April 4, 2023 | FDD Tracker: March 1-April 4, 2023

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: April

April 4, 2023 | FDD Tracker: March 1-April 4, 2023

Biden Administration Foreign Policy Tracker: April

Trend Overview

By John Hardie and David Adesnik

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.

Last month saw President Joe Biden host his Australian and British counterparts to announce next steps in their trilateral defense pact, known as AUKUS, which seeks to strengthen deterrence of Beijing. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea are working to mend ties, a boon for U.S. efforts to combat threats from China and North Korea. The White House also released a long-awaited national strategy that delineates U.S. cybersecurity priorities.

The good news ends there, however. Although it is working with allies to help Ukraine prepare for a spring counteroffensive, the administration continues to withhold key weapons from Kyiv. The administration also refuses to lower the G7-imposed price cap on Russian oil exports, neutering its ability to cut Kremlin revenue. Additionally, the president’s proposed defense budget, once adjusted for inflation, would leave the U.S. military with flat or even declining resources while failing to fund top priorities identified by Indo-Pacific Command.

Meanwhile, Biden continues to struggle to assert leadership in the Middle East. Beijing brokered a deal to normalize relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Middle Kingdom’s first major foray into Middle East politics. Tehran inches ever closer to a nuclear weapons capability, but the White House seemingly lacks a strategy to stop it. The administration also continues to green-light Arab normalization with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Check back with us next month to see whether Biden manages to right the ship.


The Biden administration appeared flat-footed as China racked up a trio of diplomatic victories this month. In its first major foray into Middle East mediation, Beijing brokered a deal restoring diplomatic relations between archrivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. Days later, Riyadh formally agreed to become a “dialogue partner” of the China-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a political and security union of countries spanning Eurasia. In response to the Iranian-Saudi deal, the White House released a statement supporting efforts that “de-escalate tensions.” However, these moves suggest China’s influence and credibility in the region are growing at Washington’s expense.

Next, Honduras severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan and switched recognition to China, leaving Taipei increasingly isolated and now recognized by only 13 sovereign states. After the switch was announced, the White House dispatched U.S. Special Presidential Advisor for the Americas Chris Dodd to Tegucigalpa — a reactive move that proved too little, too late.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping also traveled to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin. Xi used the trip to tout Beijing’s faux commitment to peacefully resolving the Russia-Ukraine war. At the same time, Xi negotiated enhanced market access for Chinese companies operating in Russia. China and Russia’s deepening economic interconnectedness is driven, in part, by the Biden administration’s refusal to sanction Chinese firms propping up Moscow’s war machine.

China’s diplomatic bonanza occurred amid the backdrop of cratering U.S.-China relations. Complicating matters, Beijing has spurned repeated White House requests for a Xi-Biden call. The result: Bilateral relations are likely to deteriorate further over the coming months.


The Biden administration kicked off the month with two strong cybersecurity efforts. The White House first unveiled the long-awaited National Cybersecurity Strategy, then released the president’s budget request for fiscal year (FY) 2024. Taken together, these two documents indicate that cybersecurity remains a top priority for the administration.

The strategy clearly states that the administration will prioritize protecting critical infrastructure, modernizing federal networks, and fostering public-private and international partnerships. The Office of the National Cyber Director will lead the implementation of the strategy. Key focuses include improving adherence to standards, establishing liability for cyber products, and addressing the federal and national cybersecurity workforce shortfalls.

The president requested $13.5 billion for the administration’s many non-defense cybersecurity priorities, an 11 percent increase from the previous year. The proposed budget provides ample funding for the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency, which would receive $3.1 billion.

However, the budget was inconsistent in its funding for the various Sector Risk Management Agencies (SRMAs) responsible for coordinating risk management for 16 critical infrastructure sectors. Some agencies, such as the Department of Energy, continued to receive strong budgets, including for addressing supply chain cybersecurity. But others, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which handles risk management for water and wastewater systems, received insufficient funding.

Meanwhile, the EPA released new cybersecurity rules for the sector. Industry experts criticized the agency for failing to consult appropriate stakeholders. The Transportation Security Administration also released cybersecurity rules for the aviation industry, but with much more muted attention from industry.


The Biden administration submitted its FY 2024 budget request to Congress on March 9, asking for $842 billion for the Department of Defense. That would represent a $26 billion, or 3.2 percent, nominal increase over the FY 2023 enacted level. Depending on the rate of inflation, however, that could actually represent an essentially flat or even reduced defense budget in real terms.

