In the March-April 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, then-candidate Joe Biden announced he would “take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances.” Less than a year later, in his inaugural address, President Biden pledged that the United States “will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again.” Just a few weeks after taking office, he laid out his vision of his foreign policy in a speech at the State Department, firmly stating that “America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.” After four turbulent years of the Trump administration, repairing ties with U.S. allies and partners is a key component to the Biden administration’s foreign policy. As his first year in office comes to a close, how did he fare?
The Early Days
In the beginning, Biden did and said all the right things. On his first day in office, the United States rejoined both the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. He took great strides to reassure America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies – a damaged relationship due to the former president’s petulant grousing – of its deep and enduring commitment to the alliance’s collective security. In fact, most allies and partners across the globe were outwardly relieved when Biden won the 2020 election after the unpredictability and unconventionality that defined the Trump years,.
As part of his pledge, within the first few weeks, Biden reached out to the leaders of many of America’s closest allies and partners. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada received Biden’s first phone call to a foreign leader and Biden spoke to Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador within the first few days of taking office. He quickly held conversations with his British, French, and German counterparts as well as the NATO Secretary General. In March, Biden deployed his Secretaries of State and Defense to Japan and South Korea to reiterate the importance of those alliances, with Japan’s prime minster being the first foreign leader during Biden’s presidency to visit the White House.
Biden even reiterated his administration’s goal of reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which greatly excited American friends in Europe. Throughout its first year, the Biden administration utilized multilateralism as a key part of its foreign policy to restore its alliances and partnerships, particularly the Group of 7 – which consists of several of the United States’ closest allies – and the Group of 20. The United States under Biden has utilized the Quad – or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue made up of the United States, Australia, Japan, and India – and created AUKUS – an alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom to share nuclear submarine technology with Australia – to bolster its ties in the Indo-Pacific. Biden also rebuilt U.S. ties to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Above all, it seems, the Biden administration framed its first year in office as much of a reset, needing to convince its allies that the United States is back.
As the Biden administration continued in earnest to repair its alliances, it became obvious that while the necessary intention and rhetoric were in place, it was lacking in its execution, which is what has primarily angered U.S. allies. First, and perhaps most importantly, came the abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan. Many NATO allies agreed with Biden that it was time to end the war. However, those same allies were left scrambling to get their citizens out of Afghanistan as the Taliban took over. NATO allies insisted that it was not the Biden administration’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan that caused the tension. Instead, the Biden administration’s awkward execution of the withdrawal – how the withdrawal was conducted and the lack of consultation with its allies – is what left NATO roiling.
Just a few weeks later, the United States announced the creation of the AUKUS alliance as a means of countering China in the Indo-Pacific. Once again, the intention behind the new alliance strategically aligned with his larger foreign policy vision – countering China. Nevertheless, despite the intention behind the alliance, U.S. relations with France took a big hit after the announcement, angering the French who lost out on a lucrative deal with Australia to provide diesel powered submarines. Biden’s national security team clumsily handled the announcement, which Biden later admitted. Through its bungled handling of the announcement, the Biden administration failed to properly execute the creation of a key alliance with excellent strategic objectives.
Biden started out strong in restoring U.S. alliances and partnerships after Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy. His efforts, though, are mostly confined – not surprisingly – to America’s NATO allies in Europe and friends in Asia. While initially deaf to the frustrations emanating from his allies, Biden is now going above and beyond to “involve allies in every step of every crisis,” particularly when coordinating with allies during the potential Russian incursion into Ukraine. He recently included Poland, Italy, and the European Union in discussions about Ukraine beyond his traditional consultative partners in Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.
In its second year, as the Biden administration is making inroads to assure its allies, the Biden administration should look beyond reassuring its allies in Europe and Asia and pay attention to other regions – specifically, Latin America and Africa – to restore U.S. alliances and partnerships throughout the world.