April 30, 2021 | FDD Tracker-Late April Trends

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker

Late April Trends
April 30, 2021 | FDD Tracker-Late April Trends

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker

Late April Trends

Trend Overview

Edited by Jonathan Schanzer

Welcome back to FDD’s Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker, where every two weeks our experts and scholars assess the administration’s foreign policy, with trendlines of very positive, positive, neutral, negative, or very negative. Since our last installment, the administration has earned higher marks in a few areas, but in the areas of Defense, Iran, Lebanon, and Sunni Jihadism, the trend remains very negative. A number of policies remain neutral simply because they have yet to be fully articulated. The White House is moving remarkably quickly on a number of fronts, so many of these trendlines are likely to change again soon. Check back again in two weeks for updates.

Trending Positive

Trending Neutral

Trending Negative

Trending Very Negative

Arms Control and Nonproliferation

By Anthony Ruggiero and Andrea Stricker

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Negative

The E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom) and Iran continued talks in Vienna aimed at brokering a U.S. return to the deeply flawed 2015 nuclear deal. Iran is concurrently enriching uranium to a level of 60 percent purity, an enrichment level Tehran had never reached before, representing irreversible gains. Iran also informed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it plans to add additional cascades of advanced IR-4 centrifuges at its Natanz facility following an explosion in mid-April that affected centrifuge operations at the plant. The IAEA and Iran began discussing Tehran’s undeclared nuclear activities. A new State Department report on arms control compliance stated that Iran’s failure to declare its nuclear material and related sites could constitute violations of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations. However, the Biden administration is now looking for ways to provide sanctions relief to the Islamic Republic, rather than holding it responsible. On a positive note, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) suspended Syria’s voting rights until Damascus comes into compliance with its Chemical Weapons Convention obligations. This unprecedented suspension provides an important standard for future OPCW action to address Russia’s use of chemical weapons.

China

By Craig Singleton

 Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Neutral

While the Biden administration’s China policy has yet to be fully articulated, Beijing continues to challenge Washington. In a high-profile speech last Tuesday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping outlined his vision for a new world order without a single dominant power, but rather one centered around the United Nations and other multilateral institutions. Xi’s revisionist rhetoric signals Beijing’s increasing emphasis on a more “integrated” world order – one not led solely by the West. The speech was clearly meant to undermine America’s position as the world’s dominant power. It occurred on the heels of two other important events: meetings in Beijing between U.S. climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterparts as well as an Earth Day conference hosted by President Joe Biden. The limits of America’s influence were on display during both events, with China reiterating that climate cooperation would depend on how the United States responds to Beijing’s deeply troubling policies regarding Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang province. Working together with China on climate change carries significant risk for Washington. It could help rehabilitate China’s tarnished international image following its COVID-19 cover-up and reinforce Xi’s outrageously false narrative that China is a responsible global citizen. The U.S.-China relationship likely will also see turbulence in the lead-up to this June’s G7 meeting in the United Kingdom, during which Biden intends to rally other governments to increase pressure on Beijing over its use of forced labor, including its genocide against Uighur Muslims.

Cyber

By RADM (Ret.) Mark Montgomery and Annie Fixler

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Positive

Over the past two weeks, the Biden administration has demonstrated a continued commitment to addressing cybersecurity issues. Publicly attributing the SolarWinds breach to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the Treasury Department issued “sweeping” sanctions against Russia for a range of malign activity, including “put[ting] at risk the global technology supply chain.” The FBI and Department of Homeland Security, meanwhile, publicized information about how Russian cyber threat actors operate and best practices to protect private industry against their tactics. Collectively, these actions impose costs and make it harder for hackers to succeed. But as Anne Neuberger, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, acknowledged, no one action will change the Kremlin’s calculus in cyberspace. The United States, she continued, also needs to prioritize “rapid, effective modernization” of its information technology systems. Having just completed a two-month review, she called the “significant gaps” in federal cybersecurity an “unpleasant surprise.” Meanwhile, Chris Inglis, the administration’s nominee to be the first-ever national cyber director, stated that his priority will be enhanced cooperation with the private sector and the establishment of a joint collaborative environment for sharing threats and intelligence – recommendations of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. Agencies across the federal government are also stepping up their cybersecurity efforts. The Department of Justice announced a new ransomware task force, and the Department of Energy launched a 100-day effort to “secure the energy sector supply chain.”

