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Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy
1 Apr 2023


NextImg:Biden’s State Department Needs a Reset

It is a truth universally acknowledged that America’s diplomatic institutions—and especially the State Department—are under-resourced. This truth is especially evident when you compare the State Department or Agency for International Development budgets with the money allocated to the Defense Department or the intelligence services. It’s even more obvious when you take America’s lofty global ambitions into account. It’s also a truism that the president’s time—and that of top cabinet officials such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken—is the scarcest resource of all.

If this is the case, then why-oh-why did the Biden administration devote any time at all to a second Summit for Democracy? It’s not just the time that U.S. President Joe Biden, Blinken, and other senior officials devoted to this talkfest. Putting something like this together also burned up hundreds of hours of staff time that might have been used to address other problems.

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.

Part of the problem is the “democracy vs. autocracy” framing that Biden & Co. have embraced. I like democracy as much as anyone and more than some, but this dichotomy causes more problems for U.S. diplomacy than it solves. It doesn’t help the United States work more effectively with the autocratic governments that outnumber the world’s democracies and whose help may be more valuable as great power rivalries intensify. It leaves the United States exposed to accusations of hypocrisy, and it doesn’t seem to motivate Washington’s democratic allies very much. Case in point: European leaders keep traveling to Beijing to safeguard their economic interests with (autocratic) China, behavior sharply at odds with the democracy vs. autocracy template. Similarly, the president of (mostly) democratic India, Narendra Modi, just held talks with one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top national security advisors.

Meanwhile, other items on the administration’s agenda remain unfulfilled. Biden took office saying he’d rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran that his predecessor had foolishly left. But he dithered and delayed, Iran’s position hardened, and it is now clear that no new nuclear deal is forthcoming. The result? Iran is closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, raising the risk of a Middle East war that neither the U.S. administration nor the world needs right now.

Making matters worse, Biden and Blinken have been repeatedly humiliated by their various Middle East allies. The Egyptian government routinely ignores U.S. human rights concerns while continuing to pocket U.S. economic aid. Biden reversed his campaign vow to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a pariah for the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but the fist bump “seen ‘round the world” didn’t convince the Saudis to help ease energy prices or persuade them to put any pressure on Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine. More ominously, the Saudis keep moving closer to Chinese President Xi Jinping. Just this week, Saudi Aramco announced two new oil-related investment deals with China (including building a refinery there); and it was China—not the United States—that helped broker the recent détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran. I don’t blame either the Chinese or the Saudis for acting in their own interest, but it’s hard to see any of this as triumph of U.S. diplomacy.

Biden and Blinken aren’t directly responsible for the current crisis in U.S. relations with Israel—Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “judicial reform” proposal deserves most of the blame for that—but their indulgent attitude toward Israel probably made Netanyahu think he could get away with it. Biden and Blinken have love-bombed Israel from the start: They didn’t reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, failed to fulfill repeated promises to reopen a consulate for Palestinians, and offered only the usual mild expressions of “concern” at Israel’s continuing efforts to colonize the West Bank. Instead of distancing the United States from Israel’s increasingly worrisome conduct, Biden and Blinken kept repeating the usual cliches about the “ironclad” U.S. commitment and expressing their continued belief in a mythical creature: the two-state solution. No wonder Netanyahu thought he could move ahead with his controversial assault on Israeli democracy without jeopardizing U.S. support. And when Biden finally voiced some mild criticisms earlier this week, Netanyahu quickly responded by saying Israel would make its own decisions. That’s the kind of diplomatic influence that unconditional support buys you.

Meanwhile, the United States seems to be ceding its role as a global peacemaker. The country that once made arms control a top priority and brokered the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, the Good Friday Agreement, and an end to the Balkan Wars is less interested in ending conflicts than in helping its preferred side win, even when the end result is more death and destruction and a continued risk of escalation. As the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi noted last week, “America appears to have given up on the virtues of honest peacemaking. … Today, our leaders mediate to help ‘our’ side in a conflict advance our position rather than to establish a lasting peace.”

U.S. diplomacy is falling short in dealing with China too. The administration’s mantra toward China, as expressed by Blinken in 2021, is that the United States “will be competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” But the first and third items have taken center stage, and efforts to find common ground and manage an increasingly intense security rivalry have been few and far between. Some of the blame rests with Beijing, of course, but one sees few signs of creative thinking about how this critical bilateral relationship could be managed or improved.

