After President Joe Biden declared Wednesday that the US must shift focus from a bloody and intractable war to more modern-day pursuits, it took less than 24 hours for him to put his words into practice.
Unveiling a new package of sanctions on Russia while pressing its leader for a summertime summit in Europe, Biden made clear he believes the bigger threat to America lies in cyberspace rather than in the mountains of Afghanistan.
On Friday he’ll welcome his first foreign visitor to the White House – the Prime Minister of Japan – and make the case for a united front against China, a country that has steadily expanded its influence in the two decades the US has been sending thousands of troops and trillions of dollars into its longest war. Biden and his senior team believe America’s foreign policy interests overwhelmingly lie in the Asia-Pacific rather than the Middle East, as evidenced by an unofficial delegation that arrived in Taiwan on Wednesday in a show of support for an island that China views as a renegade province.
And next week he’ll convene dozens of world leaders – including potentially those from Russia and China – for a virtual summit on climate change, an issue he believes eclipses national disputes and imperils the future of the planet just as much as terrorism.
All of it adds up to the clearest view yet of how Biden sees his role as commander in chief. Having spoken again and again about proving to the world that democracy still works, officials say Biden is taking steps to free up the time and money needed to actually make his case.
After spending decades watching as other presidents’ priorities were waylaid by a war that had long outlived its original objectives, and having his advice brushed aside, Biden – who views foreign policy as his “first love” in politics, according to his press secretary – now hopes to illustrate what it means to move on.
“What President Biden wants to do is put America in a position of strength, to be able to deal not just with great power competition from Russia and China but with the significant transnational threats that affect the American way of life: pandemics and climate change, terrorism, cyber threats,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on CNN’s “New Day” when asked Thursday how new sanctions on Russia fit within the Biden doctrine.
“To do that, we need to invest at home to build up a strong foundation,” Sullivan went on. “We need strong, powerful, capable allies. We need to be writing the international rules of the road for things like cyber and emerging technologies, not letting autocrats do it. Above all, we need to stop the forever war in Afghanistan.”
Determined not to be boxed in
Not everyone in Biden’s administration agreed. Senior Pentagon and State Department officials sought to maintain a US troop presence in Afghanistan, fearing a rapid deterioration of security in the country and backsliding on democracy and human rights.
An intelligence assessment appeared to back that up, and the CIA’s director revealed publicly on the day the White House announced the decision that withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan would pose a “significant risk” to the United States.
Biden, fully aware of the risks, approached the decision having spent two decades watching American interests and objectives shift in Afghanistan. From his position chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he had grilled military leaders about the war. That continued in the White House Situation Room when he was vice president, pressing the generals to explain their reasoning for staying in the country.
“Maybe I’ve been around this town for too long, but one thing I know is when these generals are trying to box in a new president,” he told President Barack Obama in a dramatic stage whisper, according to Obama’s recent memoir. “Don’t let them jam you.”
As president, Biden was determined not to be jammed himself. He entered the job with more foreign policy experience than any of his recent predecessors, and White House officials described him as convinced the war was diverting resources and attention that were better spent elsewhere, be it improving conditions in the United States or trying to catch up to China – two goals he believes are inherently intertwined.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021,” he said from the Treaty Room on Wednesday. “Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us.”
On Thursday the issue in front of him was Russia, a country he appears intent on holding accountable for its hacking operations and election interference while also preventing what one official described as a situation where escalating actions “spin out of control.”
As a candidate, Biden accused his predecessor of appearing weak on Russia, declaring President Donald Trump “Putin’s puppy” during a debate in September and harshly criticizing him for failing to address intelligence that Russia had placed bounties on the heads of American troops in Afghanistan.
On Thursday, administration officials revealed the US intelligence community had only “low to moderate confidence” in the information about the bounties, and that a major package of sanctions would not include steps to punish for Moscow over the issue.
The issue of the bounties underscored the ways in which the war in Afghanistan had come to color other areas of US foreign policy in ways Biden is now attempting to change. The package of sanctions announced Thursday was meant to cut off lending to the Russian government as punishment for its advanced hacking operation that targeted American federal agencies.
