U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent joint address highlighted the administration’s early focus on domestic priorities, the most prominent being the rapid acceleration of Covid-19 vaccinations and the recovery of the U.S. economy. However, the world hasn’t stopped moving.
Although the White House continues to declare that “America is back,” broad promises of U.S. leadership in the world won’t meet the moment. What the United States needs is a difficult but honest, long-overdue examination of its foreign policy. This means recognizing, first and foremost, when certain policies are counterproductive.
U.S. foreign policy as it exists today is convoluted and contradictory. Frankly, the United States is often its own worst enemy.
It is U.S. policy, for instance, to promote burden-sharing among its NATO allies in Europe. While the term is frequently associated with higher defense budgets —something the Trump administration considered a top objective—burden-sharing also involves incentivizing NATO’s European members to build the military capabilities, intelligence systems, and logistical networks required to take on greater responsibility for the continent’s defense. Yet the U.S. decision to increase its troop presence in Germany, even if the increase was marginal, will have the effect of negating the very burden-sharing goal Washington purportedly seeks to promote. If the Biden administration is genuinely interested in getting a wealthy Europe to do more for itself, adding U.S. forces on top of an already bloated U.S. military presence on the continent is a strange way to do it.
The dispute over the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline is another area where U.S. policy turns on itself. Biden has called the Russia-Germany pipeline “a bad deal for Europe.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken went further than his boss during his testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March, telling lawmakers the project “violates the European Union energy security principle” and gives Russia more geopolitical leverage over Europe. Blinken reiterated his concern after the hearing, warning that any foreign entity involved in Nord Stream 2 risks U.S. sanctions.
Stopping the pipeline, however, would compromise another U.S. foreign policy objective: improving U.S.-Germany ties and rebuilding a transatlantic relationship. In effect, two U.S. policy goals are competing against one another.
Washington faces a similar dilemma with respect to India. Washington has made a concerted effort across multiple administrations to improve bilateral relations with South Asia’s largest economic and military power. Former President Barack Obama named India a “major defense partner” in 2016, a status unique to India that allows Washington and New Delhi to improve coordination between their defense establishments. The Trump administration signed a defense cooperation agreement that gave the Indian military access to U.S. geospatial intelligence. The Biden administration is continuing the effort. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has already traveled to India for talks, hoping to enlist New Delhi's help in competing with China.
Unfortunately, getting the United States and India on the same page with respect to China becomes a much harder endeavor when U.S. secondary sanctions are hovering over New Delhi for its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act requires the president to sanction any individual or entity that “engages in a significant transaction” with the Russian defense or intelligence sectors—a criterion that includes the S-400. Yet again, U.S. foreign policy (or, in this case, its law) is divided against itself.
Washington’s Russia policy is also competing with Washington’s China policy, an especially disturbing development considering the fact that great power competition is increasingly defining U.S. foreign relations in the 21st century.
Over the last decade, the United States has imposed economic sanctions on Moscow for a long list of nefarious behaviors—Russia is now the second-most sanctioned state by the U.S. Treasury Department, behind only Iran. Those sanctions are designed to not only punish Russia for its past sins, but to persuade Moscow to change behavior.
Rather than cater to Washington’s wishes, however, Russia has simply gotten closer to China, Washington’s chief economic and geopolitical competitor. China’s share of total Russian trade has increased from $88.8 billion in 2013 to $108.3 billion in 2019. Unable to rely on Western markets as it once did, Moscow is broadening its connections to the Chinese economy through large-scale energy exports and joint investment agreements. One of those joint agreements, the Elga coal project, is projected to double Russian coal exports to China by 2023. The U.S. approach is at least partly responsible for bringing Moscow and Beijing closer together, precisely what Washington should want to avoid.
Foreign policy is a tricky business. There is no instruction manual U.S. policymakers can use to build a foolproof product.
But the foreign policy business doesn’t have to be a self-made, unsolvable Rubik’s Cube either. If President Biden is hoping to “build back better,” he ought to take a good, hard look at how the United States approaches the world and ask himself a simple, but critical, question: Is a lack of clear national security priorities setting the United States up to fail? He won’t need to look very long for the answer.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.