April 15, 2021 | FDD Tracker: April 1–April 15, 2021

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: Early April

Early April Trends
April 15, 2021 | FDD Tracker: April 1–April 15, 2021

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: Early April

Early April Trends

Trend Overview

Edited by Jonathan Schanzer

Welcome to FDD’s Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker. Every two weeks, we will ask our experts and scholars to provide real-time assessments of the administration’s foreign policy. The analyses below go beyond “quick take” tweets. Our contributors are instead tasked with providing a succinct rationale for the current trendlines – very positive, positive, neutral, negative, or very negative. Links are embedded for readers who seek to read more. These trendlines can change quickly, so please check back twice per month to see how FDD’s experts and scholars view President Joe Biden’s foreign policy, and why.

Arms Control and Nonproliferation

By Anthony Ruggiero and Andrea Stricker

Last week, Iran delayed a meeting with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) aimed at resolving questions about Tehran’s undeclared nuclear facilities and activities after the IAEA found uranium particles at three undeclared sites. The IAEA also reported three new breaches of Iran’s commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran is enriching uranium to 60 percent – its highest level ever – placing Iran a short dash away from weapons-grade uranium. Iran’s other breaches, related to uranium stocks and fuels, provide Tehran irreversible gains in knowledge even if it returns to the nuclear deal. Nevertheless, the Biden administration began talks with Iran and the E3 (France, Britain, and Germany) to facilitate Washington’s and Tehran’s mutual return to the deal. The administration has expressed displeasure over an Israeli operation that destroyed the electrical system of Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant, reportedly impacting numerous IR-1 centrifuges and setting back the plant’s operation by at least nine months. Meanwhile, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) issued a report finding that Syria used chemical weapons against civilians in February 2018. Damascus did not cooperate with the OPCW inquiry. The State Department called on the international community to hold Syria accountable, but to date the administration has done little to punish the Assad regime.


By Craig Singleton

Confusion abounds at Foggy Bottom regarding two key aspects of the administration’s China policy. The first is whether or not to boycott the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, which activists have taken to calling the “Genocide Games.” In the span of a few hours last week, the administration issued contradictory statements about a possible boycott, ultimately claiming that the United States was not discussing “any joint boycott with allies and partners,” despite documented evidence regarding Chinese human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims. Beijing quickly pounced on the muddled messaging, threatening retaliation against any country or company that boycotts the games. The State Department legal advisor, meanwhile, has reportedly still not made an official determination about whether China’s activities in Xinjiang meet the genocide threshold, even though some senior officials, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have publicly argued as much. At the same time, however, the administration remains keen to ramp up an ever-widening technology fight with Beijing, most recently by blocking access to U.S. technology for Chinese researchers and manufacturers who build supercomputers used by the Chinese military.


By RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery and Annie Fixler

As the Biden administration nears the 100-day mark, the administration just announced the nomination of key cyber leaders: Chris Inglis as national cyber director, Jen Easterly as director of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), and Rob Silvers as DHS undersecretary for policy. Once the administration names its assistant secretary of energy for cybersecurity, energy security, and emergency response, the administration will have the key personnel necessary to coordinate interagency responses to cyber incidents, enhance information sharing with the private sector, and protect critical infrastructure. DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas also recently announced a series of 60-day “cyber sprints” to address issues ranging from ransomware and the security of industrial control systems to growing the cyber workforce and enhancing international partnerships. After securing $1.7 billion to improve federal IT cybersecurity in the COVID-19 relief bill, the Biden administration’s 2022 budget request includes $2.1 billion for CISA, a $110 million year-over-year increase, and a second $1.7 billion for IT enhancements and cyber and technology research and development. While the increase reflects the importance the Biden administration attaches to cyber and technology, CISA’s funding is still far short of what is needed to defend U.S. national security and compete with America’s adversaries.


By Bradley Bowman

The Biden administration announced on April 9 that it plans to request $715 billion for the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2022. With threats only growing, that level of requested defense funding is disappointing and irresponsible. In 2018, now-Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks and the other members of the bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission recommended increasing the base defense budget at an inflation-adjusted average rate of 3 to 5 percent in the coming years. Yet, under the Biden proposal, defense funding will not even keep pace with projected inflation. That would effectively cut defense spending as Beijing and Moscow sprint to field advanced capabilities and look to undermine America’s military advantages. The top U.S. military officer in the Indo-Pacific has warned that Beijing could attempt to attack Taiwan “in the next six years.” The Pentagon needs robust defense funding to conduct current operations, strengthen readiness, improve its forward-positioned military posture, and advance a much-needed military modernization effort. The Biden administration deserves credit for efforts to strengthen strategic alliances and partnerships in the Indo-Pacific. But those efforts will mean little if the United States lacks the forward-positioned hard-power capability to persuade Beijing that it cannot accomplish its political objectives with military aggression.