It’s not all bad news: U.S. efforts to strengthen relations with existing Asian partners such as Japan and Australia have gone well, aided in no small part by China’s ill-considered assertiveness. But the Biden administration’s broader effort to weaken China by imposing export controls on advanced chips and subsidizing U.S. digital industries has also imposed significant costs on these same partners, while heightening Asian concerns about a future clash in their neighborhood. Nor has the Biden team been able to formulate an effective counter to China’s growing economic influence in the Indo-Pacific. Biden’s not to blame for Trump’s ill-considered decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, but the administration’s substitute—the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, which it finally rolled out last year—is widely and correctly seen as small potatoes by most of Asia.

One of the administration’s early diplomatic successes was Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen’s effort to negotiate a multilateral agreement for a global minimum tax on multinational corporations (thereby preventing them from avoiding taxes by declaring profits in low-tax offshore locations). Kudos for Yellen, but the measure now lies moribund in Congress and may never come into force. And the administration’s more successful domestic initiatives, most notably the Inflation Reduction Act, have created serious frictions with U.S allies that regard these measures as promoting U.S. industries at their expense.

“Hold on a minute,” I hear you say. What about the critical role that U.S. diplomacy played in organizing the Western response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, not to mention those lopsided United Nations General Assembly votes condemning Moscow’s actions? Doesn’t that prove that America is back and its diplomats are doing their jobs with consummate skill?

Yes and no. On one hand, Biden and his team have led a coordinated Western response to the invasion, and this hasn’t always been easy. But it ain’t over till it’s over, and the ultimate result of this effort is uncertain. The cruel reality is that a protracted war that ends with Russia in control of some or all of the Donbass and Ukraine depopulated and heavily damaged will not look like a grand foreign-policy achievement. We all hope that does not happen, but it is certainly not an outcome one can rule out.

The sad fact is that the Biden administration has done an excellent job of responding to a problem that was at least partly of its own making. The roots of the Ukraine war predate Biden’s inauguration, but neither Biden nor Blinken saw the war coming soon enough. They did not recognize that Russia saw the trends in Ukraine as an existential threat, nor did they do everything they could have to head the war off. U.S. officials (both past and present) have gone to great lengths to deny that U.S. or Western policy played any role whatsoever in causing this tragedy, but a dispassionate look at the evidence—such as the recent account by British historian Geoffrey Roberts in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies—shows otherwise. As I’ve put it before, “Putin is directly responsible for the war, but the West is not blameless.”

We will probably never know if the war could have been avoided had the United States and its European allies made a more serious and creative attempt to address Russia’s security concerns, and dropped their stubborn insistence that Ukraine would one day join NATO. I’m not letting Russia off the hook for starting a preventive war (an illegal act under international law) or for the way it has waged it. But when one thinks about the consequences of the war for the world—and for Ukraine most of all—the United States’ failure to do everything within reason to head it off deserves more critical scrutiny than it has received to date.

To be fair, the disappointing performance of the United States’ diplomats isn’t entirely their fault. Because America’s global ambitions are so vast, many problems won’t receive adequate attention, let alone command the time, energy, and commitment of the people at the very top. And the bigger and broader Washington’s goals, the harder it is to reconcile tradeoffs between them and maintain a clear and consistent set of priorities. This is one of the (many) reasons why some of us keep arguing for greater foreign-policy restraint: U.S. foreign policy would be more successful if it did less but did the vital things well.

Which brings me back to that Summit for Democracy. Even if one overlooks the inconsistent criteria for attendance and the peculiar optics of some troubled democracies (France, Israel, Brazil, India, the United States, etc.) getting together to extol democracy’s virtues, it’s not clear what will be gained from this effort. The first summit didn’t reverse the downward trends that have been underway for almost two decades, which makes one wonder what a second gathering will achieve. Assembling a bunch of powerful officials makes sense when there is something immediate and tangible that they can do together, which is why the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944, the Madrid Conference of 1991, or the 2015 Paris Climate Conference were worth doing. Similarly, the Obama administration’s four nuclear summits produced some tangible results—such as various agreements to improve custody over nuclear materials world-wide and reduce existing stockpiles of nuclear material—even if they did not reach every one of the administration’s initial objectives.

As near as I can tell, the democracy summits will fall well short of even those modest achievements. Democracy’s future is not going to be helped by more talkfests; it will depend on whether the world’s democracies can deliver better results for their citizens at home and abroad. Success will take a lot of work, and even the wealthiest democracies do not have infinite time or resources—which is why I hope the second Summit for Democracy is also the last.