The 2018 bipartisan National Defense Strategy Commission recommended increasing the “base defense budget at an average rate of three to five percent above inflation” for at least five years and perhaps more. President Biden’s proposal brushes aside that recommendation at a time when the United States confronts an extraordinary array of threats that have only grown more dangerous since 2018. “The United States has not faced national security challenges on this scale, scope, and complexity since World War II,” Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, warned on the floor of the U.S. Senate on March 30.

To the administration’s credit, the budget request prioritizes efforts to address our nation’s munitions production capacity crisis and would provide $37.7 billion to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent and associated nuclear command, control, and communications. The administration is also requesting the largest research and development and procurement budgets ever, at $145 billion and $170 billion, respectively. Nevertheless, despite calling the People’s Republic of China the “pacing challenge,” Biden’s budget request would leave Indo-Pacific Command with almost $3.5 billion in unfunded priorities if Congress does not take action to address the shortcoming.


Hoping to deter Beijing from providing lethal military aid to Russia, Washington is seeking G7 backing for potential retaliatory sanctions against China. The administration is also urging the European Union and other allies to join U.S. sanctions against a Chinese company that provided satellite imagery to Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group. Depending on the type and quantity supplied, Chinese assistance, particularly artillery ammunition, could give Russia a powerful boost in its war of attrition in Ukraine. To strengthen the credibility of their sanctions threats, the Western allies should designate more of the numerous Chinese entities that have already provided non-lethal assistance to Russia’s war machine.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration continues to resist calls from Kyiv and other Eastern European countries to lower the G7-imposed cap on the price of Russian oil exports. The administration originally pitched the cap as a way to slash Kremlin revenue while avoiding a spike in oil prices. In practice, however, it has prioritized the latter goal while paying little mind to the former. When the coalition set a $60-per-barrel price ceiling on seaborne shipments of Russian crude in December, the allies pledged to regularly review the cap price to ensure its effectiveness. The European Union explicitly agreed it should fall at least 5 percent below the average market price of Russian oil. But the cap is now well above the price of Russian crude, which is currently selling for an average of $52.48 per barrel. Nevertheless, Biden reportedly told the European Commission chief that he wants the ceiling to remain unchanged.


Riyadh and Tehran signed a deal in Beijing to restore diplomatic ties. The agreement caught Washington off guard, further eroding America’s credibility in the Middle East.

Nevertheless, the Biden administration portrayed the deal as a useful contribution to stabilizing Yemen. If “Saudi Arabia doesn’t have to continually try to defend itself against attacks from [Yemen’s] Houthis who are funded by Iran,” then “we welcome that,” said a White House spokesperson. But even advocates of shrinking America’s footprint in the Middle East criticized Washington’s position, saying the deal left the United States on the sidelines.

A Saudi pundit with connections to decision makers in Riyadh noted that it is ironic that “while America pivots away from the Middle East to focus on China, Beijing takes its competition with Washington to the very same Middle East that America has been trying to abandon.”

The pundit doubted the efficacy of the deal, predicting China can, at best, help arrange temporary fixes for regional problems “until a certain group of decision makers in Washington understands, like the Chinese did, the strategic importance” of the Middle East.

Less than two weeks after the deal, Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi terrorist group was already threatening Washington and its allies. The group’s leader warned that if America, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates do not concede in Yemen, his missiles would hit Gulf oil targets. If greater security for Riyadh was the supposed benefit of the deal that Beijing midwifed, then the White House’s defense of it may already be falling apart.


President Biden hosted the leaders of Australia and the United Kingdom to announce next steps in the trilateral AUKUS defense pact. The historic agreement, a direct response to China’s growing assertiveness, aims to provide Canberra with British-designed submarines containing U.S. technological components. The subs are not expected to enter service until the 2040s. However, in the interim, Australia will host U.S. subs in its ports and later take ownership of three American Virginia-class subs.

While these AUKUS investments are promising, they are hardly sufficient to restore U.S. deterrence. To do that, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command has outlined a wish list of investments aimed at developing new weapons systems and boosting military-to-military collaboration between America and its regional allies. The command called for more than $87 billion in spending between 2024 and 2028, beginning with $15.4 billion in 2024. Thus far, the Biden administration has not indicated whether or how it intends to fulfill any of these desperately needed requests.

The United Kingdom and Australia are not the only allies waking up to Chinese belligerence. In their first bilateral summit in 12 years, the leaders of Japan and South Korea agreed to resume reciprocal visits and security dialogues and took steps to resolve trade disputes that erupted in 2019. What role, if any, the Biden administration played in facilitating this meeting remains unknown. But make no mistake, improving relations between two of the region’s largest economics and established democracies would bolster Washington’s efforts to challenge China’s great-power ambitions.