By John Hardie

Russia’s military build-up in Crimea and on the Russian-Ukrainian border has seized Western attention in recent weeks. In keeping with its objective of rejuvenating the transatlantic alliance, the Biden administration ramped up consultations with European allies and Ukraine, and joined its G7 allies in urging Russia to deescalate. On April 2, President Biden made his long-awaited first call to his Ukrainian counterpart. Biden reaffirmed U.S. support, pressed Kyiv for progress on key reforms, and discussed U.S.-Ukraine COVID-19 cooperation. USAID later announced it would provide Ukraine with much-needed vaccination assistance. Secretary Blinken echoed Biden’s message to his Ukrainian counterpart this week during an emergency visit to Brussels. But the administration sidestepped Kyiv’s latest request for a NATO Membership Action Plan, while continuing the longstanding U.S. policy of holding the door open for Ukrainian membership. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made headlines in Europe when he announced Washington will station 500 addition troops in Germany, reversing Trump-era plans to cut the U.S. presence in retaliation for Berlin’s low defense spending. Germany, for its part, plans to sail a warship through the South China Sea this year for the first time since 2002 – a positive development in U.S. efforts to enlist European support vis-à-vis China. In another positive development, the State Department announced earlier this month it would re-enforce sanctions against nine Belarusian state companies unless Minsk releases all political prisoners.


By Varsha Koduvayur

Saudi Arabia sentenced Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, a 37-year-old aid worker, to 20 years in prison followed by a 20-year travel ban for tweets critical of the government, highlighting an uptick in convictions of human rights activists. In February, Riyadh sentenced six activists to multi-year prison terms. Mohammed al-Rabiah, an activist who supported women drivers, was arrested in May 2018 and faces the prospect of a 20-year sentence like Sadhan’s. In March, a Saudi court denied an appeal for a modified sentence for prominent rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who faces a five-year travel ban and three years of probation. The Biden administration has little leverage to halt this activity, as the kingdom’s leaders now believe that they can do nothing right in Washington’s eyes. Washington already pulled support for the Saudi war in Yemen, de-listed the Iran-backed Houthi terror group, and republicized information on the Saudi government’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Democratic lawmakers now look to increase pressure on Saudi Arabia, believing that President Biden’s actions against the kingdom did not go far enough. Three Democratic lawmakers recently introduced a bill that would ban Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from entering the United States, and a letter signed by 76 legislators called on the administration to “publicly pressure Saudi Arabia” to lift its blockade on Yemen. The White House says it wants to recalibrate, but not rupture, U.S.-Saudi ties, but the relationship is unraveling as pressure from Democratic ranks urge harsher policies.


By Craig Singleton

The fishing vessels arrived one and two at a time, dropping anchor off the disputed Whitsun Reef near the Philippines. As the Chinese-flagged fleet grew larger, the vessels tethered themselves together, hunkering down for a gray-zone stand-off that has rattled the Pacific. Beijing burst Washington’s deterrence bubble just as the administration released its 2022 defense budget, which disappointed with a modest 1.5 percent spending increase. Washington’s non-response to China’s maritime aggression on Whitsun has eroded U.S. credibility. It may have also increased the likelihood of a military confrontation, permitting Beijing to solidify its gains while neutralizing U.S. diplomatic and economic leverage. The Chinese fishing fleet has since shrunk, but China can be expected to maintain a persistent presence at the reef and to wield this stand-off to demonstrate that Beijing can flout international norms with impunity. Meanwhile, U.S. credibility in the region has been further strained by continued unrest in Burma, where more than 600 people have died in recent weeks. Burma’s leaders appear ready to ride out a U.S.-led pressure campaign, which to date has yielded few results.

International Organizations

By Richard Goldberg

The administration announced the controversial resumption of U.S. contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) despite reports that the agency’s education curriculum is antisemitic, confirmation by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that UNRWA inflates its “refugee” numbers, and longstanding concerns about the agency’s ties to terror-group affiliates. After resuming funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) in January without any demands for reform, the administration issued a statement with 13 countries criticizing a WHO report on the origins of COVID-19 as “significantly delayed” and lacking “access to complete, original data and samples.” Finally, the administration announced it would lift U.S. sanctions on the outgoing International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor despite the Court’s announcement that it was moving forward with a war-crime probe of Israel, which is not a member of the ICC and has a functioning judicial system. In a positive step, the Biden administration announced its support for the candidacy of an American to be the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union – a small but important agency that is currently led by a Chinese national and sits at the heart of Beijing’s strategy to control standards-making organizations.


