4 Issues That Will Shape the Biden Administration's Foreign Policy

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Pentagon
President Joe Biden delivers remarks to Department of Defense personnel, with Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Feb. 10, 2021. (Lisa Ferdinando/DoD)

Joseph V. Micallef is a best-selling military history and world affairs author, and keynote speaker. Follow him on Twitter @JosephVMicallef.

It has been little more than a month since the Biden administration took office. It's a little early to draw any conclusions about President Joe Biden's foreign policy, although so far it has a "back to the future" character that seems to want to begin where the Obama administration's foreign policy ended.

The White House has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and announced its willingness to reactivate the Iran Nuclear Agreement, as well as nuclear arms control agreements with Russia. It has loudly and repeatedly proclaimed that "America is back," and seems anxious to revitalize its relationship with historical allies.

It's as if four years of the Trump administration's foreign policy were an aberration, a minor footnote in the diplomatic history of the U.S. The Biden administration is, in a 21st-century version of the Glorious Revolution, restoring normalcy.

Taking the end point of Obama foreign policy as a new starting point is a questionable beginning. I don't recall that Obama's foreign policy was particularly successful. It produced chaos in Libya, a frozen conflict in Ukraine, failed to curb Iranian expansionism and saw China's militarization of the South China Sea. Then, there is the matter of the Islamic State, which the Obama White House initially dismissed as the junior varsity squad, and which it proved largely incapable of handling.

That's not to say that the Trump administration's foreign policy was a stunning success. It wasn't. To its credit, the Trump White House did oversee the Abraham Accords, which normalized Israel's relations with some of its neighbors, even if the quid pro quo that greased the agreements may spur new issues in the future. It destroyed the Islamic State caliphate, even though the organization continues. It succeeded in getting some NATO members to increase their defense spending. It also tried to hold China's government accountable for its trade and cyber spying policies, although little has come from that so far.

Elsewhere around the world, the Trump White House had little to show for its foreign policy. Ukraine remained a frozen conflict. Political stability in Libya and the Sahel region continued to deteriorate, while Venezuela sank deeper into chaos.

Below are four issues that will likely dominate Biden's foreign policy in the immediate future. Some, like Afghanistan, are long-standing problems, while others -- like the growing links between Hezbollah, Venezuela, the Mexican Drug Cartels and China -- are likely to take on a new urgency.

1. Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan is rapidly approaching an inflection point, one that may spur a complete U.S. withdrawal or yet another doubling down with more troops.

The U.S. signed an agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 to withdraw its troops in return for a pledge to keep foreign terrorists from establishing bases there and to enter talks with the Afghan government to bring an end to hostilities and craft a power-sharing agreement.

So far, little progress has been made in those negotiations. Initially, the Taliban reduced their attacks on Afghan forces. But since the new year, attacks by suicide bombers and Taliban offensives on government-held towns have sharply increased.

The February 2020 agreements called for a complete U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in May 2021. The agreement was conditional on continued progress in the Afghan Government-Taliban peace talks, although what constituted "progress" was never specifically defined.

There is a sense of déjà vu here: Saigon before the fall. Without continued support for the U.S. and its NATO allies, the Taliban will eventually take control of Afghanistan's major cities. That may happen anyway, but it will take longer if the U.S. and NATO presence continues. No administration wants to be tagged as the one that "lost Kabul," even though the stakes in Afghanistan have grown largely irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy.

The initial rationale of invading Afghanistan was to root out al-Qaida bases there. Al-Qaida still has a presence in Afghanistan, as does the Islamic State and a host of Taliban splinter groups and other jihadist organizations.

On the other hand, in 2001, Afghanistan was critical to al-Qaida. Since then, it has morphed into a global franchise and has the ability to stage attacks and train insurgents in a number of countries around the globe. Al-Qaida is still a threat to the U.S., but what happens in Afghanistan has only a minor impact on its present capabilities.

