U.S. Security Policy Under Biden

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U.S. soldiers patrol on the outskirts of Spin Boldak, near the border with Pakistan, about 63 miles southeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan, Aug. 9, 2009 (AP photo by Emilio Morenatti).

Upon taking office, President Joe Biden made it a priority to repair the damage his predecessor, Donald Trump, had done to relationships with the United States’ long-standing allies and partners, including South Korea and Japan, but particularly in Europe. Early on, Biden reassured European allies of Washington’s commitment to their security, promising them, “America is back. The trans-Atlantic alliance is back.”

Despite some missteps along the way, the political capital Biden invested in shoring up ties with Europe, in particular, has paid off during the current standoff with Russia over Ukraine. NATO’s cohesion in the runup to the invasion and the robustness of the U.S.-led economic and security response in its aftermath are testament to the alliance’s value to the U.S.—as well as the importance of U.S. leadership in times of crisis.

Trump’s legacy also hung over Biden’s other early security moves, including diplomatic reengagement with the regime in Iran. Trump’s maximum pressure approach, which included abandoning the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, backfired, as Tehran responded by expanding its nuclear activities and assuming a more aggressive regional posture. Biden initially sought to jumpstart multilateral diplomacy in an effort to revive the nuclear deal, but the talks have made halting progress and their outcome remains uncertain.

In other areas, Biden was less eager to break with policies he inherited from Trump. On Afghanistan, for instance, he announced in April 2021 that he would follow through on the Trump administration’s deal to withdraw the final 2,500 U.S. troops that remained there, all but completing the drawdown by early August of the same year. The subsequent Taliban takeover of the country and chaotic final evacuation by the U.S. and its NATO allies from Kabul was a public humiliation for Biden.

It also left many European observers questioning the wisdom of relying so much on the U.S. for their own security, particularly those who argue in favor of enhancing Europe’s “strategic autonomy” in the face of a shift in Washington’s strategic focus to China. That sentiment was further reinforced soon after, with the surprise announcement of the AUKUS deal between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, which, in causing the cancellation of Australia’s purchase of French submarines in favor of a U.S. offer, created a diplomatic incident with Paris. But Biden’s deft handling of the crisis over Ukraine, and his demonstrated commitment to European security in a moment of peril, has for now put those concerns to rest.

Nevertheless, Biden still has a lot of work to do to deepen and expand America’s security partnerships in the face of the greatest challenge to U.S. global leadership since the end of the Cold War: an increasingly assertive Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping. Countering that challenge will require continuing to shore up ties with the United States’ Asian allies, while also seeking to solidify nascent partnerships with regional powers—particularly India, but also Vietnam. That won’t be easy, given their reluctance to antagonize China, which remains a principal trade partner for many.

WPR has covered the U.S. military and its security strategy in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. How will Biden navigate the next phase of the West’s confrontation with Russia? Can he simultaneously ramp up the U.S. commitment to Europe’s security while also confronting the challenge represented by China? Can Biden succeed in deepening security partnerships in Asia without planting the seeds for a new Cold War with China? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

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Once again, the fate of the Iran nuclear agreement is in limbo. While in theory a deal is still possible, in practice, the longer the negotiations to revive it drag out, the more difficult it will be for both sides to compromise. With that in mind, it’s worth revisiting the question of what a no-deal future might look like.

U.S. Security and Defense Policy

Biden has broadly outlined an early U.S. security strategy that prioritizes diplomacy, evident in his early engagements with Iran, but that is still coming into focus. Meanwhile, he has called for a modernization of the U.S. military, as well as topic-specific reviews on nuclear weapons, missile defense and the use of armed drones outside of active battlefields. But his security legacy will be determined by the long-term impact of his decision to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, his handling of the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine—and whether or not he is able to resist the temptation to resort to the use of the U.S. military as new crises arise during his presidency.

Military Interventions—and Withdrawals

Having closed the debate on America’s military engagement in Afghanistan, Biden must now decide what to do about the other ongoing deployments of U.S. troops. Trump twice attempted to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, only to reverse course after an outcry from within his own administration and the Republican Party. Biden will have to decide whether to maintain—or expand—the light-footprint American force that remains there, as well as whether to continue noncombat operations in Iraq and West Africa, where U.S. troops are engaged in missions that, though largely invisible to the American public, are still potentially deadly. And now he will face a polarizing debate over whether and how much the U.S. should intervene militarily to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia’s brutal siege warfare tactics.

Military Alliances and Security Partnerships

On the security front, Biden’s sharpest break with his predecessor has been in working to restore and expand America’s military alliances and partnerships. Gone are the harsh tone and public criticisms of allies that characterized the Trump era. In their place is a more traditional approach to key partners in Europe and Asia, as well as efforts to solidify emerging partnerships with countries wary of China’s rise, particularly India. For now, his handling of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has overshadowed doubts about America’s dependability. But moving forward, persistent differences in interests and preferences could make shoring up these relationships easier said than done, particularly when it comes to addressing the challenge represented by China.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2021 and is regularly updated.

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