By Richard Goldberg

On the eve of indirect nuclear talks between the United States and Iran, the Biden administration reportedly collapsed on two major negotiating positions that date back to the 2020 presidential campaign – handing Iran strategic victories before talks even commenced. President Biden had vowed not to provide Iran with sanctions relief prior to Iran’s return to “strict compliance” with the 2015 nuclear deal, yet his administration reportedly offered Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for only modest nuclear concessions. Additionally, while Secretary Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January that it was not in the U.S. interest to lift terrorism sanctions on Iran – specifically terrorism sanctions imposed on the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) – the Biden administration is reportedly offering Iran sanctions relief for both the CBI and NIOC. The administration now claims that many sanctions imposed on Iranian entities for supporting terrorism are not “legitimate,” and that any terrorism, human rights, or missile sanctions deemed “inconsistent” with the nuclear deal will be lifted – a stunning change to the terms of the agreement, which the Obama administration claimed allowed the United States to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons.


By Jonathan Schanzer and David May

Reports in Israel suggest that American officials could be leaking information to the press about Israeli strikes against Iranian vessels, thus endangering the operations of Washington’s Israeli ally. The Biden administration further irked officials in Jerusalem by stating its view that the West Bank is occupied, and by contributing $150 million to UNRWA, the corrupt UN refugee agency that perpetuates the falsehood that there are 5 million Palestinian refugees. The White House restored funding without demanding any reform. Similarly, the administration is demanding little of the Palestinian Authority, which is scheduled to hold elections on May 22 with participation by the Hamas terrorist group. Should Hamas win seats, it could trigger a cut-off of American funding and spark a crisis with Israel. The White House’s silence is stunning. Finally, after the administration initially stood up to the International Criminal Court for targeting Israel (which does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and has a functioning judiciary), the White House withdrew sanctions against the Court. On the positive side of the ledger, the White House is advancing a Trump-era $23 billion F-35 deal with the United Arab Emirates, which should help keep the Abraham Accords on track. Also, Secretary Austin visited Israel, marking the administration’s first cabinet-level visit. Austin conveyed that America’s “commitment to Israel is enduring and ironclad.” Still, tensions remain high over Iran. On April 13, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat, convened a second round of Iran strategy talks, with few signs of alignment.


By David Maxwell and Mathew Ha

Reports suggest that the Biden administration’s Korea policy review is in its final stages. On April 2, the national security advisors from South Korea, the United States, and Japan met and released a joint statement calling for “full implementation of relevant UN Security Council resolutions by the international community, including North Korea, preventing proliferation.” This wording is similar to the statement released following the Quad summit in March. This will likely form the foundation for the new U.S. policy (along with deterrence and defense). If the focus is on full implementation of UN Security Council resolutions, it is possible sanctions will remain in place to convince North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un that his policies are failing. President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party suffering a shellacking in mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan. This does not bode well for the ruling party’s prospects in next year’s presidential election. U.S. and South Korean diplomats initialed the Special Measures Agreement on cost sharing, and now South Korea’s National Assembly must approve it. There is some ruling-party opposition to the agreement, and after the party’s electoral losses, it is difficult to predict the outcome of the process.


By Tony Badran

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale arrived in Beirut this week as part of a last regional tour before leaving his post. Hale’s visit comes against the backdrop of a stalled government-formation process in Lebanon. Hale expressed the Biden administration’s readiness to provide help once there is a “Lebanese partner” – a new government – even when there is no doubt such a government would still be Hezbollah-dominated. Hale arrived after a decision by Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister to press ahead with a decree expanding Lebanon’s exclusive economic zone by 1,430 square kilometers, which would include Israeli offshore gas fields. Israel warned this would torpedo the already-frozen talks to resolve the maritime border dispute between the two countries, which the previous administration unwisely launched in its final months. Lebanon’s president has not yet signed the decree. Should the cabinet adopt it, Beirut would submit it to the United Nations as Lebanon’s official position. Hale amplified the warnings of the U.S. ambassador in Beirut against this move and expressed continued U.S. willingness to facilitate negotiations. He dangled the prospect of financial gain from potential offshore gas findings, even as he alluded to Hezbollah’s continued stockpiling of Iranian-supplied precision-guided munitions, which could provoke the next conflict with Israel. In short, the administration appears to be doubling down on the ill-advised maritime issue while also acquiescing to the likelihood of a future Hezbollah-led government in Lebanon, and without so much as a request to address the threat from the terror group’s increasingly lethal weaponry.


