Russia’s unending war in Ukraine, North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons threats and China’s increasing military moves toward its U.S.-aligned neighbors are among the complex global challenges President Biden faces as he heads into the second half of his presidential term in 2023.
While administration officials are quick to praise Mr. Biden’s role in rallying Western powers against Russia’s Ukraine invasion, most analysts agree the president has had as many — if not more — foreign and national security failures as successes during his first two years in office.
From his flopped attempt at redoing the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal to his lack of initiative on expanding the historic Trump-era Abraham Accords between Arab powers and Israel, the fumbles list is long.
The disastrous 2021 Afghanistan pullout and swift Taliban takeover of Kabul are the most glaring example of Mr. Biden’s fumbles. The blowback from the withdrawal reverberated throughout 2022, with some of Mr. Biden’s critics saying the botched exit diminished America’s reputation abroad and emboldened U.S. enemies, including Russia.
But many foreign policy experts credit Mr. Biden with successfully bringing together U.S. allies, including those in NATO, to stand together against Russia’s February invasion by imposing collective sanctions on Moscow and arming Ukraine.
The jury is still out, however, with regard to the Ukraine strategy. Some analysts warn that the foreign policy establishment in Washington is dangerously underplaying the risk that the Ukraine war could take a turn for the worse in 2023.
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“I think we are underweighting the possibility of failure in Ukraine,” Stephen M. Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard University, warned in an interview published recently by Foreign Policy.
“I worry that in supporting Ukraine and in hoping for the best outcome, we are understating the possibility that a year from now, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin is still in power, the Russian military is actually doing well, the Ukrainian forces are at the end of their strength, and this suddenly looks like a much different conflict,” said Mr. Walt, who writes a column for the magazine.
“The base case for the next year is a stalemate, where neither side is able to make substantial military gains against the other, with one caveat being that Ukraine itself will have suffered more damage and destruction in the process,” he added, asserting that “the most likely situation” in Ukraine is a “protracted and hurting stalemate for both sides, where neither is willing yet to compromise.”
The China question
There are also major questions about the Biden administration’s China policy. Conservatives on Capitol Hill often express wariness that Mr. Biden built a track record of pandering to Beijing during 2022, with the most notable example coming at at the recent G-20 leaders summit. After that high-stakes meeting, critics accused the president of going to great lengths in public to allow Chinese President Xi Jinping to appear as his equal.
The “Biden is soft” on Beijing narrative gained speed later in 2022. During the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit at the White House in early December, administration officials mostly avoided talking about China’s increasingly aggressive resource extraction and military base planning activities on the continent.
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The public silence came despite years of warnings by the Pentagon and prominent foreign policy analysts about Beijing’s efforts to challenge U.S. interests and allies in Africa. China surpassed the U.S. in 2009 as the largest trade partner with African countries, while more recently moving behind the scenes to establish a major naval port on Africa’s west coast.
Despite such factors, many moderates and most liberals give Mr. Biden at least a passing grade for framing the current era of great power competition in the world as one increasingly oriented around rallying U.S. allies together to confront the Chinese Communist Party’s growing military prominence, as well as Beijing’s diplomatic and economic muscle flexing within international institutions.
But concerns are simmering in Washington over the prospect of a sudden U.S.-China escalation stemming from Mr. Xi’s vow to use force if necessary to bring the island democracy of Taiwan under the control of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) has ranked “Tensions Over Taiwan” high on its list of foreign policy issues to watch in 2023, noting that U.S. military officials are among a range of experts “warning that China might invade Taiwan before 2024.”
While the think tank said such an invasion “seems unlikely,” it noted, “President Biden has said the United States will defend Taiwan in the event of an attack, even though no treaty obligates it to do so.”
The assessment written by CFR Senior Vice President James M. Lindsay separately noted that instead of militarily invading Taiwan, China could “accelerate ‘grey-zone activities’ that probe Taiwan’s defenses and pressure Taipei,” just as Beijing did in retaliation for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August visit to Taiwan.
Too little, too late?
Mr. Biden’s foreign policy critics argue the White House is not doing enough to prepare for potential confrontation with China, formally the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Following the administration’s October release of its long-awaited National Security Strategy — a document that took the White House nearly two years to produce — some analysts took issue with how little attention the strategy devotes to China or Russia.
“The security strategy runs to 47 pages but only four of them are devoted to Russia or China,” Luke Coffey, a national security and defense senior fellow at the Hudson Institute wrote in a critique published by Arab News.
“Only one page is devoted to the role of the U.S. military in dealing with these threats,” Mr. Coffey wrote. “Much of the document is dedicated [to] the political causes of the American left, such as climate change and ‘social justice’ issues.”
Furthermore, Mr. Coffee cautioned: “Considering the National Security Strategy was published so far into the president’s term, it is unlikely to serve as a practical road map for U.S. foreign policy. It is simply too late for that.”
Mr. Biden’s top advisers beg to differ, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan leading the charge in October by asserting that “National Security Strategies often get criticized for not setting priorities,” when reality finds America dealing with a wide and shifting slate of global threats and challenges.
“There’s a lot happening in the world, and we have got to deal with all of it. We have to keep our eye on more than one ball at one time,” said Mr. Sullivan, who highlighted the North Korea and Iran threats and identified competition with China as a “core priority” of the administration.
“[North Korea] has not halted its forward progress. Iran is still advancing its nuclear program and plotting harm to Americans. Terrorist threats are more geographically diffuse than ever before. The world is anything but calm,” Mr. Sullivan said before adding that “the PRC represents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.”
“Competition with the PRC is most pronounced in the Indo-Pacific, but it is also increasingly global,” Mr. Sullivan said, adding that the administration’s strategy will center on three fundamentals: “Invest in the foundations of our strength at home. Align our efforts with our network of allies and partners. And compete [responsibly] to defend and advance our interests and those of like-minded nations.”