Joe Biden marked his first anniversary in office with a gaffe over Ukraine that undid weeks of disciplined messaging and diplomatic preparation.
The president’s suggestion that a “minor incursion” by Russia might split Nato over how to respond sent the White House into frantic damage limitation mode.
Officials insisted Biden had been referring to cyber attacks and paramilitary activities and not Russian troops crossing the border. That failed to entirely calm nerves in Kyiv and other European capitals, especially as Biden also raised eyebrows by predicting that Vladimir Putin would “move in” to Ukraine because “he has to do something” and would probably prevail.
The analysis of Nato’s weaknesses and Putin’s intentions was no doubt widely shared but Biden had said the quiet part loud, contradicting what his own officials had been saying. Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, had just been telling Foreign Policy that one of the great successes of the Biden administration was that “the 30 allies of Nato [were] speaking with one voice in the Russia-Ukraine crisis”.
Aides who have shadowed Biden through his long career as senator and vice-president are used to his prolix ways, his tendency to draw on his deep foreign policy expense to over-explain, but the stakes are immeasurably greater as a president, trying to stare down Putin as Europe stands on the threshold of war.
The stumble distracted from some of the foreign policy achievements of Biden’s first year – the mending of transatlantic ties, the bolstering of US support for the embattled government in Kyiv and the development of a consistent policy towards Moscow – which combined a openness to talks with a readiness to inflict punitive measures and a refusal to be divided from Nato allies.
None of those gains were a given in US foreign policy after four years of Donald Trump, a president who frequently put domestic political and business advantage ahead of strategic national interests, particularly when it came to Russia. Mending alliances, returning to multilateralism and restoring predictability to US policy after the volatile Trump era is widely regarded as Biden’s greatest success so far in foreign policy.
His claim on taking office that “America is back” was backed up by a quick deal to extend the New Start treaty in Russia and thereby salvage the only major arms control agreement to survive Trump. The US rejoined the Paris climate accord and the United Nations Human Rights Council, re-engaged with major powers in nuclear talks with Iran, and convened a virtual Summit for Democracy in December.
All those steps were in line with a broad strategy which Nathalie Tocci, director of the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs, describes as a Biden doctrine.
“I think it’s a strategic reorientation towards competition/conflict with China and, the other side of that coin, strengthening relationships with partners in Europe and in Asia, both bilaterally and multilaterally,” Tocci said. “And relying less on the military instrument in order to pursue US foreign policy goals.”
The Ukraine stumble was not the first time that strategy has been impaired by its execution. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was intended to be a decisive break with the past, extricating the US from its longest war so it could focus on its most important geopolitical challenge, the rapid rise of China.
The departure turned to chaos when the Afghan army, which the US had spent $83m and 20 years trying to build, collapsed in a few days in the face of a Taliban offensive. The scenes of desperate Afghans trying to cling to departing US planes, some dying in the attempt, are an inescapable part of Biden’s legacy.
Biden has argued he was boxed in by the Doha agreement the Trump administration signed with the Taliban in February 2020, under which the US was due to leave by May 2021. Biden was able to stretch that deadline by four months but maintained that staying any longer would have led to renewed attacks on US troops.
Nathan Sales, an acting under secretary of state in the Trump administration, argued that the Doha deal was no longer binding on Biden, and he could have left a force to maintain US leverage.
“When one side of an agreement breaches it serially and flagrantly like the Taliban did, I think the Biden administration would have been well within its rights to say: ‘We’re not bound by it either,’” said Sales, now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Current US officials argue that whether the US declared the Taliban had been in violation or not, there would have been renewed attacks on US troops, forcing a decision to cut and run or send large-scale reinforcements. The status quo, they say, was not sustainable.
Even considering the constraints imposed by the previous administration, the withdrawal was a fiasco. US planners failed to anticipate the speed of the collapse even though a government watchdog, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, had warned in 2021 that without US contractors to service planes and helicopters, the Afghan air force would no longer be able to function, depriving troops on the ground of a key advantage.
For Afghans who worked with the US and its allies, and for the country’s women and girls, the departure seemed like a betrayal, raising a serious question mark over the administration’s claims to have restored human rights to the heart of US foreign policy.
Its record in that regard was already mixed.
On one hand, the administration had taken a firm stand against China’s mass persecution of Muslim Uyghurs, declaring it a genocide. Furthermore, the assembly of a coalition of some 130 countries to establish a global minimum tax was, according to Matt Duss, foreign affairs adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, “a step toward addressing global economic inequality which is one of the drivers of conflict and authoritarianism”.
“It’s an important first step and a courageous one,” Duss said. He also pointed to the sanctions against surveillance companies like the Israeli NSO group, whose software was used by authoritarian regimes to target dissidents.
“That was a very consequential move, and there has been a massive pressure campaign trying to get them to roll it back, but they’ve stood firm,” he said.
However, the steps taken against the Saudi monarchy for the heavy civilian toll from its air war in Yemen and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi felt well short of what human rights campaigners and progressive Democrats had hoped for. The Biden administration continued to sell Riyadh substantial quantities of advanced weaponry.
“We’ve basically returned to the traditional US approach of supporting human rights in countries that don’t buy our weapons,” Duss said. “I very much hope that changes.”
Another way in which the manner of the US exit from Afghanistan undermined the administration’s wider objectives was by alienating European allies, who felt left out of a decision they were obliged to follow.
“The pull-out really caused a lot of bad blood unnecessarily,” Elisabeth Braw, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said. “You can call it the root cause of unhappiness within the alliance.”
The formation in September of Aukus, a partnership with the UK and Australia to help the latter acquire nuclear-powered submarines, was another sweeping move in the pivot towards Asia.
But the protagonists had omitted to inform France, who discovered on the same day that their contract to sell Australia diesel submarines had been cancelled. Biden was forced to acknowledge the “clumsy” way it had been handled, and the rift clouded bilateral relations for months.
Putin’s threat to Ukraine has helped rally the transatlantic alliance but as Biden revealed in his own public reflections, there are still serious divisions below the surface, limiting his room for manoeuvre.
The president’s freedom of action on other global issues, like making progress in climate action or finding a nuclear compromise with Iran, will be hindered still further if Republicans gain control of Congress in this year’s midterm elections. In that case, the administration’s record until now, mixed as it is, may prove to be the high point of the Biden doctrine.