Robert E. Hunter served as US Ambassador to NATO and as chief White House official for Europe and the Middle East. He was Senior International Consultant to Lockheed-Martin from 1998 - 2013. He has written speeches for three US presidents and three vice presidents and provides coaching in strategic planning, political and executive communications and media handling.
It’s always risky to assess at mid-term how a US president is doing in foreign policy. Cold warrior Ronald Reagan had not yet gone to Reykjavik to meet Mikhail Gorbachev. Jimmy Carter had brokered peace between Israel and Egypt, but had not yet been challenged by the Ayatollah, and at mid-term Harry Truman had not yet fashioned the NATO alliance. But for the world outside if not the American people, such mid-term assessments need to be done, if only to seek reassurance about US leadership and as a hoped-for harbinger of the future.
President Joe Biden’s foreign policy “report card” so far? At best mixed.
Assessment should begin with his worst moment of “egg-on-your face,” the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, completed in August 2021. But while Biden and his team (mostly the Pentagon) made a hash of the withdrawal, it had been set in stone in February 2020 by his predecessor, Donald Trump, and was way overdue, both regionally and in most Americans’ wanting out. The Biden team’s execution was sloppy – and, for many, tragic – but his strategy in implementing Trump’s agreement with the Taliban was sound. And who among America’s friends and allies any longer care?
This illustrates the first lesson in assessing how a US president is doing in foreign affairs: most US foreign policies are based on continuity, doing what the president(s) before you did. Going against the inertia of that continuity, when national interests call for it, requires serious strategic analysis and then presidential leadership.
Thus judging Biden on the Big Three issues – the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Middle East,, and China – first requires looking at the cards he was dealt. Judgment of Biden’s record is still merited and necessary, but we should be chary about laying all that is now happening at his feet.
The Biden administration correctly read the signals that Putin would invade Ukraine. And after war began, Biden has effectively threaded the strategic needle: between 1) giving Ukraine enough military help to stave off defeat and orchestrating support (and limitations thereupon) by most of the NATO allies and some other countries, and 2) not providing so much military capability to Ukraine that it could raise the ante by attacks into Russia proper. Thus Russia has chosen not to attack any NATO ally, with formal alliance security guarantees, and there has been no escalation of the war into Russia that could – even if Putin is bluffing –bring nuclear issues into play. Ukraine and its people will continue to suffer horrendously. But the war has been limited (and make no mistake, this is not a new cold war, but a hot war between the United States and Russia, for the first time since 1919.) For both Biden and Putin, realpolitik has so far prevailed.
But in making judgments about how we got here and what needs to be done for the long-term, it’s important to understand that the Russian invasion of Ukraine did not come out of a clear blue sky. Even though nothing can justify what Putin has done and Russians have committed terrible war crimes, the invasion was not “unprovoked,” as represented in the prevailing US narrative. George H. W. Bush (and then Bill Clinton) proclaimed a grand strategy of “Europe whole and free” (Mainz, May 1989), which as much as anything meant not isolating Russia, as Germany was punished in the Treaty of Versailles, later providing grist to Hitler’s mill. Despite ups and downs, in the 1990s relations between the West (US/NATO) and the Russian Federation went pretty well. The Russians even asked to be part of the post-Dayton Implementation Force in Bosnia and sent their best troops, putting them under US command! Russia joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace and entered the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, an amazingly far-reaching set of arrangements. This was balanced by the NATO-Ukraine Charter which, among other things, provided some informal reassurances to Ukraine but also tacitly recognized the need for NATO’s enlargement to stop well short of giving real credence to Russian fears/charges of being “surrounded” by NATO and not having its legitimate security needs respected, as for our part we and NATO demand.
Then US policy went off the rails, under those who have believed that Russia (the Soviet Union) had lost the Cold War, so why take it seriously. Most important, in 2008 the US led NATO to declare that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” That was very much a Bridge Too Far for Russia. But instead of recognizing and correcting this cardinal mistake, every US administration (and NATO) have continued to repeat the mantra right up to the current moment. This has given credence among most Russians to the argument that their country is under threat and thus supports Putin’s domestic propaganda -- even though Ukraine could never get the needed consensus of NATO’s allies to join. Then in early 2014, an assistant Secretary of State promoted a coup in Kyiv on an open-line telephone call (!) to the US ambassador in Ukraine (it can be heard on the Internet) and gave Putin cover for his first invasion soon thereafter.
The Biden administration did make limited efforts to try repairing earlier damage in relations with Russia, notably in Biden’s Geneva meeting with Putin (whether Putin would have done what Russia needed to do to promote relations, including not invading Ukraine, is an open question). But critically, the US and NATO didn’t drop the pledge to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.
