful to work quietly behind the scenes.

The suffering now

The administration’s focus on strengthening America domestically is unlikely to yield immediate results, but could, in the long-run, boost U.S. influence globally. That’s a good thing, because having meaningful impact in foreign policy is rarely about the short-term, analysts said, and it includes promoting everything from private sector investment abroad to training civil society activists overseas.

“You can’t turn a switch and make things better,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Good foreign policy is putting the pieces into place, setting markers and increasing the pressure over time to change behavior to affect outcomes.”

In a place like Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the immediate needs are what can seem overwhelming, while rhetoric, phone calls and envoys promise little quick relief. And even when Washington has an unusual lever it can pull, doing so may not be wise.

For instance, as the fighting has unfolded since November, the Biden administration has kept on pause millions of dollars in foreign assistance that had been slated to go to Ethiopia. The funding was put on hold under the Trump administration over a whole separate issue, and the Biden team has kept much of the freeze in place. But the point of such assistance, much of it about economic development, is to promote long-term stability in a country like Ethiopia.

Asked if the administration had any creative means to respond, a senior State Department official said “the hard work of diplomacy is to figure out where our leverage points are and what are going to be most effective in a given time.” The key is to convince the Ethiopian prime minister and other parties to the conflict, including Eritrea, that fighting won’t solve the problem, and that a political resolution is necessary, the official added.

Pressed on how long civilians displaced from their homes can expect the conflict to last, the senior State Department official said there’s no solid answer to that.

“Unfortunately, I’ve learned having worked on this for a long time that you can’t promise people that something like this is going to be solved overnight.”

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