APRIL 26, 2021
The first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency, a milestone he will reach this week, were largely about fighting the coronavirus and stimulating the domestic economy.
For the second 100 days, the rest of the world is closing in.
China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and the Taliban in Afghanistan all are set to test the president, or already are doing so. China is making ominous moves around Taiwan and in the South China Sea. Though it has backed off a bit in recent days, Russia continues to strike a threatening posture toward Ukraine. Iran has increased the level to which it is enriching uranium, putting new importance on talks about reviving a nuclear agreement with the U.S.
And as for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un—well, he’s a bit like the Glenn Close character in the movie “Fatal Attraction,” who declares: “I will not be ignored.” He’s already fired off a few test missiles to prove the point.
This isn’t necessarily the agenda the president or his team want for the next 100 days. They have further big domestic ambitions, starting with a giant $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan, followed by a similarly large plan to improve child care and education, to be paid for by hotly contested tax increases.
All told, Mr. Biden envisions completing a kind of reset of the direction of the American economy and the role government plays in fueling it, all of which he and his aides also consider essential in improving America’s standing to take on foreign challengers in the first place.
Meanwhile, Mr. Biden has to worry about nagging signs in new polls suggesting a significant slice of Americans, while generally happy with his performance, want him to find ways to work with Republicans, as he promised he would in his campaign.
So the domestic agenda remains packed, and dominant. But the world doesn’t wait—and it likes to test new American leaders.
Indeed, America’s competitors appear to be in the process right now of probing the limits of the new president—and of American foreign policy itself these days. “Any president at this point would have been tested, given what preceded him: the Obama restraint followed by America First and (President Donald) Trump,” says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “So much of what had been assumed to be a given in American foreign policy has become anything but. So probing and testing make sense.”
It may well be that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin haven’t decided what, exactly, they intend to do on Taiwan and Ukraine, but rather are trying to see first what kind of response Mr. Biden provides when he is challenged. It is a period of taking the measure of the new occupant of the Oval Office, suggesting the multiple probes are no coincidence. “These things are connected,” says Mike Pompeo, who was secretary of state under Mr. Trump.
Of course, Russia and China also may be acting aggressively as much out of insecurity as security in their own power. The leaders of both nations are facing their own internal challenges from democracy and human-rights movements, and aggressive overseas moves help distract attention from those. “They have to be on the offense because they are afraid of being on defense,” says Rahm Emanuel, former White House chief of staff under President Barack Obama.
In any case, how Mr. Biden responds when challenged is important, and something being closely watched in capitals around the globe. The trick at the moment is to be firm without being provocative.
Mr. Haass suggests sending Ukraine some defensive military equipment that it can absorb quickly to deter any overt Russian aggression, and perhaps similarly finding ways to help Taiwan defend itself against a military move by China. “What we need to do is narrow the gap between our rhetoric and our capability when it comes to Taiwan,” he says.
But he also suggests doing so without a lot of public posturing that would challenge Mr. Xi, and perhaps increase pressure on him internally to respond even more aggressively. “More quiet building of capability and less public posturing,” says Mr. Haass.
The Biden team feels a sense of urgency to move quickly on the rest of his domestic agenda—to act while the coronavirus pandemic still demands and justifies big government moves to energize the economy, while Democrats still control (thinly as they do) both houses of Congress, and before the midterm election season sets in to further complicate life in Washington. However, the rest of the world gets a vote on that agenda too.