The US reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has marked a significant transformation in US foreign policy during 2022. President Joe Biden’s wide-ranging backing for Ukraine has met with support from both Democrats and Republicans. In doing so, it has ended any question of a return to his predecessor Donald Trump’s isolationism.
In his inaugural address in January 2021, Biden announced that the US would “repair our alliances and engage with the world once again”.
US leadership on environmental issues started on the first day of his presidency when the US rejoined the Paris climate agreement. Biden’s continued determination to lead on international issues could also be seen through the US’s agreement to the creation of a “loss and damage” fund at Egypt’s COP27, after a 30-year long objection. The fund is designed to compensate poorer countries for climate damages.
Swivel from Trump’s policy
During the Trump presidency, the US withdrew from international treaties and adopted an “America first” attitude towards international affairs. Trump pulled the US out of the Iran nuclear deal which had removed sanctions on Iran in return for a restricted nuclear programme.
In addition, he withdrew the US from the Paris climate agreement, and coerced Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) in a way that disproportionately benefited the US.
Nafta, which established a free trade zone between the US, Canada and Mexico, had been in place since 1994. Trump was a long-term critic, calling it “the worst trade deal signed anywhere”.
Trump’s determination to put America first led to a decline in the US’s global leadership. Some commentators have gone further and suggested that this decline undermined Ukraine’s sovereignty.
It is no surprise that the US has taken a more central role in international affairs under Biden’s leadership. In his presidential campaign, he promised to restore America’s “respected leadership on the world stage”. Experts have identified Biden’s foreign policy as an explicit repudiation of Trump’s “America First” legacy in favour of “the restoration of the multilateral order”.
But it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that meant the US had to take the lead in international diplomacy again. Throughout the conflict, it has been resolute in its support of Ukraine – supplying more than US$68 billion (£56 billion) in military and humanitarian aid while encouraging its global partners to add their support.
Internally, there has been considerable bipartisan support for Biden’s policy towards Ukraine. The only sustained Republican opposition has come from the extreme right of the party, mostly consisting of Trump loyalists.
These opponents, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, have vowed that “not another penny” would be sent to Ukraine. But this opposition is a small minority and significantly outnumbered by those, on both sides of the political divide, who have pledged to continue supporting Ukraine’s defence.
Public opinion on Ukraine
Surveys have shown that the American public generally supports Biden’s response to Ukraine. The most positive responses praised his avoidance of direct conflict with Russia, while the most negative suggested more technologically advanced weaponry should be supplied.
However, foreign policy decisions have not all gone well for Biden. In August 2021, US forces withdrew from Afghanistan in a chaotic manner. This was quickly followed by the collapse of the US-supported Afghan government. The US withdrawal brought international and domestic criticism and undermined Biden’s attempts to re-establish American global diplomatic leadership.
Although Biden was blamed for the manner of this withdrawal, Trump’s ceasefire agreement with the Taliban in February 2020, and subsequent signposted withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, has been identified by experts as the catalyst for the collapse of the western-backed Afghan government.
After the midterms
In the recent midterms, surveys indicated that Biden’s support of Ukraine – and his foreign policy in general – failed to register as a priority issue with voters. The US support is not some populist policy but a determination to fulfil Biden’s promise of “a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security”.
Almost two years later, it’s clear that Biden has no intention of diminishing the US’s role in international affairs. In his latest National Security Strategy, he declared: “Around the world, the need for American leadership is as great as it has ever been.”
The new Congress, with a Republican majority in the House, is unlikely to hinder America’s re-emergence into international affairs. Biden is very experienced in working with Republicans in Congress, and that will likely continue in the immediate future.
And Biden has been active in deciding Nato’s position on Ukraine. When questioned at a Nato summit in June, he said on behalf of all the allies that they would “stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes, and in fact make sure they are not defeated”.
A move to become more active in international affairs is welcomed by observers, with a degree of caution. US involvement needs to be enough to be effective, but not too much to be dominating. And this has been backed by recent opinion polls on US foreign policy.
Rather than attempting to build democratic nations overseas, the Biden administration is adopting what some are calling “fortress liberalism” – the protection of democracy where it already exists, such as Ukraine.
Mindful of public concerns over the possibility of boots on the ground, Biden’s approach stops short of resuming the military operations of the Bush and Obama administrations.
Whether the level of support for Ukraine is enough remains to be seen. Experts warn that a severe economic downturn for the US could reduce public support for the amount being authorised. What is clear, however, is that support for Ukraine will continue in one form or another, as Biden continues to repair America’s relationships with the rest of the world.