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Biden's foreign policy plan will face some big tests in 2023


President Biden made a lot of foreign policy moves during his first year in office, and of them the most prominent was the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. During Biden's second year, very different events dominated the news, and administration officials insist that hard first year set the stage for the second. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.


JENS STOLTENBERG: Antony, welcome back to NATO headquarters.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent a lot of time this year with NATO's secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg.


ANTONY BLINKEN: In fact, I'm going to ask you if there are apartments available at NATO headquarters, because we're here so much that we probably need one.

KELEMEN: The war in Ukraine has given NATO a new sense of purpose after a chaotic end to its mission in Afghanistan last year. Secretary of State Blinken puts it this way.

BLINKEN: If we were still in Afghanistan, it would have, I think, made much more complicated the support that we've been able to give and that others have been able to give Ukraine to resist and push back against the Russian aggression.

KELEMEN: Russia's war in Ukraine also gave the Biden administration a chance to show the world they are a competent team, says Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

AARON DAVID MILLER: In a way, Putin offered Joe Biden a moment of real competence, credibility and even greatness in American foreign policy. After all, Russia and Ukraine was probably the most consequential event in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

KELEMEN: Miller says that the Ukrainian president's dramatic visit to Washington was designed to keep Congress and U.S. allies on board with the U.S. approach, that is to help Ukraine degrade Russia's military without getting into a direct conflict with Moscow.

MILLER: It's not perfect, but it was as high a mark, I think, as anybody could have expected. And in the wake of Afghanistan, I think it completely reversed the image that America would never lead again.

KELEMEN: Kori Schake of the American Enterprise Institute agrees. But she says the Biden administration is going to have to get Europe to start spending more in Ukraine.

KORI SCHAKE: If that's not forthcoming, the secretary of state ought to be preparing Americans for that. And he ought to be working to get Europeans to more equitably share the burden with the United States, especially in the reconstruction phase. And I don't see that work going on.

KELEMEN: Blinken talks a lot about working together with allies on challenges from Russia to China.

BLINKEN: We're in a fundamentally stronger position to address the issues that actually affect the lives of the American people when we do so alongside the many countries that share our fundamental interests and values.

KELEMEN: But when it comes to China, that may not be enough, according to a former assistant secretary of state for Asia, Susan Thornton, now at Yale Law School.

SUSAN THORNTON: It seems like most of the operation is aimed at sort of working with other countries against China, rather than working with China. And I personally just think that we can't accomplish our goals in foreign policy if we're not working with China.

KELEMEN: She says the U.S. needs to work with China on the big global issues - non-proliferation, health and climate change. Blinken plans a trip there early next year, and Thornton says he has his work cut out.

THORNTON: We would have to sort of start to build back some kind of constructive conversation after three years of a pandemic where we basically had no contact and, you know, several years before that where the relationship was in freefall.

KELEMEN: Thornton says it doesn't help that this administration talks about a world divided into autocracies and democracies. Kori Schake of AEI puts that in her debit column, too, as she reflects on Biden's foreign policy this year.

SCHAKE: Grandstanding on putting human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy without follow-through with Saudi Arabia or Egypt, and this pointless statement about support for women and girls in Afghanistan, is heartbreaking in its emptiness.

KELEMEN: Blinken says a lot of countries are joining the U.S. in pressuring the Taliban to give women and girls access to education. So far, international condemnation hasn't had much of an impact on Afghanistan's rulers.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.