The Biden Administration in a Complex World
By Cynthia Efird, Member, Foreign Policy & National Security Task Force
The humorist H. L. Mencken once commented, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and WRONG.” This insight goes a long way to explaining why the Biden foreign policy differs from the previous Administration’s. Biden and the Blinken State Department team are, I would argue, correctly rejecting the simplistic answers flogged by the previous Administration and instead—demonstrating nuanced expertise—are influencing foreign actors in ways that benefit the United States and the world at large.
Media commentators might prefer clear-cut, ideologically driven gestures that they can easily grasp and dissect, without being distracted by complicated ground truths. Reality, however, calls for actions that balance competing US national security objectives. Any of us who have actually worked in foreign affairs know that international complexities can only be met by compromises, which while often messy are the only way to make progress.
Let’s look briefly at the places around the world where the United States is setting the agenda, pulling together allies, and confronting those who threaten international security. In each case, responsible international leadership has required rejecting the previous Administration’s courting of authoritarian strongmen and abandonment of our long-time allies, and the return to the US traditional support for democratic values, secure borders, and respect for human rights.
We can start with Ukraine. As I wrote last month, the Biden Administration has pulled together a strong group of defenders of Ukrainian independence and survival. Not only have we shored up our NATO allies but long-time neutral countries, like Sweden and Finland, have applied to join the Alliance. Russia—having failed to convince anyone that its invasion of its neighbor was anything other than a naked grab for power against all international rules and norms—is now using its propaganda to terrorize the world by threatening world-wide hunger, nuclear attacks, and economic ruin.
These threats are further trashing whatever claims Russia might make to be a responsible actor on the world stage. The US has warned 14 countries, mainly in Africa, that $100 million of plundered Ukrainian wheat is on the way in Russian ships. We have reportedly emphasized that we understand the horrible choice these countries face. The National Security Council has also provided a declassified map showing Russian warships in the Black Sea preventing the legitimate Ukrainian export of grain. In a joint statement to the World Trade Organization, the US, the European Union, and more than two dozen other countries have pledged to reinforce global food security.
This will not be easy, but the US, as chair of a global Food Security Ministerial Meeting held at the United Nations on May 19, set a course by issuing a roadmap, which was endorsed by 39 participants. Secretary of State Blinken, during the May “week of action,” met with foreign ministers of 10 African countries at the UN and pledged an extra $215 million to expand emergency food security operations through USAID, bringing to almost $2.6 billion of emergency food assistance the US has provided since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine. An additional $5 billion in funding for the Feed the Future program over 5 years, announced last year, will expand to more countries, most in Africa.
Our action is part of coordinated steps by like-minded nations and organizations. The UN Secretary General announced that the UN will release $30 million from its Central Emergency Respond Fund. The G-7 and the World Bank Group launched an immediate and concerted response in Berlin, Germany. In the meantime, the US is taking the steps and keeping the dialogue going with affected nations and those donor countries that can provide assistance. The US will not back down in the face of Russian nuclear threats to our own security nor will we ignore the threats to the well-being of other nations. We will not be provocative but take rational, responsible actions to shore up international security. The end of the Russian aggression in Ukraine will be the ultimate solution to the world-wide dislocation.
As a world power, the US is continuing to lead in other regions, as well. At the end of May, President Biden made his first trip to Asia and held a high-level summit of Indo-Pacific leaders. He took advantage of that trip to warn Beijing that its adventurism could have the same dire consequences for China as those Russia is suffering. He revitalized the Quad Group, pulling our key friends in the region—India, Australia, and Japan—closer, announcing new initiatives on maritime information sharing, COVID vaccines, and climate. Biden also called for increased joint military drills with South Korea and instituted a new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework among 13 nations. The latter two efforts were necessitated after the previous Administration took a wrecking ball to our traditional military cooperation with South Korea and the economic joint efforts of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as Trump courted in vain his favorite Asian strongman, Kim Jong-un of North Korea.
We are again working responsibly with our neighbors in Latin America. The leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were not invited to the recent Americas’ Summit in Los Angeles, a clear message to the world that the US is no longer a friend to authoritarian regions and will promote human rights. As the White House press secretary said, President Biden’s “principal position is that we do not believe that dictators should be invited.” The Presidents of Mexico and Honduras took exception and boycotted, sending foreign ministers instead. Careful negotiations with the leaders of Brazil and Argentina kept them on board the initiative, isolating and diluting the outliers. Although it is difficult to get the 30-plus Latin American nations to agree on anything, the Biden Administration is setting the hemispheric agenda as it engages on trade and migration issues. This leadership is particularly important after the 4-year hiatus of meaningful inter-American diplomacy under Trump. Ineffective posturing is being replaced by careful and skillful balancing of interests and respect for the sovereignty of other nations.
The events in Ukraine are garnering most of the US media attention to foreign affairs. The Biden Administration, however, continues to demonstrate that effective foreign policy requires the ability to “walk and chew gum at the same time.” No one crisis can be handled without reference to global security requirements. By knowing how to take advantage of the expertise of the worldwide web of US embassies, including the recently appointed and highly respected US Ambassador to Ukraine, President Biden shows his respect for diplomacy and continues to take the necessary carefully considered acts of leadership throughout the world.
Thankfully, we have an Administration able to respond to the complex problems of today with answers that are reality-based, skillfully crafted, and RIGHT!