International Organizations

The UN Human Rights Council convened for its 52nd session, during which the Biden administration again failed to secure the termination of the council’s antisemitic commission of inquiry into Israel. The administration neither introduced a resolution to dissolve the commission nor encouraged any allies to do so. Instead, the commission held five days of hearings in which biased witnesses accused Israel of committing human rights abuses, even alleging that Israeli troops deliberately killed an Al Jazeera journalist last year. It remains unclear whether the Biden administration lacks the political will to press for the commission’s dismantlement or believes it cannot win such a vote.

Either way, the administration is failing to deliver on Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s contention that rejoining the council would enable the United States to address the body’s shortcomings, including its “unacceptable bias against Israel.” Blinken’s other stated reform objective for the council — addressing “membership rules that allow countries with atrocious human rights records to occupy seats they do not merit” — also remains unfulfilled.

Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Russia and China of blocking efforts at the Security Council to impose additional sanctions on North Korea for its recent ballistic missile launches. Instead, the ambassador read a statement of condemnation signed by eight other council members plus South Korea. As Russia prepares to take over the council presidency in April, the White House urged Moscow to “conduct itself professionally” — a surreal statement as Russia continues an unprovoked war on Ukraine.


Despite Iran’s production of enriched uranium to near weapons-grade purity, the Biden administration opted against using the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting in March to censure Tehran or refer it to the UN Security Council. The administration’s decision followed a visit to Iran by the IAEA’s director general. The White House hoped that pulling punches would encourage Tehran to resume international inspections at key nuclear facilities. But the regime continues to stonewall while accumulating more and more highly enriched uranium, already enabling a nuclear breakout timeline of just 12 days.

Meanwhile, Syria-based militias tied to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched a kamikaze drone strike against U.S. forces in northeastern Syria, killing one U.S. contractor and leaving six American servicemembers with traumatic brain injuries. Rather than retaliating against IRGC commanders or bases, President Biden ordered a strike against a militia base in Syria. A follow-on rocket and drone attack against U.S. forces resulted in no U.S. military response, with administration officials claiming they did not want to risk escalation with Iran. The secretary of defense testified to Congress that Iran-backed militias have launched 83 attacks on American forces in Iraq and Syria since Biden took office, while the United States has responded militarily just four times.

Elsewhere, Iranians used the Chahar Shanbeh Soori holiday, an ancient fire festival that is part of the country’s larger Norooz (New Year) celebrations, to continue demonstrating against the Islamic Republic. Biden issued a statement on Norooz expressing solidarity with Iranian protestors. But he has yet to issue human rights sanctions against Iran’s supreme leader or president.


U.S.-Israel relations were noticeably strained as the Biden administration weighed in on Israeli domestic affairs several times in March.

Visiting Israel on March 9, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hinted at U.S. opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan. Austin also expressed concern over escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions and reiterated that “the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.” Mid-month, President Biden spoke with Netanyahu by phone, offering to help the Israeli leader “forge a compromise” on judicial reform. Biden also welcomed the efforts of Israeli, Palestinian, U.S., Egyptian, and Jordanian officials to de-escalate Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

On March 21, the number two official at the State Department, Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman, summoned Israel’s ambassador to condemn a new law permitting Israeli construction in parts of the West Bank. Five days later, a National Security Council spokesperson expressed concern over Netanyahu’s firing of his defense minister. Finally, on March 29, Biden warned that Israel “cannot continue down this road” of judicial overhaul. Netanyahu responded that Israel will not make decisions “based on pressures from abroad.”

Despite the diplomatic tension, military and security coordination continued without disruption. Meeting on March 6, the U.S.-Israel Strategic Consultative Group focused on the Iranian nuclear threat. The parties reinforced this message with a joint Red Flag aerial exercise from March 12 to 24.


The Biden administration invited ROK President Yoon Suk-yeol to a state visit on April 26. This will be only the second state visit of President Biden’s tenure and the first for a Korean head of state in 12 years. Congress will likely also invite Yoon to address a joint session, which an ROK leader has not done since 2013.

In preparation for the visit, three South Korean officials, including Yoon’s national security adviser, resigned, reportedly due to internal conflicts over summit preparations that so far have not been made public. The current ROK ambassador to the United States has been named to replace him. This series of events likely will not have a significant impact on the visit.

The alliance’s military readiness also made further progress in March with the conclusion of Exercise Freedom Shield, the largest combined exercise in five years. It consisted of advanced field and live training on land, in the air, and at sea as well as computer simulation training at strategic and operational headquarters.

