Even if you don’t like his policies, you ought to admire U.S. President Joe Biden’s pluck. Just imagine how he felt his first day in the Oval Office. The country was in the throes of a global pandemic, and it narrowly survived a failed coup most Republican leaders are still refusing to condemn. The Liar-in-Chief whom Biden vanquished in 2020 was (and still is) refusing to acknowledge he lost fair and square. The country was mired in an unwinnable war, and there was no way to get out of it neatly or cleanly. The Democratic Party held razor-thin margins in Congress, giving individual Senators a level of influence far exceeding their judgment or integrity. And if that weren’t enough, the ecosystem all life on Earth depends on is seriously out of whack.
Given the challenges Biden faced and the poor cards he was dealt, Biden hasn’t done that badly. Yet despite some genuine foreign-policy successes, 2022 won’t bring him much of a respite. COVID-19 remains a serious problem, U.S. adversaries are growing frisky, and the United States’ allies seem increasingly fractious. Meanwhile, a substantial percentage of Americans now live in alternate universes filled with false narratives and made-up “facts.”´
But since it’s the holidays, let’s start on an upbeat note and take one potential flash point off the table. Although the issue of Taiwan will continue to complicate Sino-American relations, I’ll go out on a limb and say we won’t see a serious crisis or military confrontation over Taiwan in 2022. Both Beijing and Washington have been quietly working to lower the crisis’s temperature and actively cooperating to decrease energy prices and address climate concerns in recent months. A faceoff over Taiwan is the last thing either country needs right now.
Biden’s team will remain heavily focused on long-term competition with China, and it would be helpful if emerging bipartisan consensus on this issue was translated into effective policies to strengthen the United States at home. (You know: like Building Back Better.) Even so, I don’t see matters coming to a boil in the next 12 months. I hope I’m right because several other issues are likely to fill the administration’s inbox in 2022.
Russia and Ukraine. Unlike a few doomsayers in the West, I do not think Russia will launch a major invasion intended to subjugate all of Ukraine. Not only would this trigger powerful economic sanctions and lead NATO to reinforce its eastern members militarily (something Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want), reoccupying all of Ukraine would force Moscow to try to govern some 43 million angry Ukrainians. Stubborn and resentful nationalism was one of the reasons the old Soviet empire broke up, and these same forces would make any attempt to reintegrate Ukraine a costly running sore Moscow can ill afford.
If Russia does opt to use force, I’d expect a more limited incursion ostensibly designed to “aid” pro-Russian proxies in Ukraine’s eastern provinces—and perhaps an additional buffer zone to protect these areas. This approach would be similar to the “frozen conflicts” Putin waged in Georgia, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and elsewhere and be consistent with his tendency to undertake actions that may have been unexpected but also were relatively low risk. Because the stakes would be smaller, a “limited aims” strategy is less likely to provoke a strong and unified response from the West. The big question for me is how much damage Putin will try to inflict on Ukraine in the process. He may be tempted to “teach them a lesson” (and warn others against getting too close to the West), but punishing Ukraine also increases the risk of a harsher Western response.
Biden is in a no-win situation here. There’s little appetite for a shooting war in an area far away from the United States and right next door to Russia, and sending more arms to Kyiv won’t tip the balance of power enough to deter a limited Russian foray. Yet hard-liners would condiment any diplomatic deal that defused the issue as the worst sort of Neville Chamberlain-like appeasement.
This unappealing situation is a reminder that open-ended NATO expansion is ideologically appealing but strategically myopic. Its proponents blithely assumed that 1) expansion would create a “vast zone of peace,” 2) Moscow would readily accept NATO assurances that expansion posed no threat, and therefore, 3) any commitments NATO made or implied would never have to be honored. Alas, that ship has sailed: The challenge Biden (and NATO) face now is figuring out how to preserve Ukrainian independence without appearing to succumb to Russian blackmail. It would have been easier (though far from simple) to reach an agreement on Ukrainian neutrality back in 2014; it will be much harder to do so today.
Israel and Iran. If your name isn’t former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton and you don’t work for a hawkish lobby like the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, you probably understand that Trump’s decision to leave the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran was one of the most boneheaded foreign-policy decisions of the past 50 years. And that is saying something. Iran has more highly enriched uranium now than it would have possessed had Trump not unilaterally torpedoed the deal. It has a larger number of even more sophisticated centrifuges in operation, plus a more hard-line government, developments that are either wholly or partly the result of Trump and Pompeo’s witless “maximum pressure” campaign. Biden pledged to reinstate the JCPOA once he took office, but his respect for the power of the Israel lobby led him to dither until it was too late.
Instead of a breakout time of a year or more (as it was under the JCPOA), Iran may soon be able to put a bomb together in a matter of weeks. Not surprisingly, this situation—almost entirely the result of prior U.S. actions—has led to renewed chatter about the United States or Israel taking military action against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Bombing cannot destroy Iran’s ability to get a nuclear bomb, however—it can only delay it (and probably not by that long). Attacking Iran in this way will only reinforce its desire to have a more reliable deterrent against attack, strengthen hard-liners in Tehran even more, and eventually persuade them to go beyond nuclear “latency” and become the next openly nuclear-armed country.
