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Biden's foreign policy faces many challenges during his first year in office


It has been a complicated year on the international stage for the Biden administration. The U.S. has rebuilt some partnerships and is trying to tackle global challenges, but there's a lot on America's plate. Russia is massing troops along Ukraine's borders at a time when the U.S. wants to focus on China, and Iran is moving ahead with its nuclear program. There are also humanitarian crises in many parts of the world. NPR's Michele Kelemen takes a look back on this year in diplomacy.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: There was a common theme at the start of this year when President Biden and his aides talked about foreign policy.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm sending a clear message to the world. America is back. The trans-Atlantic alliance is back.

KELEMEN: Allies in Europe ate it up, praising Secretary of State Antony Blinken at just about every stop he made this year.


JEPPE KOFOD: And let me tell you, Secretary Blinken, America has been missed.

KELEMEN: Denmark's foreign minister, Jeppe Kofod, praised Blinken for turning a page on the Trump administration, rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and the U.N. Human Rights Council and treating allies with more respect. But for Blinken, that honeymoon was cut short in Afghanistan as America's longest war ended with chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport.


ANTONY BLINKEN: I take responsibility. I know the president has said he takes responsibility. And I know all of my colleagues across government feel the same way.

KELEMEN: A massive airlift operation ended after a deadly ISIS-K attack, followed by a U.S. drone strike that targeted the wrong people and killed Afghan civilians. Former ambassador-at-large for global women's affairs Melanne Verveer was among those trying to help her Afghan friends get out of the country.

MELANNE VERVEER: We all remember those harrowing photos of people holding on to planes trying to get out. You know, we all have nightmare stories about what it was like to evacuate people we were trying to get to the airport and then get through the checkpoints.

KELEMEN: Verveer, now with Georgetown University, says many Afghans felt abandoned by the Biden administration, and even some U.S. allies started questioning America's resolve.

VERVEER: So there's a lot to worry about in terms of the longer term implications of this. You know, it's not to say that we can't recover, but I think the continuing problems vis-a-vis Afghanistan are going to keep it in the headlines and people aren't easily going to forget how this took place.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken is hoping Americans will remember something else.


BLINKEN: But this is also the first time in 20 years that no U.S. troops are spending the holidays in Afghanistan, and we're not sending a third generation of American soldiers to fight and die there.

KELEMEN: At the University of Virginia, William Antholis of the Miller Center takes the long view. He oversees a project that focuses on the first year of U.S. presidents.

WILLIAM ANTHOLIS: August is often a really bad time for presidents in their first year.

KELEMEN: Construction started on the Berlin Wall in August 1961, John F. Kennedy's first year in office. Three years later, an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin led President Lyndon B. Johnson to escalate the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

ANTHOLIS: In the immediate moment, that probably looked like a political win. For the course of his presidency, that was certainly a failure. So I do think the way that it plays forward is as important as the decision itself. And it's a little early to say, frankly.

KELEMEN: Antholis thinks it will take time to study how much Afghanistan shapes the Biden administration's foreign policy record and its credibility on the world stage.

ANTHOLIS: I think there is certainly a return to Earth view of the Biden administration.

KELEMEN: The Biden administration wanted to shift the focus to Asia this year. In the rush to do that, it created a bit of a mess there, too, says Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

AARON DAVID MILLER: The other brouhaha was, you know, what I'd call French fried diplomacy over the AUKUS submarine deal, which strained relations with the French.

KELEMEN: AUKUS is the new partnership between Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Australia ditched a major submarine deal with France to buy nuclear technology from the U.S. China's ambassador complains that the U.S. has a Cold War mentality, setting up blocks to counter Beijing. And he points to AUKUS as exhibit A. Miller says the Biden administration is too focused on security rather than trade and investment, which is what countries in Asia want.

MILLER: If we force the world to choose between the United States and China, I think we're going to hold a very losing hand.

KELEMEN: The January insurrection and the polarization of domestic politics have raised questions about America's credibility as it tries to refocus on democracy promotion around the world. Aaron David Miller says there are also many conflicts that continue to fester.

MILLER: I'm not sure I could identify a single significant problem in the world today - Syria, Hong Kong, what to do about Russia and Ukraine, how to deal with a broken Israeli-Palestinian peace process, what to do about Iran's putative nuclear weapons program - that has an end state or anything that remotely resembled a comprehensive solution.

KELEMEN: Domestic politics have made some foreign policy issues toxic, he adds, saying Biden can't afford to show weakness when it comes to Iran, Russia or China. In his end-of-the-year news conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the Biden administration's approach to all of these problems is to work with partners and allies.


BLINKEN: Finding new ways to cooperate and coordinate with other countries is more important than ever because none of the really big challenges that we face and that affect the lives of Americans, from COVID to climate to the disruptive impact of new technologies, can be solved by any one country working alone, not even the United States.

KELEMEN: And he said allies welcomed the U.S. back.


BLINKEN: American engagement, American leadership matters. The world doesn't organize itself.

KELEMEN: But as Miller of the Carnegie Endowment points out, it's a tough world out there.

MILLER: The world out there is not to be transformed. It's a world to be managed.

KELEMEN: He says the U.S. is no longer the indispensable power. American leadership is being challenged by many in a fractured world. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.