Meanwhile, North Korea conducted eight provocations in March, including an intercontinental ballistic missile test and an alleged test of what Pyongyang’s state media called an “underwater nuclear capable drone” designed to create a “radioactive tsunami.”

Yoon also visited Japan for the two countries’ first bilateral summit since 2013. He appeared to make some headway in mitigating historical conflicts related to the colonial period of 1910-1945. However, Yoon encountered unsurprising criticism at home over the trip. The backlash intensified when Japan released new textbooks that glossed over the causes of historical tensions and claimed the disputed islands of Dok Do/Takashima.

Latin America

As the United States struggles to combat the flow of fentanyl across its southern border, Liz Sherwood-Randall, the White House homeland security advisor, visited Mexico to discuss the issue. Yet rather than cooperate, Mexican authorities feigned ignorance. Mexico’s Foreign Ministry claimed it has “no record of production or synthesis of fentanyl in Mexico.” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly known as AMLO, argued the United States should “take care of [its] problem of social decay” itself. Mexico’s obstructionism is fueling cries from members of Congress for Washington to take matters into its own hands, including by authorizing the U.S. military to counter cartels. To date, the Biden administration has made no significant progress in increasing security cooperation with Mexico or stemming the flow of drugs into the country.

Fentanyl is not the only source of tension in U.S.-Mexican relations. They two countries are engaged in a bitter trade dispute, sparked by AMLO’s decision to roll back reforms that would have opened Mexico’s energy markets to outside competitors. Since October, the Biden administration had refrained from exercising its right to send the dispute to a dispute settlement panel. But the administration is now finally preparing to do so unless Mexico accepts its “final offer.”

Meanwhile, signs of America’s weakened influence continue to abound across the region. Late last month, Brazil allowed Iranian warships to dock at its ports. After years of deepening ties between China and Honduras, the two countries established official diplomat relations. Beijing’s sway elsewhere in the region, such as Panama, likewise continues to grow.


Biden administration officials continued to push their project to import Egyptian gas to Lebanon through Syria, which would violate U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime.

In Senate testimony, Secretary of State Blinken said regarding this initiative, “there is some hope on the energy supply side that we’re very actively working on.” Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf, who visited Lebanon in late March, amplified Blinken’s hopeful comment, crediting the Lebanese government with implementing reforms that comprise “significant steps towards meeting the requirements of the World Bank,” whose financing is essential for the energy deal.

Leaf’s assertion stands in stark contrast to comments by the World Bank’s regional vice president, Ferid Belhaj. Belhaj reiterated the bank’s list of basic good-governance reforms — such as conducting audits and establishing a credible regulatory authority — that are necessary before it would consider financing the administration’s deals in Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the State Department tersely noted in its Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that “[i]mpunity was a significant problem in the security forces,” including both the Internal Security Forces (ISF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). “Impunity was also a significant problem with respect to the actions of nonstate armed groups, such as Hizballah,” the report said. Indeed, Hezbollah likely orchestrated a cross-border terror operation deep inside Israel in March. None of this weighed on the administration’s policy, as it continues to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into both forces, including through a legally dubious program to provide unvettable members of the LAF and ISF with direct salary payments.

Nonproliferation and Biodefense

The director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, visited Ukraine for a second time since last fall to evaluate the safety and security of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants. Russian forces continue to occupy the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), where Moscow’s reckless behavior risks causing a radiological incident. IAEA efforts to broker the establishment of a non-military zone around the ZNPP have thus far failed. Grossi told reporters during his visit, “We have to step up our efforts.”

The Biden administration rightly announced it will no longer share data with Russia related to U.S. strategic nuclear forces under New START, the sole remaining arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow. In February, Moscow suspended its participation in the pact despite having previously agreed to extend the treaty until 2026. In late March, Vladimir Putin also made new nuclear threats against the West, suggesting he would deploy Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, testified before Congress that Iran can now make weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon “in less than two weeks.” He also said that U.S. policy is focused on ensuring Tehran will not obtain a “fielded” nuclear weapon, implying the Biden administration would tolerate Iranian production of a nuclear weapon so long as it was not deployed. A few days later, Milley reversed course from that apparent major change to U.S. policy. The Biden administration has not addressed Iran’s major nuclear advances throughout the president’s time in office.


The Biden administration is reportedly preparing a $2.6 billion military assistance package for Ukraine, building on $700 million in military aid announced in March. The new package is one of the biggest yet, although over 80 percent of the aid will reportedly come from contracts with industry rather than existing U.S. stocks and will thus take time to reach the battlefield. Unfortunately, the administration continues to refuse to send Kyiv ATACMS missiles or DPICM cluster munitions, despite congressional pressure. ATACMS would enable Ukraine to strike high-value Russian military targets far beyond the range of its current rocket artillery, while DPICMs would help alleviate Kyiv’s critical shortage of artillery ammunition.

