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April 28, 2021
CNAS Responds: Assessing the Biden Administration's First 100 Days
President Biden will mark his first 100 days in office with a joint session address to Congress this evening. In the press note below, CNAS experts offer insights and reflections on the pressing topics that have defined the early days of the Biden administration and what challenges lie ahead. To arrange an interview, contact Shai Korman at email@example.com.
- Richard Fontaine, CNAS Chief Executive Officer: "Foreign policy honeymoons last longer than marital ones, but not by much. In its first 100 days, the Biden administration has dramatically shifted America's tone, style, and priorities, and the returns are favorable. But this welcome shift should not obscure challenges that loom even as the new team tallies early wins.
"Some of these challenges inhere within the administration's own stated approach. It seeks a foreign policy for the middle class, including the protection of American jobs and key industries, but it also wants good relations with allies seeking U.S. markets and contracts. It hopes to depart Afghanistan and shift resources to higher-priority areas, but in so doing risks a cataclysm that draws us back. The president anticipates "extreme competition" with China but wishes to cooperate with Beijing on climate, health, and North Korea. The administration wants to reassert American leadership across the Indo-Pacific but without an affirmative trade agenda.
"Potential contradictions are nothing new in U.S. foreign policy. And so far, the team's new tone and high energy have helped relegate the inevitable tradeoffs to the back of national security minds. They will not stay there forever."
- Lisa Curtis, Director, Indo-Pacific Security: "By far the riskiest national security decision President Biden has taken in his first 100 days in office is to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. As fears mount in Congress about the fate of the country and whether it will re-emerge as a terrorist hotbed, the Biden administration must take immediate steps to mitigate risks and continue to protect vital U.S. interests.
"First, the U.S. should continue to fund the Afghan security forces to give them a fighting chance against the Taliban who almost certainly will launch a major offensive following the departure of international forces. Second, the U.S. should condition its economic assistance on the ruling regime’s respect for human rights and the political process to ensure the Taliban gain no access to that funding, should they overthrow the government by force and impose harsh Islamic rule. Third, the United States must keep a force presence nearby, possibly in Uzbekistan, to retain the ability to rapidly strike al-Qaeda leaders, who are eager to rebuild their base in Afghanistan. Lastly, the United States must do everything possible to prevent a bloodbath against those Afghans who have cooperated with the United States. One way to do this is to expedite the processing of Special Immigrant Visas for thousands of eligible Afghans."
- Ilan Goldenberg, Director, Middle East Security: "President Biden promised to return to the Iran nuclear agreement and then build on the deal with a 'longer and stronger' agreement that addresses both regional concerns and some of the nuclear provisions in the JCPOA that eventually expire. Getting back to negotiations proved harder than expected as the Biden administration early on took a tough line on insisting Iran first come back into compliance with the deal before any sanctions could be lifted and Iran responding by refusing to meet directly with the United States. Talks have now been launched in Vienna, but the negotiators face a daunting task made harder by the indirect nature of the talks. Domestic politics remain a huge challenge on both sides as do concerns from anxious American partners in Israel, who recently launched a covert sabotage attack on Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz.
"But the biggest obstacle is internal Iranian political jockeying tied to their upcoming Presidential elections June 18. It is not fully clear if the Iranian negotiating team has a mandate from Supreme Leader Ali Khameini to come to an agreement before the elections. We should know in the next few weeks."
- Katherine Kuzminski, Director, Military, Veterans, and Society: "President Biden’s nomination of Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, USAF and LTG Laura Richardson, USA as the first female combatant commanders of Transportation Command and U.S. Southern command, respectively, demonstrates a generational shift in military leadership. The generals’ nominations are the culmination of a combined 68 years of exceptional performance in key assignments, training, and military education made possible by personnel policy changes implemented over the past 40 years. Biden’s appointments further reinforce uniformed women’s position of leadership within the military command structure, and open the opportunity for future female service chiefs with requisite combatant command experience."
