March 1, 2023 | FDD Tracker: February 1-28, 2023

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: March

March 1, 2023 | FDD Tracker: February 1-28, 2023

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: March

Trend Overview

By David Adesnik and John Hardie

Welcome back to the Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker. Once a month, we ask FDD’s experts and scholars to assess the administration’s foreign policy. They provide trendlines of very positive, positive, neutral, negative, or very negative for the areas they watch.

President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv, where he vowed to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” Yet Biden is still hesitating to give Ukraine the weapons it needs to prevail on the battlefield, such as the Army Tactical Missile System. Meanwhile, NATO leaders are signaling they want Kyiv to enter negotiations with Moscow, even as Russian atrocities continue.

A mix of bold rhetoric and indecision also characterized Biden’s response to the appearance of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the continental United States. The administration claimed the balloon posed “no risk” yet sent an F-22 fighter jet to shoot it down. The president insisted the incident did no damage to the U.S.-China relationship, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken called it a “violation of our sovereignty” that must “never happen again.”

U.S. policy toward Iran reflects similar confusion. The administration speaks of solidarity with protesters who have spent five months marching for human rights while the regime responds with torture and executions. Yet the White House refuses to abandon hope of reviving some version of the 2015 nuclear deal, even as United Nations inspectors report Iran has enriched uranium to 84 percent purity, just shy of weapons-grade.

Check back with us next month to see if the administration has found a way to resolve these contradictions.


Washington and much of the country became consumed by reports that a long-range Chinese aerial reconnaissance balloon had breached U.S. airspace and hovered over sensitive U.S. military installations. The controversy forced Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a much-anticipated trip to Beijing that the administration had hoped would put a “floor” in the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship. Just as Sputnik’s launch served as a wake-up call to the American public regarding the Soviet Union’s intentions, this latest Chinese espionage incident represents the first tangible moment most Americans have experienced in Washington’s modern-day rivalry with Beijing.

For its part, the Biden administration offered competing and seemingly contradictory explanations regarding the threat posed by the Chinese craft, arguing that it posed “no risk” yet ordering an F-22 to shoot it down. Moreover, President Biden himself stated bluntly that the spying incident did not harm Sino-U.S. relations, even as Blinken described the incident as “unacceptable,” “irresponsible,” and a “violation of our sovereignty” that must “never happen again.”

Blinken’s decision to postpone his Beijing trip was later validated at the Munich Security Conference. After meeting with the Chinese Communist Party’s senior-most diplomat, Wang Yi, Blinken claimed Beijing was considering providing Russia with lethal military assistance for use in Ukraine. This disclosure undermined China’s efforts to repair ties with Europe, leading EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to warn Beijing that providing Moscow with weapons would cross a “red line.” Still left unclear is how the Biden administration specifically intends to hold China accountable if it does, in fact, proceed with these transfers.


The Biden administration strengthened international partnerships on cybersecurity. The Department of Homeland Security announced that the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and other Middle East countries, would be expanded to include cooperation on cybersecurity. Officials envision sharing intelligence on cybersecurity to protect critical infrastructure, address common threats, and improve interoperability. In addition, the United States, Australia, India, and Japan launched the Quad Cyber Challenge, designed to provide individuals and organizations with resources and basic cybersecurity training to defend against cybercriminals.

Furthermore, the Department of Justice and Commerce Department announced a new task force dedicated to stopping foreign adversaries, particularly China, from illegally acquiring sensitive U.S. data and technology. Dubbed the Disruptive Technology Strike Force, the initiative will complement efforts by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which screens foreign investment in U.S. companies.

Lastly, the National Cyber Director, Chris Inglis, announced his retirement. Under his leadership, the U.S. government formulated a declaratory cybersecurity policy in the forthcoming National Cyber Strategy, expected to be released in the next week. Acting National Cyber Director Kemba Walden will take over until a permanent successor is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. In mid-February, she and other U.S. officials attended the Munich Cybersecurity Conference, where they discussed ongoing efforts to disrupt malicious cyber activities and reinforced U.S. commitment to working with global leaders on addressing cybersecurity threats.


Anticipating renewed Russian offensives in Ukraine, the Biden administration continued in February to provide robust security assistance to Kyiv, with major packages announced on February 3, 20, and 24. The latter date represented the one-year anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked full-scale invasion, and the United States has committed more than $31.7 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since then. That equates to roughly 3.9 percent of the amount ($816.7 billion) authorized for the Pentagon for fiscal year 2023.

Thanks to the bravery and determination of Ukrainians and U.S.-led security assistance from the West, Kyiv has survived the Russian onslaught so far. After a laudable and symbolically important trip to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, President Biden declared in a speech in Warsaw on February 21 that “Kyiv stands strong.” Whether that remains true may depend on whether the administration can effectively explain to Americans why the outcome in Ukraine matters and is worth the investment.

In mid-February, administration officials traveled to Saudi Arabia to participate in U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council Working Group meetings focusing on integrated air and missile defense, maritime security, Iran, and counterterrorism. These meetings represent an important effort to build a regional security architecture that could help deter and defeat aggression from Tehran and its terror proxies.

The Department of Defense on February 1 announced plans to accelerate the full implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines. Given the Philippines’ vital location in the first island chain adjacent to the South China Sea and near Taiwan, these timely efforts can help discourage those in Beijing contemplating aggression.


As the war in Ukraine enters a critical phase, Vladimir Putin seems to be betting Russia can outlast Western support for Ukrainian forces. President Biden sought to dispel concerns about Western fortitude during a surprise visit to Kyiv, vowing to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” Top U.S. officials expressed similar sentiments at the Munich Security Conference, the February meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, and the NATO Defense Ministerial in Brussels.

While the Biden team deserves credit for its public displays of resolve and unity with transatlantic allies, its private messaging inspires less confidence. Administration officials leaked that they expect congressional appetite for Ukraine aid to dwindle over the coming year. Meanwhile, some Eastern and Central European allies have expressed growing concern about Western staying power, pointing to NATO’s lack of consensus on its war aims in Ukraine. Although the administration is careful to stress that such decisions are Kyiv’s to make, its policy seems clear: Help Ukraine retake as much territory as possible up to the February 2022 lines, then push for peace talks.

Already, U.S. and Western European officials are beginning to shift focus toward a post-war settlement — even though Putin has shown no intention to stop fighting, let alone accept genuine peace. The Germans, French, and British reportedly hope to leverage Kyiv’s requests for post-war security guarantees to encourage Ukraine to begin negotiations later this year. Biden appears to be on board, having reportedly discussed such “commitments” while in Kyiv. Washington’s mixed messaging risks reinforcing Putin’s belief that Western support for Ukraine will inevitably wane.


The United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) held a meeting of their Working Group on Iran, expressing “their commitment to expanding defense cooperation and interoperability.” Yet, a week later, the Biden administration unveiled its Conventional Arms Transfer policy, which tightened restrictions on the very arms sales required to enhance “interoperability with [U.S.] allies and partners.”

The administration conditioned sales on ensuring that U.S. arms would not cause “adverse political, social, or economic effects within the recipient country, including by negatively impacting the protection of human rights, fundamental freedoms, or the activity of civil society,” or “encourage or contribute to corruption” or “instability, authoritarianism, or transnational repression.” In 2021, Freedom House classified as “Free” fewer than half of the 65 foreign nations that received U.S. arms.

Washington’s restrictions on arms sales came amid reports that Iran has enriched uranium up to 84 percent, putting Tehran on the verge of producing weapons-grade uranium. Other reports indicated Washington was planning to unfreeze $7 billion of Iranian assets in return for Tehran’s release of four American hostages.

On Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the ball is in Iran’s court, implying Washington would wait indefinitely for Tehran to return to the nuclear talks. This patient and forgiving approach to an adversary contrasts sharply with the administration’s conditions on arms sales to allies. This lesson is not lost on GCC states, which feel increasingly vulnerable next to an Iranian regime that is ignoring the International Atomic Energy Agency’s censure, violating non-proliferation charters, and flouting international law.


One year after the Biden administration released its Indo-Pacific Strategy, provocative actions by China, as well as by Russia and North Korea, have prompted the United States and many of its closest Indo-Pacific allies to invest in stronger military capabilities and deepen their cooperation. The State Department is also seeking to plus up its regional presence and re-opened its embassy in the Solomon Islands to counter China’s push into the South Pacific. America’s transatlantic allies are also increasingly eyeing the region, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg warning Beijing that the military alliance is prepared to work closely with partners in the Indo-Pacific to ensure stability. These and other important moves signal the growing U.S. commitment to this increasingly volatile region, even as policymakers grapple with events unfolding in Europe.

Taiwan represents a flashpoint in the Sino-U.S. rivalry. However, so does the South China Sea, a critical economic zone mired by overlapping territorial claims between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Case in point: A Chinese fighter jet armed with air-to-air missiles intercepted a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft last month as it flew past the contested Paracel Islands, home to some of China’s largest overseas military installations. Although the Navy’s P-8 Poseidon aircraft was operating in accordance with international law and located miles from China’s claimed jurisdiction, this latest mid-air incident underscores the potential for a miscalculation by China’s inexperienced military as it seeks to deny foreign forces from operating in international waters in China’s “near seas.”

International Organizations

The Biden administration continues to provide unconditional assistance to the World Health Organization (WHO) despite a report from the journal Nature that Chinese pressure led the agency to abandon plans for a second phase of its investigation into the origins of COVID-19. Though WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later vowed to continue probing the pandemic’s beginnings, Washington lost the leverage necessary to ensure an independent probe when it supported Tedros’ re-election in 2021 and acquiesced to his 2022 budget plan, which reduced the influence of large voluntary contributors such as the United States. The failure to press Beijing on COVID-19 origins gained significance as The Wall Street Journal reported the U.S. Department of Energy believes the virus most likely leaked from a laboratory in China.

Meanwhile, the administration succumbed to anti-Israel pressure at the UN Security Council. While no member state put forward a resolution or statement following multiple terrorist attacks targeting Jewish civilians this year, a threatened resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank prompted U.S. support for a presidential statement that established moral equivalency between Palestinian terrorism and Israeli home construction in Judea and Samaria.

Finally, as if Washington needed more reasons to regret rejoining the UN Human Rights Council, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights tweeted appreciation to China amid a genocide in Xinjiang, while Iran’s foreign minister addressed the council amid an ongoing crackdown on Iranian protesters.


Anti-regime protests in Iran continued into their fifth month and are being exacerbated by worsening economic conditions and festering socio-political grievances. In late February, the Iranian rial fell to record lows, with one U.S. dollar worth over 600,000 rials on the unofficial market. While the Biden administration issued two sets of sanctions against Iran in February — one against a petrochemical smuggling ring and the other targeting the board of directors of a major drone producer — it has made inconsistent and lackluster efforts to enforce the most potent sanctions on Iran.

Similarly, despite condemning Tehran’s nuclear escalation, administration officials continue to believe that diplomacy is “the most effective, sustainable way to deal” with the threat. This belief persists even as Iran enriched uranium to 84 percent purity, a record high for the Islamic Republic. This puts Tehran dangerously close to weapons-grade uranium, which has a purity of 90-plus percent. The Biden administration will likely work with European partners to censure Iran at the upcoming meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Board of Governors, but that will not thwart Iran’s evolving program.

Elsewhere, U.S. pressure failed to prevent Brazil from permitting two Iranian warships to dock in Rio de Janeiro. Reportedly, the administration is advising the UK government not to issue terrorism sanctions against Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, one of whose commanders recently issued death threats against former President Donald Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Central Command chief Kenneth McKenzie. The commander delivered the threats on television while heralding a new Iranian long-range cruise missile.


Amid increased Israeli-Palestinian violence, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin urged his Israeli counterpart on February 25 to defuse tensions with the Palestinians. The following day, Senior U.S., Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, and Egyptian officials met in Aqaba, Jordan, to de-escalate the situation. The parties issued a joint communique, which committed Israelis and Palestinians to refrain from unilateral measures, such as Israeli construction in the West Bank, for three to six months. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied this would change Israeli policy.

Meanwhile, numerous senior administration officials condemned Israel this month for advancing plans to build houses and legalize Israeli communities in the West Bank. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue with Netanyahu and coordinated a condemnatory statement with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The United States also joined a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) statement condemning the Israeli action, though its veto threat averted a UNSC resolution.

However, there has been some progress on the normalization front. At a conference in Israel on January 31, a senior Department of Homeland Security official touted how the Abraham Accords can advance cybersecurity. On February 22, the I2U2, composed of Israel, India, the United States, and the United Arab Emirates, met in Abu Dhabi to discuss further collaboration. And on February 23, Oman announced it would open its skies to civilian planes flying to and from Israel. A Biden spokesperson trumpeted the administration’s “months of quiet diplomatic engagement” on this matter.


North Korea tested a Hwasong-15 intercontinental-range ballistic missile (ICBM), two short-range ballistic missiles, and four cruise missiles in February. The regime issued its usual fiery rhetoric, threatening to turn the Pacific Ocean into a “shooting range” and take “unprecedently persistent and strong counteractions” in response to ROK-U.S. military exercises. Pyongyang also threatened two key air bases in South Korea. There is speculation that North Korean ICBM testing will become the “new normal.” Washington again failed to obtain Chinese and Russian support for a UN Security Council resolution condemning Pyongyang’s missile tests.

In positive news, Washington and Seoul are in alignment regarding the North Korean threat. The ROK Ministry of Defense published its biennial White Paper, which named North Korea as an “enemy” — a change from the previous ROK administration. South Korea’s foreign minister called North Korea a “clear and present danger.”

Meanwhile, the ROK and U.S. militaries conducted a highly publicized extended deterrence tabletop exercise, their eighth since 2011. ROK-Japanese-U.S. trilateral cooperation continues to improve in the face of North Korean provocations, with the three countries conducting air and naval exercises, trilateral missile defense drills, and continued diplomatic engagement. The USS Springfield, a nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, conducted a port call in Pusan, South Korea. This will be followed by a U.S. aircraft carrier in March.

Finally, Seoul pledged an additional $130 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine. South Korea and Poland agreed to launch a ministerial dialogue on defense-industrial cooperation and to hold joint military exercises.

Latin America

The Biden administration continues to overlook democratic backsliding in Latin America, most especially in Mexico. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), under whose leadership Mexican democracy has continued to decline, recently approved a massive overhaul of the country’s National Electoral Institute, undermining its independence. Massive protests have seized Mexico in response, yet the U.S. government has said next to nothing.

Mexico’s democratic backsliding is particularly concerning given the continued need for cooperation with the Mexican government on combating drug trafficking. In a bit of good news, a New York court convicted former Mexican security head Genaro Garcia Luna for taking millions of dollars in bribes from the cartels he was meant to be prosecuting. On the other hand, a recent Senate hearing on fentanyl highlighted multiple areas in which Mexico is failing in its security cooperation with the United States. The Mexican government is not sufficiently supporting joint operations, extraditing criminals to the United States, or sharing information on fentanyl and fentanyl precursor seizures. Nevertheless, the Biden administration has not taken any steps to hold AMLO accountable for these failures.

Meanwhile, Nicaraguan dictator Daniel revoked the citizenship of over 200 political prisoners and expelled them to the United States. The Biden administration has admitted them under humanitarian parole.


The Biden administration and France once again were unable to gain Saudi support for their Lebanon policy, failing to agree on a joint statement at a Paris meeting in February. For the first time, the meeting included Qatar, the administration’s Arab partner in Lebanon.

The United States and France hope to orchestrate the election of a new Lebanese president to fill that vacant office. The Lebanese press have claimed the U.S. ambassador in Beirut told the Hezbollah-allied speaker of parliament that the Biden administration does not object to the election of Suleiman Franjieh, a Hezbollah ally and personal friend of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

The U.S. ambassador also convened a meeting with Lebanese and World Bank officials to push forward the administration’s pet project of transporting Egyptian gas to Lebanon via Syria. Although the deal would violate U.S. sanctions law, the day before the meeting, the Treasury Department issued a general license authorizing transactions with Syria for 180 days following the earthquake that hit Turkey and northern Syria. The ambassador also met with Lebanon’s caretaker foreign minister to discuss the use of Lebanese ports of entry to send aid to Syria through Assad-controlled border crossings.

Finally, following a rumor originating in Beirut, a State Department spokesman denied that Treasury was close to imposing sanctions on Lebanon’s Central Bank governor. In late January, the Central Bank was for the first time in a Treasury designation of a Hezbollah money exchanger, which likely fostered the perception that Washington had the governor in its sights.

Nonproliferation and Biodefense

Russia suspended its participation in New START, a treaty that limits the number of deployed U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear warheads. Before Putin’s announcement, the Biden administration reported to Congress that it could not certify Russia is complying with the treaty. Moscow denied U.S. requests to conduct inspection activities and refused to convene the treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission. Russia has expanded its non-strategic or “tactical” nuclear weapons arsenal, which is not covered by the treaty. Moscow’s actions, coupled with China’s expanding nuclear arsenal, underscore the need to modernize the U.S. nuclear triad.

The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), reportedly detected that Iran is enriching uranium to 84 percent, the regime’s highest purity to date and a short step away from weapons grade. The IAEA has yet to report whether Tehran has stocks of weapons-grade uranium in its possession. The IAEA Board of Governors will convene a quarterly meeting on March 6, where member states may opt to censure Iran for its latest advance as well as for its failure to cooperate with a four-year IAEA investigation into suspicious nuclear activities.

On February 19, North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, its ninth such test since the beginning of 2022. Following the test, the Biden administration and 10 other countries issued a strongly worded statement, and Washington conducted a joint air exercise with South Korea. The United States last issued sanctions against North Korea on December 1.


The Biden administration pledged continued aid for Ukraine as the embattled democracy seeks to defeat a new Russian offensive and plans a major counteroffensive of its own, widely expected to begin sometime this spring. During a surprise visit to Kyiv, President Biden reiterated his vow to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” The administration pledged over $4.6 billion in military assistance for Ukraine in February, although more 80 percent of the aid will be provided via contracts with industry, meaning it will take time to reach the battlefield.

The promised aid includes the Ground Launched Small Diameter Bomb (GLSDB), a system that would allow Ukrainian forces to strike high-value Russian military targets up to 150 kilometers away, far beyond the range of Kyiv’s current Western-supplied artillery rockets. Unfortunately, the first GLSDBs will not arrive on the battlefield until this fall. Ukraine cannot afford to wait that long, as fighting in spring and summer will likely define the war’s future trajectory.

The administration could fill this capability gap now by sending Ukraine the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which the U.S. military already fields. This system, which has a range of 300 kilometers, could help blunt Russia’s offensive and facilitate further Ukrainian gains. Yet the administration continues to rebuff Kyiv’s repeated pleas for ATACMS. For months, the administration has cited concerns about Russian escalation to justify its refusal, and it is reportedly now arguing the United States does not have enough missiles to spare. Neither argument holds water.