By John Hardie

President Biden called President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday amid Russia’s military build-up in Crimea and on the border with Ukraine. Biden indicated a willingness to cooperate where U.S. and Russian interests align, most notably on arms control and emerging security issues. Expressing his desire for “a stable and predictable relationship with Russia,” Biden proposed holding a summit “to discuss the full range of issues facing” the two countries. At the same time, Biden “called on Russia to de-escalate tensions” with Ukraine and “made clear that the United States will act firmly” against Russian threats, “such as cyber intrusions and election interference.” Biden followed through on Thursday, expanding previous sanctions to bar U.S. financial institutions from participating in the primary market for ruble-denominated Russian sovereign debt, a significant escalation of economic pressure. The administration also expelled 10 Russian officials from the Russian Embassy in Washington and designed 46 individuals and entities for attempting to influence the 2020 U.S. presidential election, aiding Russia’s intelligence services, or supporting Russia’s occupation of Crimea and human rights abuses there. Finally, Biden signed an executive order authorizing sanctions against any individual or entity involved in any sector of the Russian economy or engaging in a broad range of malign activity, designed to signal that Russia will face addition economic pain “if it continues or escalates its destabilizing international actions.”

Sunni Jihadism

By Bill Roggio

The Biden administration will withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. The Taliban rejected a U.S. peace plan and said it would consider allowing the United States to extend its presence only if the U.S.-aligned Afghan government frees 7,000 prisoners and the United Nations lifts sanctions against the terror group’s leaders. The withdraw will leave the country in chaos. Al-Qaeda is operating in at least 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces despite Taliban claims that the group left the country in 2001. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Intelligence recently killed a senior al-Qaeda military commander who plotted major attacks with the Taliban. The Biden administration has also agreed to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops from Iraq, but no timeline has been established. This comes as the U.S. military continues to target the Islamic State in Iraq.  The Islamic State is growing more violent in Mozambique, while al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa, conducted suicide attacks in Mogadishu and Baidoa and launched assaults on two Somali bases outside the capital. Sunni jihadism appears set to expand, even in places where it had been largely contained. One area to watch is the White House response to Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist who heads an al-Qaeda-allied group in Syria, who is lobbying to get removed from the U.S. and UN sanctions lists.


By David Adesnik

Secretary Blinken made his first significant remarks about Syria during a UN Security Council meeting on March 29. Blinken called on the Council to extend its authorization for delivering aid to northwest Syria from across the Turkish border, a route that prevents interference by authorities in Damascus. Russia has threatened to veto a new authorization, even though there are 2.7 million displaced persons in northwest Syria, many living in camps or abandoned buildings, where they also must contend with Russian bombing runs and artillery strikes by Assad regime forces. The question the secretary left unanswered was how the United States and its allies would bring pressure to bear on Moscow to prevent it from vetoing any resolution to reauthorize cross-border aid. In his remarks, Blinken did not even identify Russia as the main obstacle to reauthorization, instead urging the Council as a whole to act responsibly. On April 6, the United States announced an additional $596 million worth of aid for the Syrian people, including refugees. There is also an urgent need to reform how the United Nations delivers aid paid for by the United States and other donors, since the Assad regime diverts substantial amounts. The administration’s inclination to engage in diplomacy with the Islamic Republic of Iran, with the likelihood of sanctions relief, is likely to provide the regime with additional cash to fund its war efforts in Syria – thus perpetuating a conflict that the administration is looking to mitigate or even resolve.


By Aykan Erdemir

President Biden is holding Turkey to account for its actions. He is giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the cold shoulder; the two have not talked since Biden took office. Biden’s first Turkey-related statement on March 21 was a rebuke of Erdogan for withdrawing Turkey from an international convention on combating violence against women. Secretary Blinken referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner” and criticized Ankara for aligning with Moscow by acquiring Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system. On April 7, the Federal Register published sanctions the State Department imposed last December on Turkish officials involved in the S-400 sale. The State Department strongly refuted accusations by the Turkish interior minister that America was behind a 2016 failed coup in Turkey. The U.S. government filed an amicus brief with a Washington, DC, appeals court in a case against Erdogan’s bodyguards who attacked demonstrators outside the Turkish Embassy. The State Department can still build on these tougher policies by imposing its new “Khashoggi Ban” visa restrictions on Turkish officials who repress dissidents abroad. How strongly the administration implements the S-400 sanctions will be another important indicator of the White House’s commitment to holding Erdogan to account.

The analyses above do not necessarily represent the institutional views of FDD.


Arab Politics China Cyber Gulf States Indo-Pacific International Organizations Iran Israel Jihadism Lebanon Military and Political Power North Korea Russia Syria The Long War Turkey U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy