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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Biden’s first hundred days of foreign policy

President-elect Joe Biden is about to begin the first 100 days of his administration. Pundits often talk about the “first hundred days” of a presidency in idyllic terms and, for Mr. Biden, the media will try to manufacture that image for him regardless of what happens. 

But the next 100 days won’t be all rainbows and unicorns for Mr. Biden because it will be a period of danger and risk. Our enemies are lining up to challenge him and our allies are eager to see how soft he will be on ally and enemy alike.  

Mr. Biden is likely to be more influenced by his advisers than was President Trump. Mr. Biden’s national security team is largely comprised of people who have been his trusted advisers for many years such as Tony Blinken (to be nominated to be secretary of State) and Jake Sullivan (selected to be his national security adviser). They will help him pave the way for his multilateralism which will be reflected in increasing reliance on the U.N. and weakened alliances such as NATO.

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He will also be greatly influenced by political outside liberal special interest groups like “J Street,” and by liberal think tanks such as the Center for New American Security, which Mr. Blinken co-founded. J Street, a Jewish group that purportedly supports Israel, regularly supports positions antithetical to its national security. It is now pushing Mr. Biden to re-engage with the Palestinians, who Mr. Trump’s “Abraham Accords” proved irrelevant to Middle East peace. 

As our alliances with Japan and Germany, and our friendly relations with Vietnam prove, neither alliances nor enmities are permanent. Alliances have to evolve to reflect changes in global politics and power or they wither and die. Our NATO allies — who don’t want to pay for their own defense — are waiting in confidence that Mr. Biden will reverse Mr. Trump’s policy demanding that they invest in defense. NATO’s growing weakness may render it a nullity under Mr. Biden.

Most new presidents are tested by a foreign policy crisis in their first few months in office and Mr. Biden will be no exception. George W. Bush was tested on April 1, 2001, by the Chinese who forced a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft down and held the crew captive briefly. Some presidents test our enemies from the moment of their inauguration. Iran’s terrorist regime let our hostages go rather than risk what Ronald Reagan might do. 

Mr. Biden is neither Mr. Bush nor Mr. Reagan. By his campaign promises, such as his pledge to rejoin former President Obama’s awful nuclear weapons deal with Iran other nations — particularly China and Russia — expect him to take a weaker approach to them as well. 

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, in the days following the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, said “We are not insisting nor in a hurry for the deal. But what is logical is our demand [that] is the lifting of the sanctions. These brutal sanctions must be lifted immediately.”  

This is Iran’s opening gambit with Mr. Biden. Iran won’t start a war or perpetrate a big terrorist attack until it sees what conditions, if any, he attaches to rejoining former president Obama’s enormously dangerous nuclear weapons deal with it. By reentering the agreement without preconditions — Mr. Biden’s most likely action — Iran would be relieved of the Trump sanctions that have rendered its economy a shambles and enable its quick recovery.

North Korea’s economy is also suffering greatly from Mr. Trump’s sanctions. Last year, its trade shrank by 80% and even Kim Jong-un had to admit failure, the first such admission since his grandfather took power. Months ago, Mr. Trump rejected Mr. Kim’s offer to close his nation’s nearly-useless nuclear complex at Yongbyon in exchange for sanctions relief. 

Mr. Kim is most likely to raise the stakes for Mr. Biden by testing his missiles, which he claims are able to reach the United States, or by detonating another nuclear test. Previously, the Kim regime labeled Mr. Biden a “rabid dog,” but now promises diplomacy, but his only goal is sanctions relief.

Mr. Biden wants to show strength through diplomacy. Mr. Kim’s ploy — especially if it begins with a nuclear or missile test and ends with a promise to cease those actions — may enable Mr. Biden to claim he faced down Mr. Kim and still claim a success that amounts to appeasement.

Our most important allies presume, from Mr. Biden’s record and his campaign promises, that he will embrace the neglect of our defense capabilities and that of our allies as he, and former President Obama, did consistently. The South Koreans, for example, are very worried.

In the face of Mr. Kim’s and China’s patterns of aggression — and the weakness it expects from Mr. Biden — South Korea is reportedly examining how it could protect itself instead of relying on us, as it has for more than 50 years. It is considering creating a nuclear force independent of the U.S. and is planning to build its own aircraft carrier to “proactively respond to threats from all directions.” 

Mr. Biden will begin charting his administration’s course in the next 100 days. It is impossible to be optimistic that he will pass the tests our allies and enemies will soon pose. 

• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”


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