Sunni Jihadism

The UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported that Saif al-Adel, a veteran jihadist leader, is now in command of al-Qaeda and is leading the group while sheltering in Iran. The UN team also asserts that veteran al-Qaeda military commander Abu Ikhlas al-Masri is active in Afghanistan’s east and is leading an al-Qaeda unit known as Katiba Umer Farooq. Masri was arrested over a decade ago by the United States but was freed during the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) continues to aggressively target the Islamic State’s network inside Iraq and Syria. In January, CENTCOM said it conducted 43 operations against ISIS and “removed multiple senior ISIS militants from the battlefield, including the Emir of Raqqa and a Syrian provincial media and security operative.” In February, CENTCOM highlighted four operations in Syria: the killing of Hamza al-Homsi, who “oversaw the group’s deadly terrorist network in eastern Syria”; the killing of an unnamed “ISIS assassination cell leader”; the capture of Batar, “an ISIS Syria Province Official,” who made improvised explosive devices and conducted attacks on detention centers; and the killing of Ibrahim al-Qahtani, who also was involved in attacks on detention centers. Four American soldiers and a service dog were wounded in the raid that killed Homsi.

In Somalia, the U.S. military continues to support the government’s efforts to retake ground held by al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda’s branch in East Africa. U.S. Africa Command launched three strikes against al-Shabaab in February while supporting Somali military operations in central Somalia, killing an estimated 24 jihadist fighters.


An earthquake devastated northwestern Syria on February 6 while causing even greater damage in Turkey. The Bashar al-Assad regime swiftly exploited the crisis to call for lifting U.S. and EU sanctions, although Assad refused to lift his own restrictions on UN assistance to civilians in northwestern Syria, which the regime does not control. (Assad later lifted those restrictions once it was too late to save anyone buried under the rubble.)

Initially, the Biden administration refused to lift sanctions. State Department spokesperson Ned Price explained, “There are many hurdles to overcome when providing humanitarian assistance in Syria and especially after devastating earthquakes this week, but our Syrian sanctions policy is not among them.” That is true — U.S. law mandates that all sanctions include exceptions for humanitarian aid.

Nevertheless, within hours of Price’s remarks, the administration reversed itself. Specifically, the Treasury Department issued a general license that permits, for a period of six months, all transactions with the nominal purpose of earthquake relief, including transactions with the Syrian government. The breadth of the license invites abuse by a regime that has a lengthy record of diverting aid into its own coffers. Foreign donors — both in the United States and in countries with much less strict regulation — can now send money to the regime or to its charity fronts, like the Syria Trust for Development. This is especially concerning because the Biden administration has made only token efforts to enforce human rights sanctions on Syria and has even bent the law in Assad’s favor.


On February 2, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators sent President Biden a letter strongly opposing the administration’s intention to sell Turkey new F-16 fighter jets. Signed by 27 lawmakers, the letter directly tied the issue to Turkey’s approval of Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO, which Ankara has been blocking for months. “Congress cannot consider future support of Turkey, including the sale of F-16 fighter jets, until Turkey completes ratification of the accession protocols,” the letter stated.

During a February 19-20 trip to Turkey, Secretary of State Blinken informed Ankara that “he could not provide a timeline on formally notifying Congress about the proposed [F-16] sale, but that he has been actively communicating the Biden administration’s support for the deal.” Blinken’s statement signals that the Biden administration tacitly approves of Congress’ position.

Congressional frustration may only grow as Ankara continues to block NATO enlargement even after receiving humanitarian aid from Sweden and Finland, along with the United States and many other countries, in the wake of earthquakes that devastated southeastern Turkey. Some analysts speculated that the Western aid would lead Turkey to reset ties with Washington and its allies. But Blinken’s meetings with his counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yielded no apparent progress on the NATO enlargement issue.


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