Joe Biden’s foreign policy in-tray is only looking more difficult as he approaches inauguration day – even as the US still confronts the pressing issue of record coronavirus deaths and infections.
The massive and ongoing hack of US federal agencies – blamed on Russia – has so far elicited no response from Donald Trump, who has a long history of denying or downplaying Russian interventions.
Iran, say reports, has restarted work on its nuclear site at Fordo.
Then there is the knotty issue of what direction relations with China will follow after four years of mounting friction with Trump’s Washington.
On top of all that add North Korea, which – despite Trump’s flip-flopping between threats and craven courting – now has both longrange missile capabilities on top of being a nuclear power, a huge failure in terms of US longterm policy.
Some hangovers of the Trump era will be easier to fix – not least rapidly rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accord. But the thorniest issues are likely to be circumscribed by the overwhelming pressure of domestic considerations – especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate and continue in a spirit of obstructionism.
Most pressing right now, however, is how to respond to Russia if its agencies are confirmed as being behind the latest hack.
In the aftermath of the SolarWinds hack, Biden has signaled that he is considering a far more proactive response to state-sponsored hacking.
“We need to disrupt and deter our adversaries from undertaking significant cyber attacks in the first place,” Biden said in a statement.
“Our adversaries should know that, as president, I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation.”
What is less clear is what that means in practical terms. One first step would be for the incoming administration to explicitly point the finger of blame.
“I would imagine that the incoming administration wants a menu of what the options are and then is going to choose,” said Sarah Mendelson, a Carnegie Mellon University public policy professor and former US ambassador to the UN’s Economic and Social Council.
“Is there a graduated assault? Is there an all-out assault? How much out of the gate do you want to do?”
In some respects, the hack – if formally laid at the feet of the Kremlin – may offer an opportunity for Biden not only to draw a clear line with Trump’s dealings with Putin but also to carve out a more muscular response than Barack Obama managed after Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Iran is more complex.
While Tehran has indicated that it was keen quickly to reopen talks with the US about the nuclear deal, it has also used Washington’s withdrawal from nuclear deal to build up its bargaining chips again in terms of stockpiles of nuclear material and allegedly undertaking new work.
Biden will also be confronted by the same lobbying from Israel and Republicans in Congress who set themselves against the original Iran nuclear agreement – and who will remain determined to undermine any new version of the deal.
All of which poses the question of how Biden will run his foreign policy confronted with so many challenges.
Biden’s instincts for a well-managed technocratic foreign policy are heavily oriented toward longstanding democratic institutions and alliances. But as Thomas Wright, a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy at the Brookings Institution, wrote in a paper in November, the current moment may call for a more aggressive approach not least on China.
Biden has indicated that he sometimes chafed against Obama’s more cautious approach.
Perhaps the biggest question relates to this.
The isolationism and withdrawal from the world of the Trump years built on trends already apparent under his predecessor – not least Obama’s reluctance to get further entangled in the Middle East in Syria. In that respect, the domestic foreign policy consensus that Biden grew up with may no longer actually exist.
“[Biden] obviously trusts many of Obama’s senior officials and is proud of the administration’s record. At the same time, he chafed against Obama’s caution and incrementalism – for example, Biden wanted to send lethal assistance to Ukraine, when Obama did not,” wrote Wright.
“Biden has spoken more explicitly than Obama about competition with China and Russia, and he favours a foreign policy that works for the [US] middle class.”
Again, Wright sees an opportunity in the policy on China if Biden chooses a tougher approach than Obama, who he served under.
“Biden should use competition with China as a bridge to Senate Republicans. Their instinct may be obstructionist, particularly because Trump is pressuring them not to recognize Biden’s win as legitimate, but many of them also know that the US cannot afford four years of legislative gridlock if it is to compete with China.”