Judging from the Biden administration’s first 100 days — an unrealistic and unrealizable metric by which to judge a presidency — there’s no danger of that happening.
I’ve worked for a half dozen administrations, both Republicans and Democrats, and have never seen one where foreign policy priorities seem so influenced by a domestic agenda and the politics that drive them.
Whether this pattern holds remains to be seen. But the prime directive of President Joe Biden so far is stunningly clear — aspire to be a transformative leader at home and a smart, careful one abroad.
None of this means Biden plans to ignore America’s role in the world.
As someone who spent nearly 40 years as a senator and eight years as a vice president, Biden is acutely aware of the importance of not wasting political capital, especially with such narrow margins in the House and Senate, or roiling political waters at home that might undermine what he hopes will be a transformative domestic agenda.
Easy low-hanging fruit will do — for now
With one or two exceptions discussed below, Biden’s first 100 days in foreign policy has been understandably marked by caution, prudence and risk aversion.
The world is a lot more complicated and less friendly than when Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president and surely since his tenure as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And given the President’s formidable domestic challenges, Biden has largely confined himself to repairing the damage his predecessor had done to America’s image and credibility — mostly through executive actions and orders.
This includes reversing the travel ban that primarily targeted mostly Muslim-majority countries; rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord; and extending the New START treaty all represent an effort to rebuild and restore America’s faith in diplomacy, multilateralism and leadership in the world.
Managing the world — not transforming it
Otherwise, an administration filled with aspiring internationalists and led by an experienced foreign policy president who talked during the campaign about putting America back at the head of the table, seem to have a pretty sober and realistic view of the challenges they face in a cruel and unforgiving world. Issues with Russia, China, and Iran are to be managed if possible, not somehow neatly wrapped up and placed in the win column. Ditto with seemingly intractable problems like North Korea, Syria and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
After the unhappy experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, nation-building abroad is to be avoided at all costs — a trend line that now runs through three administrations (Obama, Trump and Biden).
But then governing is about choosing. Perhaps the world that awaits Joe Biden will draw him into some major foreign policy crisis. His early moves abroad, however, reflect the instincts of a man focused on matters domestic.
He knows that the success of his presidency — and perhaps the future of the republic — hangs not on overcoming challenges abroad but on those here at home. And by the looks of things, the American people couldn’t agree more.