The US also said it was expelling Russian diplomats from the embassy in Washington and joining with European partners to apply sanctions related to Russia’s occupation of Crimea – a situation that has flared up again as Russian troops mass on the border with Ukraine. The top general of US European Command said the possibility of an invasion of Ukraine in the next few weeks is “low to medium” when asked during a congressional hearing on Thursday.
Gen. Tod Wolters said Russia has a “very large ground domain force that has moved to the western military district and the southern military district in the vicinity of Crimea and the Donbass” region of Ukraine. Wolters did note that supply lines have “plateaued.”
At the same time, Biden has reiterated his invitation to Russian President Vladimir Putin for summit talks, seeking “a relationship with Russia that is stable and predictable,” according to one senior administration official.
“We do not seek, we do not desire, a downward spiral,” the official said. “We think we can and should avoid that.”
Still, there are limits to Biden’s ability to punish Russia through sanctions, and White House officials have said “unseen” steps to respond to the hacking could prove more decisive. Putin has yet to respond yet to Biden’s summit invite.
Shift toward China
If Russia amounts to a diminished former Cold War adversary whose disruption of cyber networks has proved deeply destabilizing, another country – China – represents a rising power whose economy and military could overtake the US in the coming decades.
The US will have to cooperate to some degree with each; Biden has already quickly renegotiated the New START nuclear treaty with Russia and hopes to work with China on climate change, including when his special envoy on the issue, John Kerry, pays a visit to Beijing soon. He’ll be the highest-ranking Biden administration official to visit China to date.
Both China and Russia have seized on perceived weaknesses inside the United States as evidence the country is waning in power, including the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol and the pandemic-prompted economic downturn. They have defended their own human rights abuses – including the detention of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang province – by pointing to US treatment of minorities, both historic and present-day.
Biden, and by extension his national security team, have made improving those factors central to their foreign policy. The President has framed his push to revamp American infrastructure – with its expansive definition that includes broadband internet and home health workers – as central to the country’s attempt at competing with China.
The President dispatched an unofficial delegation to Taiwan this week, a show of support for the self-ruling island as China grows increasingly aggressive in its posture. The group, composed of former Sen. Chris Dodd and former senior State Department officials Richard Armitage and James Steinberg, arrived Wednesday. Visits by high-ranking US officials have rankled Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its territory.
And on Friday Biden will nudge a top regional ally, Japan, to join him in more aggressively confronting Beijing for its regional aggression and human rights abuses. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is the first foreign leader to make an in-person visit to the White House during Biden’s term, a signal of the importance Biden and his top national security advisers place on reinvigorating American alliances in a region they view as increasingly fundamental to American interests.
Japan has historically been more wary of direct confrontation with China, a country with which it is deeply interconnected. But Biden has made competition with China a central component of his agenda and believes he needs American allies on board. He’ll welcome South Korea’s President to the White House at the end of May, and has recently revived the so-called Quad alliance of Japan, India, the United States and Australia as a means for dealing with regional issues.
Officials said the decision to draw down troops in Afghanistan will free up the time and resources to focus on Asia that senior American officials had spent previously plodding forward in the war. China’s aggression in the region – including increasing tensions around Taiwan and in disputed areas of the South China Sea – has occupied more and more military attention over the past decade, even as the Afghanistan conflict wore on. Beijing has dramatically scaled up its influence in far-flung regions as the US focused on a war stretching decades.
Biden has framed the challenge as beyond simply out-competing China on new technology or prevailing in maritime disputes; he has described instead “a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies” as his overarching challenge.
“One of our challenges is that in the world environment the United States faces today, we have an aggressive, ascendant China and Russia. China is committing genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. They were pressing Hong Kong. There are human rights violations all over the world,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, one of Biden’s closest allies in the Senate, said on Thursday. “And keeping thousands of American troops in Afghanistan for another decade was a cost that President Biden looked at and concluded was too high a cost to pay.”