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US foreign policy could get very bad very quickly

  • To his supporters’ dismay, Joe Biden’s foreign policy has been limited and reactive, and appears likely to get worse

  • Biden’s recent comments on Ukraine may be honest, but they risk giving Russia permission to begin a war in Europe

  • And his belief that energy interdependence will restrain Russia and that it won’t use its energy weapon is fallacious

US foreign policy could get very bad very quickly
Paul Domjan
Paul Domjan

Senior Contributing Analyst

Tellimer Research
22 January 2022
Published by

Despite his ample foreign policy experience, as Vice-President, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading force behind US policy towards the former Yugoslavia, Joe Biden’s foreign policy has been limited, reactive and appears likely to get worse. Although he apparently felt compelled by public opinion to withdraw from Afghanistan, the chaos of the withdrawal and rapid fall to the Taliban were a fiasco that badly damaged his popularity. Many commentators suggested that the Afghan national army would have been able to hold out if Biden had waited to withdraw until winter, when military campaigning is much more difficult for the Taliban, rather than insisting on withdrawing by the 20th anniversary of 9/11.

Past experience suggests that Biden will shift his focus from domestic to foreign policy when the Democrats lose control of Congress at the mid-term elections and domestic policy becomes even more difficult (see our companion report next weekend). Not only can the President conduct foreign policy short of war without needing Congressional authorisation, but Biden already has an eye on the history books. Although there is ample scope for productive US foreign policy engagement, from strengthening global climate policy to containing China by building on his Summit for Democracy, the next foreign policy challenge is likely to be countering Russian aggression in Ukraine, where the US has not had an ambassador since 2019.

Biden’s recent comments on Ukraine may be honest, but they risk giving Russia permission to begin a war in Europe. In a press conference on 19 January to mark his first year in office, Biden indicated that:

  • NATO cohesion over Ukraine is limited, and the US will not counter Russian aggression without the support of NATO allies.

  • As such, while the US will not accept an all-out war, it would not respond strongly to “a minor incursion”, which would cause the US and its NATO allies to “end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera”.

  • Russia will win if they invade, even if the cost is high.

  • It will be necessary, but difficult, to get all of NATO on the same page, and serious economic sanctions following an invasion would “have a negative impact on the United States, as well as a negative impact on the economies of Europe as well, and a devastating impact on Russia”.

  • Biden thinks that Russia’s energy weapon is not as powerful as many think because Russia relies on Europe to buy its gas just as Europe relies on Russia to supply it.

  • Biden seems to now be thinking about the seasons in a way that he wasn’t in Afghanistan. He discussed whether Russia might invade through Belarus and the need to wait until the ground is frozen to use that route.

  • Biden believes that an invasion of Ukraine would be “the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world, in terms of war and peace, since World War Two”.

  • Nevertheless, he suspects that “it matters which side of the bed [Putin] gets up on in the morning as to exactly what he’s going to do”.

Biden’s thinking on European energy security is fallacious on at least two counts. Russia is a single dominant supplier to many countries, and the European gas transportation network, even before the commissioning of Nord Stream 2, allows Russia to target gas supplies to its allies and cut them off to its adversaries. Biden thinks that developing a NATO consensus to respond to a Russian invasion will be hard, and he’s right, especially with Russian allies like Hungary and Turkey in NATO. Developing a European consensus to punish Russia by restricting gas imports will be orders of magnitude harder.

Figure 1: Russia has many gas routes into Europe that bypass Ukraine

Source: Samuel Bailey - Own work, CC BY 3.0

The second reason that Biden’s thinking is sloppy shows why this is so difficult. Not only is there a coordination problem, but money is much more fungible across time than gas. Russia can rely on its reserves, or restrict imports, if European gas revenue falls. Indeed, this is easy for an authoritarian country like Russia. However, the gas that Germans burn in their stoves and boilers leaves Russia only a few days earlier. European storage is limited, storage levels are already low and a meaningful chunk of Europe’s storage is in Hungary, which can be expected to side with Russia. The social impact and political backlash from gas disruptions would be a far greater problem for European politicians than any fallout from a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Figure 2: European gas storage is limited, inventories are far from full, and Hungary has the sixth largest stores

Figure 2: European gas storage is limited, inventories are far from full, and Hungary has the sixth largest stores

While the State Department and White House busily try to walk back the comments about “a minor incursion”, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions on the rest. It’s worth watching or reading the press conference in full. There are three sets of questions on Ukraine, so don’t stop after the first discussion. If you’re watching, they are at 28 mins, 53 mins and 1:28.

In my next edition of Weekend Reading, I’ll take a deeper dive into the problems facing Biden and the Democrats…