Defense

By Bradley Bowman

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Negative

President Biden announced on April 14 that the United States will withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan by September 11 regardless of conditions on the ground. Ignoring the lessons of the disastrous 2011 withdrawal from Iraq, which led to the rise of the Islamic State, Biden declared that “it’s time for American troops to come home.” Assessments by top intelligence and military officials make clear that after U.S. forces are gone, the United States will know less about terrorist activities in the region and will be slower and less effective in responding to them. That is a serious problem given the presence of more than 20 U.S.-designated jihadist terrorist organizations in the region. Perhaps that is why a top counterterrorism expert says U.S. “effectiveness in protecting our homeland will be significantly diminished” after the withdrawal. In separate and more positive news, the Biden administration continues to plan for the deployment of 500 additional troops in Germany. That decision will improve NATO’s ability to deter and defeat Russian aggression, while also strengthening U.S.-Germany relations. In a move that will help reinforce the historic 2020 Abraham Accords, the Biden administration also announced plans to move forward with $23 billion in weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, including F-35 aircraft, MQ-9B armed drones, and other equipment.

Europe

By John Hardie

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Positive

The State Department summoned Russia’s chargé d’affaires and joined America’s European allies in support of Czechia amid an escalating diplomatic row sparked when Prague accused Russia of blowing up an arms depot in Czechia in 2014. In another display of transatlantic unity, the administration joined Brussels in urging Georgia’s parliament to sign and implement an EU-brokered agreement to end a months-long political crisis – a first step in putting Georgia back on the road to democratic development and Euro-Atlantic integration. The State Department also issued a statement articulating U.S. policy toward the Western Balkans, supporting their “European integration and membership in key European and Euro-Atlantic institutions.” Notably, the statement echoed Brussels’ rejection of a “non-paper” allegedly circulated among EU officials that recommended redrawing Western Balkan borders along ethnic lines, causing anxiety in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Separately, the administration followed through on its threat to re-sanction nine Belarusian state companies unless Minsk releases all political prisoners, imposing costs for the regime’s repression. The U.S. ambassador reiterated American support for the Belarusian people during a meeting with opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya on the eve of talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko. Finally, the administration announced Biden will make his first foreign visit to the United Kingdom and Belgium in June for G7, NATO, and U.S.-EU summits, aiming to “revitaliz[e] the Transatlantic relationship.” The administration also continues to resist congressional pressure to impose sanctions targeting Nord Stream 2, wary of damaging U.S.-Germany relations.

Gulf

By Varsha Koduvayur

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Negative

The question of arms sales to the Gulf received some clarity this week, after months of review. The Biden administration announced it will proceed with some arms sales to the United Arab Emirates that former President Donald Trump finalized in the last few hours of his term. The $23 billion arms package includes F-35 aircraft, Reaper drones, munitions, and missiles. The administration is also proceeding with the sale of UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters and THAAD missile defense batteries to Saudi Arabia, after U.S. officials noted in February that the administration was considering scrapping past arms sales due to concerns over Riyadh’s human rights record and prosecution of the war in Yemen. It is now unclear whether Congress can stand in the way of these arms deals after the House of Representative voted on April 21st to pass the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act, which seeks to hold the kingdom accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and would ban providing arms or defense services to Saudi Arabia until President Biden can certify that the kingdom is not involved in the “forced repatriation, intimidation, or killing of dissidents.” The legislation attests to progressives’ frustration with Biden’s refusal to directly target Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – a move that likely would greatly undermine U.S.-Saudi relations.

Indo-Pacific

By Craig Singleton

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Negative

Strengthening the Quad (the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia alliance) remains at the heart of the administration’s efforts to undermine China’s regional ambitions. Last week, President Biden hosted Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House, Biden’s first in-person meeting with a world leader since assuming office. The two leaders reiterated their shared commitment to confronting China’s adventurism in the East and South China Seas. At the same time, Australia cancelled two investment agreements between the state of Victoria and the Chinese government, signaling a coordinated effort to push back against China’s economic coercion, including Beijing’s efforts to punish countries calling for an independent investigation into COVID-19’s origins. The Biden administration also quickly mobilized to provide India with drug treatments, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and rapid COVID-19 testing kits after new virus cases spiked across the country. This assistance underscores India’s growing geostrategic importance and Washington’s aim of pulling India further into the West’s orbit. Elsewhere in the region, the administration continues to struggle to influence events in Burma, where the military junta is openly defying the United States.

International Organizations

By Richard Goldberg

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Negative

During a visit to NATO headquarters earlier this month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken communicated the NATO Council’s determination to see Russia reverse its force build-up near Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called on Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and pledged to assist Ukraine with its self-defense needs. Austin also called China the “number-one pacing challenge” to the international order – a signal that the Biden administration may use NATO as a forum to align transatlantic policy to counter China. Separately, the Biden administration led efforts to strip Syria’s voting rights at the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – an overdue first step toward restoring the global norm of zero chemical weapons use. The Biden administration also told the UN Security Council that it expects any participant in the scheduled May 22 Palestinian elections to “accept previous agreements [with Israel], renounce violence and terrorism, and recognize Israel’s right to exist” – a clear reference to Hamas candidates running for office. At the same time, however, the Biden administration was silent as the UN Economic and Social Council elected Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women for a four-year term. That silence may be tied to ongoing nuclear talks in Vienna. Much work remains if the United States is to successfully challenge China’s stranglehold on a number of influential organizations. The White House strategy for doing so is not yet clear.