Most important for the future, the idea that Russia must be included in Europe’s future has been scotched, to the delight of the New Cold Warriors in the United States who always thought this way and dominate the Biden administration, along with a near-consensus of the American commentariat, but to lasting damage to the West: a strategic blunder greater than the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This includes an inevitable consequence: that the United States will not be able to reduce its involvement in European security and thus enabled to divert as much attention and resources as it wants to deal with China. Is it too late to change assessments and strategy? The Biden administration at least needs to recognize geostrategic reality, that Russia cannot forever be cast into the outer darkness, whatever happens in the Ukraine war. That will require fresh strategic analysis in Washington and likely also a fresh set of eyes to enable Biden to see America’s long-term interests more clearly.
That should encompass recognizing that a viable framework for moving the conflict from the battlefield to the conference table has existed since 2015. It is the Minsk II Agreement, adopted by Kyiv and Moscow but violated by both sides. It would include Ukrainian sovereignty over all of its territory, but some self-determination for principally Russian-ethnic and Russian-speaking areas, with outsiders (UN?) involved.
In the Middle East, Biden can be given a pass on Israel-Palestine peacemaking. With Bibi Netanyahu and his ilk in charge in Israel, nothing has been possible for years and won’t be now (this is a loss for both Israel and the Palestinians). Further, the US 2024 election season is already in full swing, and Biden would not be the first president unwilling to take political risks by alienating the potent Israel lobby.
Regarding Iran, Biden followed Donald Trump in undercutting the single most important foreign policy success of Biden’s mentor (Barack Obama), by not at the start of his administration (or any time since then) just rejoining the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which Trump withdrew in 2018. That set Iran back on a course to being able to build a bomb if it desires to do so. Biden thus has to take his share of responsibility for increased risk of an Iranian nuclear potential. His fundamental error has also led an Iran under active threat to seek partners elsewhere, notably by supporting Russia in Ukraine, to wonderment in Washington. Not just rejoining the JCPOA has thus been another major strategic blunder by Biden and his team (as it was with Trump), again responding not to US interests but to Israel and some other partners in the region, plus the domestic Lobby. That also will not change, at least before the presidential election.
Most important (maybe) for the longish-term is China. Competition is inevitable; but whether cooperation is possible is still an open question and confrontation is almost assured. Biden didn’t invent the need to try finding a way to compete and cooperate with China at the same time, but he and his team haven’t helped. Confusion of long-term objectives and methods to achieve them continues from the past; and so does inconsistency in US policy. There is no comprehensive overview, as different constituencies have their own views. US business and consumers want one thing, human rights activists another, the Pentagon (with others who focus mostly on the military dimension) a third, the cooperation-minded – e.g., on climate change and North Korea -- want a fourth, and so on. There is no mechanism in the administration or in US public debate to try reconciling the various strands. Confusion reigns, with the bizarre tactic of imposing sanctions on the one hand and seeking cooperation on the other: that doesn’t compute in the real world. A new perspective, solid strategic analysis, and understanding the need to set priorities are needed here, too, along with seeing how events in different parts of the world interact, which the administration does not do adequately.
Perhaps most daunting for the future of US policy and common to all three areas – Russia, Iran, and China – is the triumph of the basic idea of “enemies” and, at best, acceptance of new cold wars if not major actual fighting (with Russia already, Iran perhaps soon, China possibly later.) The US and others should have learned from the 1948-1991 East-West Cold War that this course is ultimately unproductive for all, creates intellectual, policy, and psychological rigidities, and tends to persist beyond any national interest basis. It also encourages analysts and officials to ignore alternatives and to go with an emerging even if inaccurate consensus. This reflects an all-too-common tendency to run away from complexity and nuance that need to be core parts of global politics and strategy. As with the Trump administration, this tendency has come to rule President Biden and his team.
In fairness, Biden was dealt a difficult hand, and he has got some things right, notably the overall goal in Afghanistan. But he did not see what needed to be done to try averting war in Ukraine (with Putin, of course, having had the deciding vote), and there is no evidence that the administration has a coherent plan for bringing the war to a halt. Ceding to Ukraine control over the goals and how to get there diplomatically may be needed to sustain Ukrainian morale for now, but it can’t stop the war: only the two big powers, the United States and Russia, can do that. Indeed, the Ukraine war is part of larger issues raised in the aftermath of the Cold War: most important, whether in the longer term Russia will be in or out of “Europe.” Regrettably for everyone, those Americans supporting “in” have lost to those who support “out,” including senior members of the Biden administration who should know better.
A final problem facing Biden was not of his making, although he has continued it: after the end of the Cold War, much of the US analytical community (and hence officials in government) effectively disarmed intellectually, with the underlying but naïve and dangerous premise that “history has come to an end.” Instead, it was just beginning in new terms, without American hegemony guaranteed anywhere, now that the West no longer needed to shelter under America’s wings against the Soviet Union. Today, therefore, new thinking and the involvement of the best in the United States – as was done by FDR, Harry Truman, GHW Bush, and Clinton at other key moments of major change in US engagement in the world -- have been absent. Here is where President Biden most needs to act.