Without an American withdrawal, it's almost certain that the Taliban will continue to step up their attacks in Afghanistan. The question the Biden administration will face is whether to withdraw, keep U.S. forces there at their present level or increase them. The most likely outcome is to marginally increase U.S. forces but otherwise defer a decision on the timing of a withdrawal.

It's always easier to kick the can down the road and make it another administration's problem.

2. The South China Sea

China's militarization of the South China Sea began in 2014, when it embarked on its island building strategy. Since then, there have been several significant developments. First, military bases on these islands have gradually shifted from a defensive to an offensive stance. In short, Beijing has expanded its ability to use those island bases to engage a potential enemy -- i.e., the U.S. Navy -- at a distance.

Secondly, it has taken over control of Hong Kong's civil administration, silenced pro-Democracy activists and made it clear that anyone who opposes Beijing's policy there will be arrested.

It has also stepped up its violations of Taiwanese airspace. Since Sept. 1, 2020, the People's Liberation Army Air Force has crossed over into Taiwanese airspace more than 40 times. Prior to 2020, that had happened only four times since July 1999.

In the meantime, Beijing has tightened up its control over its own population and, in particular, over the Uighur population in its westernmost province of Xinjiang.

The Trump administration adopted a confrontational foreign policy toward China: raising tariffs on Chinese goods entering the U.S.; imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, which it blamed for the crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang; limiting access for key Chinese companies such as Huawei to American technology; and increasing the availability of advanced American armaments to Taiwan.

While those actions have increased tensions between Beijing and Washington, they have not altered Chinese behavior. Beijing is engaged in a steady and relentless campaign to alter the reality on the ground.

America's European allies have been lukewarm to the Biden's administration's call for a common and unified front against China's bullying of its neighbors and its pursuit of unfair trade policies. Instead, the European Union has gone ahead with negotiations for an EU-China Trade and Investment Agreement.

The Biden administration has publicly declared that it intends to get tough with China, but so far has done little new. Significantly, it has not repudiated the State Department's findings that Chinese policy against the Uighurs in Xinjiang constitutes genocide or moved to roll back the Trump-imposed tariffs.

It has continued Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea and recently moved two Carrier Task Groups, the Nimitz and the Theodore Roosevelt, into the region. Realistically, it's not clear what the Biden administration could do beyond following the Trump administration's lead in encouraging disengagement from the Chinese economy, repatriating China-centered supply chains, and limiting access to U.S. markets and technology. Taiwan is the red line that would prompt a more substantial response by the Biden administration.

A majority of Americans consider China the principal foreign adversary to the U.S. This view cuts across party lines. Action that would be perceived as being "soft on China" would be politically unpopular and seized upon by Republicans to criticize the Biden administration.

While it has continued to talk tough on China, the Biden administration, however, rolled back restrictions that the Trump administration had placed on the operations of China's Confucius Institutes in the U.S., as well as on disclosures that U.S. colleges were required to make on funding obtained from Chinese sources.

If the Biden Justice Department drops charges against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, currently under house arrest in Vancouver, Canada, for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, it will be an additional signal that, while the Biden administration may talk tough on China, it will do little to actively oppose Chinese activities.

3. Venezuela

In and of itself, Venezuela does not pose a significant threat to the U.S. The activities of the Maduro regime are potentially destabilizing to some of its neighbors, as is Venezuelan support for leftist regimes throughout Central and South America. From a practical standpoint, there is little that Venezuela can do. Financially, it's broke. Its oil production is rapidly dwindling, and what it does produce is mostly pledged to Chinese and Russian creditors. Domestically, it's unraveling, with widespread shortages of essential consumer goods. In the meantime, opposition to the Maduro regime is fragmented and disorganized.

What is an emerging threat to U.S. national security, however, is that Venezuela has become the host for an unlikely marriage of convenience that puts Hezbollah, the Venezuelan military, Iran's Revolutionary Guard, the Mexican drug cartels and Chinese interests on the same side, even though they have different agendas.

