SIPA Experts Consider Foreign Policy Challenges Facing Biden Administration

Posted Mar 04 2021

President Biden faces a daunting to-do list in the next four years: defeat the global pandemic, restart the economy, tackle climate change, and address the rise of China. 

On February 19, experts discussed these and other foreign policy challenges at a panel jointly hosted by the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program. Jack Snyder, professor of international relations in Columbia’s Department of Political Science, moderated a discussion with four SIPA faculty: Stephen Biddle, Stephen Sestanovich, China and the World Program director Thomas Christensen, and Saltzman Institute director Keren Yarhi-Milo.

Snyder first asked Christensen what he foresees in Biden’s approach to China. Christensen said he doesn’t expect Biden to impose new tariffs, but that the president might use existing ones as leverage for negotiation. Despite this competition with China, there is also opportunity and a need for collaboration. Right now, there’s a McCarthyite view of China, says Christensen, and people get attacked for seeming pro-China. But Biden can make cooperation with Beijing more palatable through the arena of multilateral organizationsfor example, when it comes to the pandemic, the administration can work with China through the World Health Organization.

Given that both the Trump and Biden administrations have deemed China’s repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang a genocide, Christensen said he can’t imagine the United States would send a team to the 2022 Winter Olympics, which is slated to take place in Beijing. But carefully managing tensions between the United States and China will be key to a host of issuesincluding nuclear non-proliferation, since China is the biggest economic partner of both Iran and North Korea. 

The conversation moved to the question of Russia, and Snyder turned to Sestanovich for expertise. “I’ve never seen this kind of hostility before,” Sestanovich said of Russia’s outlook toward the United States. Biden’s goal, he said, will be to reconstitute international alignments to get Russia to reconsider its approach to the outside world. The question is whether the United States can effectively create a set of coalitions against Russia and gain the buy-in of European countries. While the United States sees President Vladimir Putin as a leader with a long track record of egregious actions, Russia might be a lower priority for the Biden administration than it had been for previous administrations.

Snyder then posed a question to Biddle: given a May 1 deadline to decide whether to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, what should we do? Biddle explained that the deadline stems from a bilateral agreement with the Taliban, but it’s arguably not binding because the Taliban has not held up its end of the bargain, which included talks with the Afghan government and to deny resources to al-Qaeda and ISIS. Biddle said he expects the talks between the Taliban and Afghan government to go poorly, so the Taliban have the upper hand. Still, they are genuinely willing to negotiate, so Biddle said the United States should consider keeping troops in the country as leverage. We might actually get a deal that could substantially end violence and be of more interest to the United States, said Biddle.

Last but not least, Yarhi-Milo addressed the process of reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Deal. “It’s this déjà vu all over again,” she said. “We have the same actors that are meeting again to discuss the same issue, and basically the same agreement they already agreed on in the past.” Time will tell whether or not the lessons learned since the first agreement have stuck, and Yarhi-Milo pointed out that many countries are watching, including North Korea. In addition, while European allies were pleased with the deal, countries in the Middle East have been concerned with Iran’s regional behavior. The question is whether Biden will return to the 2015 deal, or if he will go for a stronger and longer lasting comprehensive agreement. As of now, it’s not clear where the administration stands.

— Aastha Uprety MPA ’21

Foreign Policy Challenges for the Biden Administration
February 19