- Martijn Rasser, Senior Fellow, Technology and National Security: "The Biden administration is laying the foundation for what could become a comprehensive framework for collaborative multilateral technology policy, essential to success in the global tech competition. The United States and Japan are partnering on next-generation telecommunication networks; the Quad established a technology working group; and as a signal of the administration’s intent to broaden such cooperation, the Secretary of Commerce will lead the U.S. delegation at this week’s first G7 digital and technology ministerial. Now the imperative is for the President to capitalize on momentum building in allied capitals and in Congress to operationalize a full-fledged tech alliance."
- Jacob Stokes, Fellow, Indo-Pacific Security: "An old axiom states that the best China strategy is actually a well-crafted strategy for Asia as a whole. The Biden administration has put that principle into practice with a flurry of diplomacy with Indo-Pacific allies and partners right out of the gate. This includes the first-ever Quad leaders summit, two-plus-two meetings with Japan and South Korea, Defense Secretary Austin’s trip to India, a trilateral meeting with South Korean and Japanese national security advisors, and an in-person White House summit between President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Those engagements established the right context for a U.S.-China meeting in Anchorage with senior Chinese officials that produced visible friction but also set the terms for working relations going forward. Effective foreign policy strategy requires converting broad ideas into concrete actions; the Biden team has done just that in Asia in the first 100 days."
- Jim Townsend, Adjunct Senior Fellow, Transatlantic Security: "Like coming out from under a COVID lockdown, European allies are emerging into the sunlight after hunkering down over the past four years of transatlantic turmoil. The warm tones coming from Washington are helping to melt the icebergs of skepticism about the US still worrying European capitals. They have reason to worry–politics in the US could flip again and cause the US to withdraw back into America first. Should allies hedge? You bet, if not because Allies need to lessen their dependence on the United States anyway–not to challenge the U.S. but to be our strong equal partner and not a dependent. The United States and Europe still haven’t sorted out what each expects of the other. We will never effectively address burden sharing, the most politically charged bipartisan issue to threaten the transatlantic link, until we agree on what we want from each other. With China and Russia on the move, it will take all of us to keep the peace. Can Europe muster the political will to be an equal partner? Will the U.S. be a help and not a hindrance? In the Biden transatlantic portfolio, that is the preeminent challenge."
- Nathalie Grogan, Research Assistant, Military, Veterans, and Society: "The Biden administration’s commitment to veterans and military families has several achievements during the first 100 days. The pandemic recovery bill advocated for and signed into law by President Biden closed the 90/10 loophole that had allowed veterans to be defrauded by predatory institutions of higher education. Additionally, the relaunch of the Joining Forces initiative by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden demonstrates the White House’s emphasis on supporting military families through employment, entrepreneurship, mental health, and military children’s education. These initiatives and changes in the first 100 days have laid the groundwork for an administration focused on advocating for and supporting those who serve and have served our country."
- Megan Lamberth, Research Associate, Technology and National Security: "In his first 100 days, President Biden has shown a commitment to bolstering the country’s science and technology base through his policy announcements and personnel decisions. Biden’s infrastructure plan, in particular, includes investments to advance America’s innovation ecosystem—it’s talent, resources, and R&D infrastructure. The plan seeks to ensure U.S. leadership in critical technologies like semiconductors, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence by investing billions of dollars into the country’s research labs, universities, and federal agencies. If passed, these investments will help the U.S. government capitalize on its innovation base and engage effectively in a geostrategic competition with China."
- Ainikki Riikonen, Research Assistant, Technology and National Security: "The administration has recognized the centrality of information and emerging technologies for U.S. national security. So far, it has made thoughtful senior-level appointments to the NSC and Department of Defense and, through the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, begun building the conceptual framework for how technology integrates into foreign policy. Moving forward, I expect to see the administration consolidate its approach to modernizing alliances to address technology challenges such as digital authoritarianism and economic security. Yet, technology innovation comes primarily from the private sector—an ongoing challenge will be to establish an American way of sustainably engaging with industry."