Through Venezuela, Hezbollah has become a significant arms supplier to the Mexican drug cartels. In turn, Hezbollah has become a major narcotics customer of the cartels, importing cocaine through West Africa for distribution into Europe. Along with Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Cuba's intelligence service, Hezbollah has organized pro-Maduro militias that have been used by the government to attack Venezuelan pro-democracy protesters and will likely be a model that spreads to other authoritarian regimes in Latin America.

According to Fox journalist Lara Logan, a significant amount of narcotics that the Mexican drug cartels smuggle into the U.S. are laced with Chinese fentanyl. Chinese firms, according to Logan, in turn are laundering money for the cartels.

Hezbollah has established cells throughout Latin America, giving its Iranian master the ability to attack U.S. interests there through its proxy. In turn, South America has become a base for a range of illicit activities that fund Hezbollah's global criminal empire -- from arms trafficking to narcotics to counterfeit, high-end branded merchandise. At the center of this sits the Maduro government, which provides a staging ground and whose take from these various activities has been critical to supporting itself and to ensuring the support of the upper echelon of Venezuela's military.

These activities impact the U.S. in several ways. First, they raise questions about the long-term stability of Mexico's government, given its inability to control the drug cartels. Mexico risks becoming two countries, one in which the government holds sway and another in the control of the drug cartels.

Second, support for leftist, anti-American regimes throughout the Americas is also encouraged by this activity.

Third, the more telling concern is that this growing collaboration between anti-American terrorist organizations and drug traffickers could facilitate acts of terrorism on American soil. That makes security on the southern border of critical importance to the U.S. It's impossible to deal with this issue, however, since it invariably gets caught up with the broader question of illegal immigration to the U.S. from Central America.

The Mexican drug cartels are motivated primarily by financial considerations. While they have cooperated with Hezbollah or the Revolutionary Guard, they have stayed away from their political agendas.

China's involvement is subtler. The organizations supplying the drug cartels and laundering their money are private companies. Such activities, however, don't occur without the tacit consent of Beijing. Creating problems for the U.S. on its southern border is to China's advantage and gives it one more chip with which to bargain with America. This is hardly the first time that a foreign adversary has sought to constrain the U.S. by fomenting trouble in Mexico.

4. Iran

The Biden administration was quick to announce its support for restoring the agreement on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. Tehran's immediate response was to demand $75 billion in compensation for "damage to the Iranian economy" from the Trump administration's sanctions. The Biden White House has on several occasions suggested that an Iranian nuclear bomb is imminent, underscoring the necessity for a quick agreement. That suggestion proved to have little traction, in large part because it was widely dismissed as untrue.

A return to the Obama-era agreement is likely a nonstarter. First, Tehran never completely honored the first agreement; there is no assurance that it would be more compliant on a second version. Secondly, it's unlikely that a new agreement would have sufficient support to be ratified as a treaty by the Senate. Any agreement would take the form of an executive order and, like the previous agreement, would only be as good as the willingness of the next president to uphold it.

There is little political support among American voters for accommodating Iran or granting it new concessions in return for agreeing to a second agreement limiting development of an Iranian nuclear capability. Recent disclosures that John Kerry maintained contacts with the Iranian government and may have acted to undermine Trump's foreign policy toward Tehran may also complicate reaching a new agreement, especially if the Republicans take control of either the House or the Senate in the 2022 midterm elections.

The reality is that an Iranian nuclear capability is probably inevitable, although it is still several years away. The challenge for the Biden and future administrations will be to manage the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran.

There are scores of other issues, of course -- from North Korea to Ukraine to the growing belt of political instability in sub-Saharan Africa, from West Africa to the Red Sea. Moreover, both climate policy and immigration policy will also shape the Biden foreign policy. These four issues, however, are likely to be the issues that will dominate U.S. foreign policy in the next 24 months.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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