Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
The last thing President Joe Biden needs in 2022 are crises with Russia and China, and increased tensions with Iran and possibly North Korea. Sadly, that may well be where events are heading. And it’s not at all clear whether even a skillful combination of deterrence and diplomacy can prevent them.
But as important as foreign policy is to the President’s agenda, he knows the greatest threat to the republic, and to his presidency, lies at home. Addressing domestic issues – such as combating Covid and inflation, passing a scaled-down Build Back Better bill and protecting voter rights – will require all the bandwidth he can muster, especially as the midterms approach.
For Biden’s foreign policy, 2021 proved to be the year mostly of cleaning up old messes and making a few new ones. Biden set out to fix the damage his predecessor had wrought to America’s standing in the world. Rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, repairing relations with NATO, refunding the World Health Organization and restarting talks with Iran all helped to mend America’s standing with its allies, while reminding its adversaries that the US was still a force on the international stage.
In June, after his first foreign trip, Biden emphatically declared, “America is back at the table.” And there was little doubt after four years of Donald Trump, America’s allies were happy to see him there. It’s just that the table wasn’t quite the same.
Countries – from China to Russia – had begun to talk bolder moves in challenging US influence. And the largely inadequate global response to both Covid and climate change seemed to raise serious doubts about the value of multilateral diplomacy.
In addition, the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the gratuitous French fried diplomacy that alienated Paris over the Australia-US-UK submarine deal seemed to confirm some allies’ concerns about the Biden administration’s competency and credibility.
Moreover, the ongoing crisis in American politics – capped off by the January assault on the US Capitol – left allies wondering about the stability of America’s political system and what would be left of the Biden administration’s commitments should Republicans retake Congress in 2022 or a Republican win the White House in 2024.
As 2022 beckons, Biden knows the country’s future (and his) lies not just in restoring a sense of normalcy but security and prosperity as well. Foreign policy is an inside the Beltway issue, nowhere near the top of what Americans believe is the most pressing problem.
That doesn’t mean ignoring the world. Quite the opposite – it means engaging abroad so that foreign policy crises don’t detract from or undermine Biden’s domestic agenda, or as in the case of Afghanistan, damage his reputation. While the botched withdrawal wasn’t the only reason Biden’s approval ratings dropped, it certainly didn’t help – given the President’s touting of his deep experience in foreign affairs.
So, where should the President begin 2022?
Ukraine is likely to be the number one issue in the new year. Even if Biden’s use of deterrence and diplomacy forestalls a Russian invasion, Ukraine is likely to roil US-Russian relations for some time to come, given Putin’s determination to try to stop its increasing affiliation with the West.
It will also complicate Biden’s domestic politics. The US Senate has scheduled a vote for January on whether to impose sanctions on the company behind a natural gas pipeline from Russia. If the administration opposes tougher sanctions, the Republicans will accuse Biden of being weak on Putin. If he agrees to toughen sanctions, he’ll alienate Germany, a critical ally, relying on access to the pipeline.
The Biden administration faces much the same conundrum in light of the difficult negotiations with Iran, likely to reach a succeed or fail point early in the new year. Neither diplomacy nor deterrence, so far, appears to be working. Iran is closer than ever to producing enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb, though, according to Israeli intelligence, the country is at least two years away from actually making a deliverable weapon.
And Iran’s demand to remove all sanctions makes returning to the original 2015 nuclear deal unlikely. The Israelis are pushing for a tougher US approach on Iran, which the Biden administration is reluctant to embrace even while Republicans and some Democrats believe it necessary. Indeed, the last thing Biden wants now on top of all his domestic travails is a major conflict with Iran that leads to falling financial markets and rising oil prices.
Then there’s North Korea. Kim Jong Un has been relatively quiet of late. Indeed, there hasn’t been a long-range ballistic missile launch since 2017. If North Korea resumes long-range testing, Biden will have another headache on his hands.
So far, according to Joel Wit, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center and veteran North Korean expert, Biden has his North Korea policy “only half right.” While the President has strengthened ties with America’s East Asian allies, such as South Korea and Japan, he has been reluctant to engage Pyongyang directly. Rather than restarting Trump’s summit-driven diplomacy, he might consider quietly exploring prospects for having Secretary of State Antony Blinken engage with North Korea.
Looming over all of Biden’s foreign policy priorities, of course, is China. The country’s predatory lending practices in much of its Belt and Road initiative, alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, increased threats against Taiwan, and assertion of sovereignty in the South China Sea, among others, confront the new administration with major challenges.
The administration has pushed back, sanctioning China over human rights violations, beefing up relations with allies like Australia and Japan, and announcing a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. But as the Carnegie Endowment’s Evan Feigenbaum believes, probably the best one could hope for – at least for now – is a kind of “managed enmity.” And given the prevailing attitudes on both sides of the aisle, Biden cannot afford to be perceived as weak on China.
Unfortunately, prospects for success in all four of these areas are limited. Domestic politics limit the administration’s flexibility, and it’s hard to imagine even the best deterrence and diplomacy strategy producing stable end states. As the midterms approach, the President who was determined to devote his major efforts to repairing America’s domestic travails, may increasingly find himself bogged down in dangerous foreign policy challenges abroad. At best, if he’s skillful and lucky, the world that Biden confronts is one to be managed, not transformed.