Biden Administration Agenda: Domestic and Foreign Policy Minefields
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(28 April 2021) — President Biden’s domestic and foreign policy agendas are packed with many urgent and complex issues. While domestic issues are subjected to much media attention and public discourse, international affairs are often dealt with through quiet diplomacy, thus escaping the glaring light of the media in the early stages. The Biden administration is engaged in prudent diplomatic processes in pursuit of sound foreign policy objectives, but diplomacy is a slow process. On the other hand, domestic issues demand immediate results and are constantly under the microscope of daily media attention. Primarily among these are the immediate impacts domestic policies generally have on the body politic – the immediate, as well as future impact on Americans.
The Biden administration must prioritize, or seem to, those issues which can easily impact current and future political fortunes. The administration must be wary that successes are seen for what they are in the moment, but failures explode tenfold in the public square. While battling Republican opposition to his domestic policy agenda, President Biden, having announced America’s return to global leadership, must focus much of his attention on foreign policy issues, particularly issues with national security implications for the US and American allies around the world.
There are hybrid issues spanning both domestic and foreign policy, such as immigration, climate change, and global pandemics. Problems unique to mass migration cannot be resolved with only domestic or border control and security responses. A robust foreign policy component, including building partnerships with foreign governments are required. Sending countries, particularly the Northern Triangle countries of Central America, lack the resources and the capacities to minimize dire domestic push factors and to mitigate against the attractive pull factors of the United States. Countries of origin are overwhelmed by the lack of human security and the overall well-being of the people. There are national interests at stake on both sides of the migration flow across the US-Mexico border.
As with other foreign policy issues, stemming the immigration flow from the Northern Triangle requires working with appropriate government interlocutors to resolve the region’s underlying problems. This is a difficult undertaking for the Biden administration. The region has a history characterized by corrupt government leaders, creeping autocracy and authoritarianism, weak democratic institutions, poor governance, lack of rule of law, widespread human rights violations, and large segments of territories controlled by powerful criminal enterprises.
While there is an urgent need to fix the immigration problems facing the Biden administration, including a broken immigration system, much of the problems were inherited from the shambolic, chaotic immigration policy of the Trump administration. These issues will take a long time to fix and thus a major problem for the Biden administration faced with an impatient public which wants immediate solutions.
Governments of the Northern Triangle lack the capacities to degrade criminal enterprises, the resources to ameliorate endemic poverty, or the financial resources to recover from frequent natural disasters. The inability to control the spread of the novel coronavirus makes the situation even more dire. These push factors prevailing in the domestic landscape of these countries are far too overwhelming for these governments to resolve without major inputs of financial and technical resources from the US government.
The Biden administration’s pledge to spend some $4 billion dollars to help the region, while a big deal, is not just a matter of the amount the US spend. The US must commit over the long term to help these countries construct and reform democratic institutions and processes; foster good governance and adherence to rule of law; root out corruption at all levels; protect human rights; build credible law enforcement institutions; establish unbiased judiciaries; and strengthen border control and security. Degrading criminal enterprises are among the top issues. This compilation of problems developed over many years of inattention and American neglect of the region. The region has never recovered from being used by President Ronald Reagan for his proxy wars during the Cold War.
Mexico which controls the southern side of the US-Mexico border pursues its own agenda. Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been less than cooperative with the Biden administration. Obrador’s cooperation comes at a price. Mexico wants supplies of COVID vaccines from the US. Vice President Kamala Harris given this tough diplomatic task has a rough road ahead. She will have to pull back the veil on diplomacy to build confidence with president Obrador for any hope of success.
Immigration, which I have suggested spans domestic and foreign policy, is but one of the many domestic and foreign policy issues pursued by the Biden administration, simultaneously. Each issue merits independent analysis but are included here only for context.
Iran’s and North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a global nuclear proliferation problem threatening the security of the international community. Reinstating the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) is a priority. Diplomatic efforts to return to pre-Trump status quo ante are proceeding at a deliberate pace. Compared to North Korea, Iran is a willing negotiator. North Korea obfuscates, cannot be trusted, and frustrates diplomats at every turn. North Korea is a rogue state existing on the margins of civility. Reversing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is highly unlikely, and China’s role in achieving even minor progress is indispensable.
A plethora of Middle East issues remain at or near the top of the foreign policy agenda. The Saudi Arabi and Iran proxy civil war in Yemen and the humanitarian impact have huge implications for Middle East stability. A one-sided Trump policy on Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory will be difficult to reverse. The Biden administration promised tough sanctions against Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in response to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Terrorist groups are rebuilding in Syria. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar is exploding with gross human rights violations.
The Biden administration having embraced diplomacy on the Venezuela situation is yet to articulate details of a new policy. Reversing Trump’s rejection of diplomacy and his divisive policy are welcomed in the region.
China and Russia hover over Biden’s foreign policy agenda. Biden has openly challenged both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin on human rights abuses and other actions they are engaging in. Sanctions have been imposed on Chinese and Russian companies, including with regard to Russia for interfering in past US elections, and Putin has been warned on the threat to the life of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Russia’s threat to Ukraine was an early test of Biden’s resolve, but Putin’s pull back has given pause to Biden’s response, for now. There are signs the Biden administration will challenge China’s engagements in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Southeast Asia.
Countless urgent issues threaten the stability and viability of East and West African countries. The spread of terrorism poses significant problems to already weakened governments. The Biden administration is likely to engage the UN Security Council on these issues, but China and Russia could stand in the way.
In this milieu of global challenges are climate change and the equitable distribution of COVID vaccines. Countries such as India and Brazil are overwhelmed by the pandemic and the lack of adequate supplies of vaccines globally. Under pressure, the Biden administration now plans to distribute 60 million doses of vaccines around the world.
The issues highlighted here are not exhaustive of Biden’s foreign policy challenges on the eve of his first 100 days as US president.
© 2021 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post