Iran

By Richard Goldberg

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Very Negative

The Biden administration reportedly offered to lift U.S. terrorism sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran’s agreement to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal. The offer, which includes sanctions relief for the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), and other entities and sectors behind the financing of Iran-sponsored terrorism and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, would breach earlier commitments made by Secretary Blinken. In 2020, he vowed that if elected, the Biden administration would “continue non-nuclear sanctions as a strong hedge against Iranian misbehavior in other areas.” During his 2021 Senate confirmation hearing, Blinken was asked whether he believed it was in America’s national security interest to lift terrorism sanctions currently imposed on Iran, including the CBI and NIOC. “I do not,” Blinken responded, “and I think there is nothing … inconsistent with making sure that we are doing everything possible – including the toughest possible sanctions, to deal with Iranian support for terrorism.” Last week, however, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price suggested terrorism sanctions imposed on Iran were inconsistent with the nuclear deal – a departure from Blinken’s testimony and a troubling sign that the White House is prepared to cave to the regime’s key demands, while gaining nothing tangible in return.

Israel

By Jonathan Schanzer and David May

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Negative

After weeks of supporting Palestinian elections without safeguards, the Biden administration finally spoke out against Hamas participation. At an April 22 UN Security Council meeting on the Middle East, a U.S. representative declared, “[P]articipants in the democratic process must accept previous agreements, renounce violence and terrorism, and recognize Israel’s right to exist.” Hamas, which had been leading in the polls, had no intention of meeting this standard. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas finally postponed the elections on Thursday. This could now spur Hamas to renew attacks against the Palestinian Authority and/or Israel. Meanwhile, an Israeli delegation traveled to DC this week to warn against returning to the Iran nuclear deal. However, prior the meeting, the White House said the delegation will not alter the administration’s position on sanctions relief and other concessions to Iran. Relatedly, the administration has reportedly warned Israel to stop discussing its role in the explosion at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility. This comes as a leaked audio recording emerged in which Iran’s foreign minister disclosed that John Kerry, his then-counterpart and current presidential envoy for climate, informed him of Israeli strikes against Iranian assets in Syria. The White House has not indicated whether Kerry will be held responsible for this dangerous protocol breach and possible leak of classified information to a State Sponsor of Terrorism. In positive news, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said the administration will oppose Israel’s unfair treatment at the United Nations, support Israeli-Arab normalization, and counter Iran’s aggressive behavior.

Korea

By David Maxwell and Mathew Ha

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Neutral

On April 30, the White House press secretary announced the administration’s policy review is complete. The policy has not yet been released, but preliminary reporting suggests the administration will pursue a phased agreement. The administration must continue enforcing sanctions and costs rather than offering concessions, as Pyongyang has given no indication it will truly denuclearize. Ahead of the May 21st summit between President Biden and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Washington must continue its open dialogue with Seoul in defining their underlying assumptions regarding the Kim regime and the foundation of a coordinated policy. There will be several points of friction. Moon is facing criticism for his handling of COVID-19 vaccinations, and the South Korean public believes a “vaccine swap” with the United States should be on the agenda. Congress’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a hearing last week criticizing a controversial South Korean law banning anti-Kim regime leaflet activity. The law undermines the development of an effective information campaign against the North. Another challenge stems from Seoul’s reluctance to participate in the so-called Quad-plus, due to fear of inciting tensions with Beijing, which has expressed its “concerns.” Next month the 19th Korea-U.S. Integrated Defense Dialogue will discuss operational-control transition, THAAD missile defense, U.S. Forces Korea’s access to training areas, and other core defense issues. The results of these discussions and the summit will determine the future direction of the South Korea-U.S. alliance.

Lebanon

By Tony Badran

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Negative

The Biden administration is doubling down on the longstanding U.S. policy of supporting the Hezbollah-controlled government in Lebanon and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which support and answer to the failed government. Following high-level visits by the commanders of U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) in February and March, respectively, the U.S. Embassy announced that on April 15, a U.S.-flagged ship docked at the Port of Beirut and delivered 55 armored trucks worth $13 million, ostensibly to enable the LAF better to defend and protect Lebanon’s borders. Against what, however, the administration has not made clear. The LAF should be countering Hezbollah’s arms smuggling; CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie last week referenced Iran’s continued shipments of weapons to Lebanon. However, in discussing the LAF’s role, McKenzie expressed no such expectation. Instead, he described the LAF as a “pillar of stability,” even as the Lebanese military does not lift a finger against the Iran-backed terror group. Consistent with this failed policy, the administration requested another $60 million from Congress for the Lebanese government, ostensibly to secure the border with Syria, without mentioning Hezbollah. The administration also requested another $10 million to support law enforcement (the Internal Security Forces) and the rule of law (the Ministry of Justice) in Lebanon. Avoiding mention of Hezbollah is now a theme. The terror group is now likely to prosper from U.S. policy, as the Biden administration prepares to grant significant sanctions relief to its patron in Tehran.