Meanwhile, the administration is bending to Russian belligerence in the Black Sea region. On March 14, two Russian Su-27 fighter aircraft harassed an American MQ-9 Reaper drone conducting reconnaissance in international airspace over the Black Sea. A Su-27 then struck the MQ-9’s propeller, forcing its operators to bring it down. While the collision was likely accidental, the harassment appears to have been ordered from above. During a subsequent phone call with his Russian counterpart, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin “emphasized that the United States will continue to fly and to operate wherever international law allows,” per a Pentagon readout. Yet the United States has reportedly moved its drone flights further away from Russian-controlled territory so as “to avoid being too provocative.” A senior U.S. military official said this “definitely limits our ability to gather intelligence” related to the war, although the degree and impact of the reduction in intelligence collection remain unclear.

Sunni Jihadism

The Somali government says its military has cleared one-third of the territory held by al-Shabaab and killed or wounded 6,700 al-Shabaab fighters since launching a U.S.-backed offensive against the al-Qaeda branch in August 2022. The U.S. ambassador to Somalia echoed that claim in late March, although the Somali government has exaggerated the impact of its operations in the past. The U.S. military is providing air support, weapons, and training to Somali troops.

General Michael Kurilla, commander of U.S. Central Command, testified in mid-March that the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province in Afghanistan is capable of executing “an external operation against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months, with little to no warning.” However, Kurilla’s testimony ignored the threat posed by a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and the Taliban’s enduring alliance with and support for al-Qaeda and a host of other global and regional terror groups.

The National Resistance Front, one of the two main armed groups opposing the Taliban, announced the beginning of its guerrilla campaign against the Taliban with an attack in Kabul late last month. In July, the U.S. State Department said Washington does “not support organized violent opposition” to Taliban rule.

Al-Qaeda’s branch in the Sahel, known as JNIM, released American and French hostages Jeff Woodke and Olivier Dubois. Nigerian negotiators reportedly played a key role in securing their release. Woodke was captured by the Islamic State’s local affiliate in 2016 but eventually wound up in the custody of JNIM, which kidnapped Dubois in 2021. Washington has denied paying any ransom for the release of Woodke.


The Biden administration made its clearest move yet to encourage the diplomatic rehabilitation of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf, the department’s top Middle East hand, said U.S. policy toward Arab governments’ normalization with Syria is, “if you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that.” This encouragement of regional states to pursue their narrow self-interest contrasts sharply with repeated claims that U.S. policy does not advocate normalization. Lest there be any confusion about the American position, Leaf repeated her statement almost word for word in a second interview while visiting the region on March 26.

In Washington, the administration encountered bipartisan pushback against its Syria policy. The top Republicans and Democrats on the House and Senate foreign relations committees sent a letter to the administration criticizing “the disappointingly slow pace of sanctions under the Caesar Act,” a 2020 human rights law that mandated sanctions against those who do business with the Assad regime. Days later, the Treasury Department announced sanctions on several individuals who play leading roles in Assad’s multi-billion-dollar narco-trafficking operations.

More than three dozen former officials, experts, and activists also sent an open letter to President Biden warning against “tacitly allowing” normalization with Assad. The signatories included senior officials from both the Obama and Trump administrations. Absent a change in the personnel responsible for U.S. policy toward Syria, this advice is likely to fall on deaf ears.


Ankara’s plan to buy additional F-16s, supported by the Biden administration, continues to face staunch congressional opposition. During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on March 22, Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) excoriated Turkey for attempting to bully neighboring Greece and Cyprus, buying the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system, persecuting journalists and dissidents, and delaying Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO. “What do you call such a country?” Menendez asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was testifying before the committee. “I would call that a challenging ally,” Blinken responded diplomatically, reflecting the Biden administration’s desire to mend ties with Ankara. But Menendez, clearly unmoved, concluded by reiterating his opposition to the F-16 sale.

Blinken’s testimony came on the heels of Turkey’s recent decision to begin the ratification process for Finland’s NATO accession bid. Ankara has stalled the NATO enlargement process since the alliance’s Madrid summit last summer. Despite approving Finland’s application, Ankara is still blocking Sweden’s bid, which likely will not move forward until after Turkey’s national elections on May 14. Ankara likely hoped that greenlighting Finland’s membership would soften congressional objections to the F-16 sale. While National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan welcomed Ankara’s gesture, he reiterated the Biden administration’s desire for Turkey to approve Sweden’s NATO application without further delay.


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