Updated: Mar 19, 2022
By Will Bellaimey:
Will Bellaimey continues Historically Speaking with Part 2: Foreign Affairs 2022.
Check out Part 1 here!
Watch the new video or read the complete transcript!
Update: As of the afternoon of Thursday, February 24, 2022, it has been reported that the Russian forces assembled near the Ukrainian border launched a “military operation” that appears to be the start of its full-scale invasion. Additional reports of Russian troop movements into Ukraine and military attacks have followed, already resulting in casualties and deaths. President Biden has vowed to increase sanctions and unite with other G7 and UN leaders to form a severe and strategic response.
Hi, I'm Will Bellaimey, and this is the latest in our series, Historically Speaking, connecting what's happening right now to what's happened in the past.
The biggest power that a president has is in our relations with foreign countries. And so it's interesting also to take a look back on the last year in the Biden administration in terms of foreign relations. I think there was a general sigh of relief among a lot of allies of the United States to have a more predictable, stable, and generally traditional leader in office.
There's also been some pretty major missteps that have occurred in the first year, or at least difficult choices that didn't play out the way that the Biden administration would've liked to. The most obviously of those is the withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was done very quickly and led to a really serious humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan with the Taliban taking over, sanctions being put in place, and then a failure of negotiations with the Taliban that led to pretty massive starvation in a lot of parts of Afghanistan.
Now, I don't know how much Americans are following that story or, unfortunately, care. It could just become another country around the world where people are suffering and the United States isn't taking the actions that it could. But I do think it was a dramatic moment, especially at the Kabul airport, with lots of people who had either worked for the U.S. government or were afraid of the results of the Taliban's takeover, trying to cling to these planes as they took off. What's happening in Afghanistan right now is a horrible famine where basically the international community, in trying to punish the Taliban, have cut off a lot of the avenues by which ordinary Afghans received both food aid and just regular economic growth. It's a really, really bad situation there. Not to mention all of the things that you would automatically predict with the Taliban in terms of women not being able to get education and many people being killed and being afraid of reprisals. That is certainly a humanitarian failure on the part of the Biden administration to figure out how to withdraw without causing that level of chaos and suffering.
I think a lot of observers were kind of shocked at the mismanagement on the ground of the refugee question of how to support people who for several decades were basically employees of the U.S. government who are now in grave danger. It didn't seem like there was a really great plan in place to handle that.
The big foreign policy story right now in January of 2022 (see update above) is the possible Russian invasion of Ukraine. It certainly seems likely that in the next few weeks or even months, there'll be some sort of massive military conflagration or a kind of low-level civil war—as has already been going on—that just flames into a bigger issue. I don't know what people expect the Biden administration to do. It doesn't seem likely that the U.S. is going to commit troops there. I think there's certainly a lot of talk about sanctions, and as we know, sanctions don't usually work.
It's also a test of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), the major U.S.-led alliance, which under Trump was kind of sidelined. I think many observers are looking at this as a test of people's commitment to NATO. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, though it's often been listed as a country that could become part of NATO, which is one of Putin's excuses for mobilizing at this time. As with a lot of treaties, they are at their strongest when they're under direct threat, and I think the fact that the Russian threat to Eastern Europe is much more direct right now will probably lead to places like Poland and Estonia and Latvia to feeling that this treaty really serves them and also, perhaps, to the American public seeing the value of it, though I don't really know. It will be really interesting if there is a war in Ukraine and the conflict with Russia is really direct to see how that plays out in the kind of Biden/Trump dynamic. Because obviously, Trump's relationship with Russia is a kind of mysterious and sometimes an Achilles heel–like facet of his policy, especially in a party that has traditionally been pretty hawkish.
As with so many things, I don't actually think that Biden's steps will change people's minds within the Republican Party one way or the other.
Will Bellaimey teaches U.S. Government and Politics at Flintridge Prep School outside Los Angeles where he is also the director of the Los Angeles Museum of Geography, which is staffed entirely by seventh graders. His podcast, All the Presidents, Man, is available here.