U.S. Ties with Adversaries at Lowest Points in Decades

Shortly after taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden revealed his vision of U.S. foreign policy, pivoting toward American’s most serious competitor, China, leading with diplomacy, affirming the value of America’s U.S. alliances, and countering what he sees as a global showdown between democracy and autocracy.

Despite the grand ideas, the administration has had to contend with the world it inherited. As a result, the Biden administration’s first year has been anything but slow, with crisis after crisis demanding the administration’s attention. Biden ended the war in Afghanistan, leading to a chaotic withdrawal. The military junta staged a coup in Myanmar. Ethiopia is on the verge of civil war. Fighting erupted between Israel and Hamas in Gaza in May. China continues to fly warplanes over Taiwan. Most recently, Russia invaded Ukraine after months of military buildup and warnings from Western officials.

Engaging Adversaries Through Diplomacy

During the first year, much of Biden’s foreign policy has focused largely on countering U.S. adversaries. In his speech in February at the State Department, Biden noted that part of leading with diplomacy included “engaging our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically.” Biden went on to name two other powers in this speech – China and Russia – vowing that “American leadership must meet this new moment in advancing authoritarianism, including a growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.” Yet, it has not only been China and Russia that dominated U.S. foreign policy officials; the United States’ relationships with its primary adversaries – China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea – are at the lowest points in decades.

A Shift in Foreign Policy Focus

Relations between the United States and China are at the lowest they have been in decades. Unfortunately, no relationship impacts the entire world more. For one, the two superpowers are diametrically opposed on their views on government and economies. The United States has been vocal in its concerns over China’s human rights violations against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as  U.S. officials even boycotted any official presence at the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. The United States and China also clash over Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and are still at odds over trade.

Perhaps the most profound flashpoint in U.S.-China relations is the future of Taiwan, the self-governing, democratic island that China regards as a renegade province. China, who’s diplomats are engaged in wolf warrior diplomacy, continues to fly warplanes over Taiwan’s territory as a reminder that Beijing has not ruled out annexing the island by force. The United States has long maintained a policy of strategic ambiguity, designed avoid provoking Beijing and reinforce to the Taiwanese that they should not rely on U.S. backing should they declare independence. As part of his strategy to counter China, Biden is bolstering its relationships with regional allies, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India. This is an effort China does not appreciate. ,U.S.-China relations are becoming increasingly adversarial.

Russia Has Other Ideas

In the face of shifting U.S. foreign policy to focusing on competition with China, Russia had other ideas. Biden came to office wanting a “stable, predictable relationship” with Russia, observing that a breakthrough in relations was unlikely. Unlike former President Barack Obama’s early efforts to reset relations with Russia, Biden sought to put guardrails on the relationship when attending a summit with Putin in June in Geneva. However, just this week, after months of military build p and warnings from Western officials about an impending invasion, Russia invaded Ukraine for a second time. Relations between the two may be nearly irreparable.

Still smarting from the end of the Cold War and NATO expansion in the 1990s, Putin has largely pitted itself against the United States and its European allies. The damaged relations, at least in Moscow’s eyes, stems from NATO’s eastern expansion to include countries in Central and Eastern Europe as well as Ukraine and Georgia. To Russia, Ukraine and Georgia’s wishes to join NATO have also tainted the relationship, resulting in the 2008 invasion of Georgia. Then, in 2014 and again in late February, Russia invaded Ukraine. Now, it is hard to believe that U.S.-Russian relations could worsen much further.

Will There Be a New Agreement? That Remains To Be Seen

There seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel in the Iran nuclear deal talks. This is not because the United States and Iran are suddenly friends again. Quite the opposite in fact. This bright spot – perhaps a gross overestimation – rests on reports that the nuclear deal may still be possible even after numerous rounds of talks that seemed to be going nowhere. The United States and Iran, formerly allies until the U.S. helped stage a coup that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected prime minister in 1953, are now adversaries with Iran’s nuclear ambitions at the center of the relationship.

In 2015, Iran and several world powers, including the United States, signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, that severely restricted Iran’s nuclear program – one that Iran swears is for peaceful purposes only – in exchange for sanctions relief. In 2018, however, former President Donald Trump myopically withdrew the United States from the agreement, allowing Iran to advance its nuclear stockpile. The Biden administration came into office hellbent on re-entering the agreement. As the Economist reports, nearly a year after talks began, a renewed nuclear deal may be within sight. As U.S. relations with Iran remain impaired, the hope of a renewed nuclear agreement is bringing optimism to a disheartening situation.

More Missiles, More Tests

Even North Korea – another adversary with nuclear ambitions – is causing frustration for Biden. In January, North Korea fired a total of six missiles, the same number of missiles in all of 2021. The reason for the missile tests? Kim Jong-u, the leader of North Korea, reacting petulantly to sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Numerous administrations have tried in earnest to bring North Korea’s nuclear tests to an end through diplomacy and severe sanctions. However, American efforts came to a grinding halt after Kim and former President Trump met in Hanoi in 2019. After that, North Korea conducted very few tests due in part to closing itself off to the world during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The Biden administration has dealt with crisis after crisis in its first year. And it was clear that North Korea was not a priority for the incoming administration, who appeared happy with leaving the issue on the back burner. After the recent missile tests, it looks as if Kim wants to play ball. Analysts have charged the Biden administration with not confronting North Korea, with some saying that Biden should begin diplomatic efforts to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. However, as an official from the U.S. Mission to the United Nations noted, the ball is actually in North Korea’s court. In the coming months, it’s likely that North Korea will continue testing more missiles. For now, the United States and North Korea remain deadlocked with strained relations.

What’s Next?

The United States’ adversaries pose a threat to U.S. national security in an almost unprecedented way. China, now the core focus of American foreign policy, wants a bigger voice in the world and stands on opposite ends on the ideological spectrum as the United States and its European and Asian allies. The possibility of the United States and its NATO allies inadvertently facing off in what would likely be World War III over Ukraine seems more and more real every day. North Korea continues to test the Biden administration by launching missiles. And, while progress continues in talks on the Iran nuclear deal, relations between the United States and Iran remain near rock bottom. As the Biden administration begins his second year in office, the threats posed by America’s adversaries will test the United States’ resolve and leadership.

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