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Biden's Lackluster Diplomatic Record
The fear of appearing weak in the eyes of domestic hawkish critics has been the administration’s real weakness, and it keeps tripping them up.
Stephen Walt is underwhelmed by the Biden administration’s diplomatic performance to date:
I raise this issue because the Biden administration took office vowing to put diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy, yet it has relatively few diplomatic achievements to show for its first two-plus years. On the plus side, U.S. allies are far more comfortable with Biden and Blinken than they were with former President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and they’ve been willing to forgive some of the administration’s early blunders (such as the unnecessary snub of the French during the AUKUS submarine deal in 2021). But apart from improved optics, the administration’s diplomatic record is unimpressive.
The Biden administration wanted the public to see the “return” of diplomacy one of the major differences between them and the Trump administration, but in practice Walt is right that they haven’t delivered very much on that score. It’s true that the administration has done well in coordinating with European and other allies in providing assistance to Ukraine, but this has been a bit like pushing on an open door. The U.S. has not had to do much arm-twisting or persuading to convince allied governments to get on board with supporting the war effort, since they have all been willing to do this at least to some degree. When it comes to getting fence-sitting countries on board, there has been much less success. Almost everywhere else, the Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts have either foundered or haven’t even begun.
Walt mentions ineffective or non-existent diplomacy in the Middle East, and he also notes that diplomacy has been notably lacking in U.S. dealings with China over the last two years. The reflexive decision to cancel Blinken’s visit to Beijing over the balloon incident looks even worse now than it did at the time. Instead of taking the incident in stride and pressing ahead with diplomatic contacts, as a confident administration would do, the administration overreacted and sabotaged its own effort to begin repairing relations. The fear of appearing weak in the eyes of domestic hawkish critics has been the administration’s real weakness, and it keeps tripping them up.
One could add several other regions to the list of places where U.S. diplomacy has largely been MIA. Take our own hemisphere for starters. The widely-panned 2022 Summit of the Americas was a high-profile embarrassment for the U.S. that resulted from inadequate planning and the misguided decision not to invite Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba to the summit. There was not much of an agenda for the other attendees to endorse, and what little there was had not been coordinated with the other governments. The issue of snubbing the authoritarian states became a bigger headache for the U.S. when other governments boycotted the event or sent lower-level representatives in protest. The failure of the summit underscored both U.S. neglect of our own neighborhood and the poor execution of the administration.
The Biden administration has been making more of an effort in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific over the last year, but it has mostly been falling short because of a lack of follow-through. Top U.S. officials may say many of the right things to local audiences, but when it comes to backing up those words the U.S. simply isn’t putting its money where its mouth is. Take the vice president’s recent Africa tour, for example. The tour itself went fairly well and garnered lots of positive headlines, but the scale of the promised U.S. assistance—$100 million spread across five West African countries—was meager. As Chris Olaoluwa Ògúnmọ́dẹdé noted in his review of Harris’ tour, “At a time when Washington has directed tens of billions of dollars to support Ukraine since it was invaded by Russia, Harris’ announcement of $100 million from the U.S. for five West African states—$20 million for each country—is a telling indication of its priorities.”
The administration’s efforts in these parts of the world follow decades of neglect, and it is being spurred to such a large extent by fear of Chinese influence that it has been less effective than it might otherwise be. When so many other governments see the U.S. suddenly playing catch up after paying little or no attention for ages, they are naturally unimpressed with empty U.S. boasts that “diplomacy is back.” The inconsistency in U.S. diplomatic efforts over time makes other governments reluctant to rely on U.S. promises, since they can see how quickly Washington’s priorities can change and how easily distracted our government can be by the latest crisis. Many governments across the so-called Global South may conclude that if their problems and concerns can’t be shoehorned into some larger U.S. obsession they are unlikely to hold Washington’s interest for very long.
Other states can see that U.S. diplomats always take a distant second place to the military, and it is mainly through the military that the U.S. deals with much of the rest of the world. U.S. diplomacy is like a plant that is so starved of sunlight because it is trying to grow up in the shadow of a giant tree. As long as the military wields such outsized influence in Congress and commands so many more resources, there is little chance that diplomacy can flourish.
The U.S. also suffers from having a political culture that denigrates and devalues diplomacy, so it can be difficult at the best of times for an administration to pursue diplomatic solutions to international problems. There is no real accountability for when the U.S. loses wars or wages pointless ones, but any diplomatic agreement that has the smallest flaw will be torn apart and denounced in the strongest terms by members of both parties. The political incentives in Washington reward the blowhards and demagogues that trash every attempt at engagement as either appeasement or a sellout, and that has the perverse effect of making it politically riskier to seek negotiated compromises than it is to call for sanction or war. This is a deep sickness in our system that every administration ought to fight against. The problem with the Biden administration is that they don’t seem terribly interested in fighting against it.