Biden has big ambitions in foreign policy. Can they survive Kabul?

When Vice President Joe Biden arrived at the White House, he declared great ambitions for U.S. Foreign Policy.

“America is back,” he declared, promising to restore U.S. leadership of what he called (in a term borrowed from the 20th century) “the free world.”

He said he would restore alliances his predecessor had scorned, rally democracies to contain autocracies like China and Russia, and put human rights at the center of the U.S. agenda — all while building a foreign policy that served the middle class.

He also stated that he would disentangle the United States’ involvement in Afghanistan, which he considered a distraction and a waste of resources.

But, the withdrawal from Kabul became a nightmare ,, which raised questions about the coherence and consistency of Biden’s policies.

The president made a fundamental political error. He promised too much but delivered too little.

He claimed that America was back, but in Kabul America was suddenly getting out.

He claimed he loved traditional alliances but rarely consulted allies.

He claimed to be a champion for human rights. Tell that to Afghanistan’s terrified girls.

The administration’s reputation for competence has taken a serious hit, and that affects its ability to exert influence. Allies who feel mistreated will be less likely to support U.S. efforts. It is likely that the president’s agenda will be more difficult to implement than ever before.

Nevertheless, the core of a “Biden Doctrine” in foreign policy is still intact. It includes elements that the president has been talking about for years.

He is trying to reduce the U.S. definitions of “vital interest” to a few key points: Great power competition with China, Russia, the nuclear threat coming from Iran, and the ongoing war against terrorist groups in Middle East.

Biden has reaffirmed that he will continue to fight Al Qaeda Islamic State (and their allies) even after the withdrawal from Kabul. In retaliation to the bombing of Kabul’s Airport last week, he ordered an airstrike against Islamic State in Afghanistan.

He has managed to keep several thousand U.S. troops deployed in Syria and Iraq, and has continued drone strikes against Shabab militants from Somalia. While the war in Afghanistan may be over, the “forever war” against terrorists is not.

What has happened to the list?

Despite his rhetorical support for human rights, Biden has made it clear that he will not use the military to enforce them.

For the majority of the past three decades, American presidents have debated whether military force should be used for humanitarian purposes — to help rebels in Libya or defend civilians in Syria. This era may be over.

In this sense, the Biden doctrine represents a continuing downsizing American commitments around world since President George W. Bush’s costly overreach on Iraq.

The other key element of Biden’s foreign strategy is its dependence on domestic policy. This and the president’s belief that the United States will only be successful overseas if it has a strong economy and political system at home.

“We are in an contest… with autocratic countries around the world as whether or not democracies could compete with them,” he stated during his June first overseas trip to Europe. “We have to prove that democracy works.” These are domestic goals as well as diplomatic.

Biden frequently states that he wants foreign policy to work for the middle-class, a principle that his national security advisor Jake Sullivan has championed. The idea is to make sure that voters support U.S. leadership in global affairs because they see the benefits and not just the costs of globalized trade or foreign military adventures.

Although it may have seemed odd that Biden was crowing about progress in Congress regarding his infrastructure program, this juxtaposition is actually a sign of the administration’s highest priority domestic interests.

The question now is if Biden can overcome his mistakes in Afghanistan and regain enough credibility to reshape U.S. foreign policy. He’ll be credited if he can balance the act of restoring U.S. leadership while reducing U.S. commitments.

But it is a long way to get there. The president might be able to restrain his rhetoric and say “America is back” as a first step. We’ll know when America is back.

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