It’s been only three weeks, but already I’ve lost count of the times the Biden administration has expressed its deep concern over a matter of foreign policy. Hungarian media closures, Somali election disputes, Chinese intimidation, Russian repression, Sandinista crackdowns, the coup in Burma, the International Criminal Court investigation into Israel’s conduct in Gaza—in just the last seven days the State Department has said it’s concerned about all these topics.
And it is right to be worried. The world is a dangerous place. It’s filled with aggressive, autocratic great powers and smaller nations succumbing to the authoritarian temptation. Which is why words are not enough. They have to be backed up with action.
That’s where the Biden team falls short. When asked what the president intends to do about the developments he bemoans, Biden’s spokespeople often deflect by pointing to the calendar. It hasn’t been a month since we’ve taken office, they say. We have to get situated. There are a number of policy reviews in progress. You wouldn’t want us to get ahead of ourselves, would you?
There is something to the argument that it takes time to formulate considered and substantive countermeasures. At the outset of an administration, key positions have not been filled and everyone is playing catchup. But Biden isn’t powerless. He’s done plenty, in both the domestic and foreign arenas. Indeed, the administration has bragged about the number of executive orders he’s signed since January 20, and about his renewal of multilateral partnerships to fight climate change.
It’s not that Biden can’t react to objects of concern. It’s that he doesn’t want to. Or maybe he can’t decide on a course of action. Either way, his administration’s references to bureaucratic procedure are more often than not excuses for inactivity.
Passivity is one thing. Rewarding bad behavior is something else—something much worse. But that is precisely what Biden has done in three critical areas. He rejoined the U.N. Human Rights Council despite its corruption and anti-Semitism. He handed Vladimir Putin a cost-free victory despite the Russian dictator’s arrest and imprisonment of democracy activist Alexei Navalny. And he took the pressure off an Iranian ally despite its terrorist behavior and Iran’s mounting violations of the 2015 nuclear accord. These decisions won’t end worrisome behavior. They will incentivize it.
On February 8, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States would rejoin the Human Rights Council as an observer, he acknowledged that it is a "flawed body, in need of reform to its agenda, membership, and focus, including its disproportionate focus on Israel." Those are the reasons the Trump administration left the group in 2018. Why recommit? Blinken said that, "To address the council’s deficiencies and ensure it lives up to its mandate, the United States must be at the table using the full weight of our diplomatic leadership."
But of course the United States spent years "at the table" and had little to show for it. Council members China and Russia didn’t believe in human rights then, and they still don’t. The council will operate as it always has: downplaying the abuses of authoritarian powers and ganging up on Israel for defending itself. Participation in the council legitimizes this misconduct. The council doesn’t protect human rights. It mocks them. Better to draw a line and look for alternatives than to engage in a forum where you will be overruled routinely.
In his determination to undo the Trump presidency, Biden privileges words over deeds. It’s true that President Trump rarely had anything bad to say about Vladimir Putin. Nevertheless, he did provide lethal aid to Ukraine, threaten the Russian energy market by exporting liquid natural gas, sanction Russian officials, force NATO to spend more on defense, and oppose the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Biden, by contrast, has rightly and forcefully condemned Putin’s assaults on human rights and global security. But his first move in the great game—a clean extension of the New START arms control agreement—was a gift to Russia. Biden had the leverage to bargain for a shorter extension. He might have linked the future of New START to Russia’s treatment of its people. He didn’t. Putin got what he wanted. Now Biden has to regain the upper hand.
The most absurd of Biden’s unilateral concessions is Yemen. On February 5 the administration said it wouldn’t designate as a foreign terrorist organization the Houthi rebels backed by Iran. The Houthis didn’t thank him. On the contrary: Within days, State Department spokesman Ned Price admitted the United States "is deeply troubled by continued Houthi attacks," including on "civilian areas inside Saudi Arabia." His verbiage fell flat. When Biden’s envoy for peace negotiations arrived in Saudi Arabia, the Houthis attacked an airport and struck a civilian plane. It was a slap in the face—and a reminder that magnanimity does not go far in the Middle East.
Biden may recognize that his foreign policy needs to be more assertive. On February 10 he announced sanctions against the Burmese generals who recently ended their country’s half-hearted democratic transition. And the pace of Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea, including a transit of the Taiwan Strait, has increased as China grows more nationalistic and territorial. This willingness to exercise American power in defense of national interests and values is welcome. More of it is needed.
Diplo-speak isn’t enough. Nor is a reliance on unreliable allies. To date, Biden’s foreign policy has been more interested in resuscitating the legacy of Barack Obama than in maintaining America’s position of strength. To use the language of the State Department: I am very concerned.