Russia

By John Hardie

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Positive

The Biden administration’s stated Russia policy is to confront Moscow over malign behavior while also seeking cooperation where interests align, ultimately aiming toward a more “stable, predictable” relationship. After President Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “killer” and imposed sanctions targeting Russian sovereign debt, the administration emphasized cooperation over the past two weeks, while warning Moscow against further escalation. The administration scrapped plans to send warships to the Black Sea amid a Russian military build-up, though later sent a Coast Guard cutter. U.S.-Russian discussions continued over Biden’s offer for a summit with Putin. During his climate summit, Biden specifically praised Putin’s call for global CO2 reductions, saying America “looks forward to cooperation with Russia … in that endeavor.” The administration elected to use private channels rather than public pressure to warn Moscow of undisclosed “consequences” for the potential death of imprisoned dissident Alexei Navalny, who ultimately ended his three-week-long hunger strike. Using both carrots and sticks, the administration vows it will not “shy away from imposing costs” for unacceptable behavior even while looking to reduce tensions. In a positive sign, the administration dropped plans to hire a scholar criticized as soft on Moscow as the National Security Council’s Russia director, signaling Russia hawks in the administration may hold the upper hand.

Sunni Jihadism

By Bill Roggio

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Very Negative

The U.S. military has begun withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan and handing over bases to Afghan forces. More than 650 additional U.S. troops have been deployed to Afghanistan to secure the withdrawal. The U.S. military will no longer provide air support to Afghan forces after it withdraws. The fighting will undoubtedly continue; the Taliban maintain that they are fighting for the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban are collecting millions of dollars’ worth of taxes from Afghan businesses, rendering the U.S.-backed government feckless. Elsewhere in the Long War, the al-Qaeda affiliate group al-Shabaab seized control of the Somali town of Ba’adweyne. U.S. intelligence officials believe al-Shabaab is preparing to take other towns in Galmudug state. Like the Taliban, al-Shabaab collects millions of dollars’ worth of taxes from Somali citizens. Finally, jihadism continues to take its toll in Mozambique. The French energy company Total suspended operations in the northern part of the country due to the Islamic State’s insurgency. More than 50,000 civilians have been displaced by fighting in Palma in northeast Mozambique.

Syria

By David Adesnik

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Neutral

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons suspended Syria’s voting rights in response to persistent violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention by the Bashar al-Assad regime. It was the first time the organization ever imposed such a penalty on a member state. The Biden administration firmly supported the initiative, which both the Trump administration and European governments had previously advocated. Admittedly, the loss of voting rights imposes no material costs on Syria, nor is the Assad regime any more likely to surrender its illegal stockpile of chemical weapons. Overall, the Biden administration’s policy toward Syria remains uncertain. The president’s strategic guidance calls on the United States to lead a coalition of democratic states resisting authoritarianism, yet the White House has yet to apply this framework to Syria. While prioritizing efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, the administration has not clearly challenged Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Levant. Nor has the administration appointed a special envoy for Syria to replace former President Trump’s appointees, although an acting envoy is now in place. The secretary of state has spoken clearly about the importance of reauthorizing UN aid deliveries to northwest Syria, but it is unclear how Washington will prevent a Russian veto.

Turkey

By Aykan Erdemir

Previous Trend (Early April): Trending Positive

President Biden, who had been giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan the “cold shoulder” by not calling him for three months, finally phoned him on April 23. But the call was to break the bad news to Erdogan that the White House would use the term “genocide” the following day in a statement commemorating the Ottoman campaign of exterminating Armenians more than a century ago. Biden’s carefully crafted message, which condemns Ottoman authorities while sparing the Republic of Turkey and its citizens, showed diplomatic skill. It also signaled that the United States would not bow to Erdogan’s pressure tactics, but rather would appeal to the hearts and minds of Turkish citizens oppressed by the Erdogan regime. The striking brevity and tone of the Biden-Erdogan call readout issued by the White House – noting Biden’s interest in “effective management of disagreements” – also reflect the cold mood in bilateral affairs. In May, Biden should be prepared for renewed Turkish attempts to meddle in the Manhattan federal case against the Turkish public lender Halkbank for evasion of U.S. sanctions on Iran. The handling of this case will be an important indicator of whether the administration is truly prepared to hold Erdogan to account.

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

Issues:

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