Thanks to Trump’s blunder, the options today are not appealing. Looking ahead, it is a safe bet Israel and its supporters in the United States will spend 2022 hinting about the possibility of an Israel preventive strike and trying to get Uncle Sam to shoulder the burden instead. I hope Biden doesn’t listen, and he makes it clear that any country that wants to start a war with Iran will have to do it on their own and cannot count on U.S. protection. What all this means is even if Biden wants to focus on Asia and climate change and COVID-19 while devoting less time and attention to the Middle East, he won’t be able to ignore it entirely.
Concerns about credibility. Biden will also have to figure out how to address the United States’ credibility problem, but he must first understand exactly what that problem is. Contrary to what most public accounts suggest, this isn’t an issue because Biden is weak-willed or because the Afghan withdrawal was more chaotic than one might have hoped. As I and others have argued repeatedly, commitments are most credible when potential challengers recognize that a great power has a clear interest in defending a given issue or area and the capability to impose significant costs on an attacker. When interests are less than vital or necessary capabilities lack, convincing others you’re willing to go to the brink or beyond is much harder to do.
The United States has a credibility problem today for two main reasons. First, the United States is overcommitted, which means it is hard to fulfill all of its security guarantees simultaneously. In theory, a country might try to solve this problem by fighting fiercely every time it is challenged (in the hope of discouraging future probes), but over time, that approach drains resources and political will. For this reason, U.S. credibility is somewhat lower today not because Biden is irresolute but because the country as a whole is tired of pointless wars. And it is war-weary in part because it kept fighting stupid wars to preserve its credibility! Thus, the hawks who shouted “appeasement” whenever someone tried to end one of these conflicts ended up exacerbating the very problem they claimed to want to solve.
Second, U.S. credibility today is undermined as much by domestic polarization and political dysfunction as by its responses to any specific international situation. Why should other states adjust their policies to the United States’ when they suspect the next president might turn on a dime and head in the opposite direction? Why coordinate costly plans with a country that has trouble passing budgets, managing a pandemic, or implementing a much-needed infrastructure plan? Diminishing faith in the United States’ basic ability to get things done effectively inevitably erodes U.S. credibility: Even when the will is there, convincing others you can deliver on your promises matters too.
The next humanitarian crisis. I don’t know where the next humanitarian crisis will erupt—Afghanistan? Venezuela? Myanmar? Lebanon? Sub-Saharan Africa?—but a combination of environmental pressure, persistent violence, and economic collapse is likely to trigger new heartaches for a global community exhausted by past tragedies and a stubbornly persistent pandemic. Whenever it occurs, it will immediately consume the scarcest of all presidential resources: time. If I were advising Biden, I’d tell him to reserve a bit of slack for dealing with the unexpected. He’ll need it.
Setting priorities and sticking to them. When you’re compiling a list like this, it is child’s play to add more items, such as Ethiopia’s expanding civil war, the ongoing migration and refugee crisis, the possibility of a macroeconomic meltdown, or environmental disaster. For those now charged with conducting U.S. foreign policy, therefore, the final challenge for 2022 will be resisting pressures to get involved in the latest crisis du jour. When it erupts (see No. 4 above), Biden and his team will face relentless pressure from local client states, well-funded lobbies, crusading journalists, human rights activists, corporate interests, and lord knows who else to move today’s hot spot up the presidential priority list. The administration’s desire to prove “America is back” could make it especially vulnerable to these pressures, which increases the risk that the administration will get blown off course by unexpected events. If this happens, it will join the long list of recent administrations that tried too much and did most of it badly.
Now, for the bad news. As I gaze forward at 2022, none of the issues identified above strike me as anywhere near as important to the United States’ future—and Americans’ lives for the rest of this century—as the challenges the country faces at home. Serious students of civil conflict—such as my former student Barbara Walter—are now warning the United States’ current condition and trajectory create a very real risk of civil war, a possibility that seemed unimaginable a few short years ago. Even if widespread violence does not materialize, it is easy to imagine a series of contested elections, “elected” governments that do not represent the popular will and lack widespread legitimacy, and government institutions’ growing inability to perform basic functions effectively. In addition to threatening basic liberties and Americans’ quality of life, domestic divisions of this sort will make it nearly impossible to conduct an effective foreign policy—accelerating the United States’ decline.
For these reasons, Biden’s main challenge in 2022 has not changed since he took his oath of office. For the United States to succeed on the world stage, the partisan insanity eating away at the foundations of its democracy must end. To be frank, achieving this goal may be beyond anyone’s abilities at this point. To be even franker, I am increasingly convinced that only far-reaching constitutional reforms will suffice to stop the rot, but a major reform effort is bound to be fiercely resisted by groups—most notably the Republican Party, which currently benefits from the existing political order’s anti-democratic features.
And on that note, I wish you all a happy new year.
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.