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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

For Biden, an era when treaties are more likely to be broken than brokered

President Joe Biden arrives aboard Marine One at Fort Lesley J. McNair in Washington, from a weekend trip to Camp David, on Sunday, April 9, 2023.

By Peter Baker

President Joe Biden leaves Tuesday for Northern Ireland to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence. But the commemoration also serves as an unspoken reminder that such diplomatic breakthroughs have become a thing of the past.

At a time of ferocious warfare in Europe and crackling tension elsewhere around the globe, the sort of bold, painstaking negotiation that brought peace to the Emerald Isle a quarter-century ago has largely disappeared from the scene. Bargaining tables sit empty these days. Shuttle diplomacy planes have been grounded. Treaties are more likely to be broken than brokered.

It would be too much to call it the death of diplomacy, but there certainly is a dearth of diplomacy for now. While Biden fervently believes in deal-making, his efforts to revive the Iran nuclear accord have collapsed, and it is widely considered futile to even try to end the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict or negotiate with North Korea at this point. The Russians have suspended the New START treaty, the last major Russian-American arms control agreement, and there appears to be little prospect for diplomacy to halt the fighting in Ukraine in the near term.

Even on the international economic front, once a fruitful field for American presidents to leave their mark, there is little meaningful movement to continue the integration of recent years. Biden opted against rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the sweeping free trade pact negotiated by a previous administration he belonged to, nor is he pursuing any other major free trade agreement, making him the first president not to do so in four decades.

“There’s something about the moment that doesn’t make it very ripe,” said Martin S. Indyk, who served as ambassador to Israel twice and later as President Barack Obama’s special envoy for Middle East peace. “It’s harder to get big agreements when you’re in this adversarial engagement, both with Russia and with China.”

With the revival of great power competition on the scale of the Cold War, the ground for diplomacy has shifted. There is little appetite in Moscow or Beijing for meeting in the middle, while some of the world’s seemingly intractable disputes such as that between Israel and the Palestinians have settled into a stalemate locked in geopolitical cement.

Domestic politics have not eased the way for major international agreements either. The rise of Donald Trump ushered in a nationalist, even isolationist, moment in the United States that eschews foreign entanglements. Globalism, once the bipartisan consensus, has become a bad word and with it the notion of tying American interests to those of other countries.

That represents a pretty drastic change in less than a decade. After securing the New START treaty in his first term, Obama in his later years in office presided over a flurry of major diplomatic accords, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord and an opening to Cuba after more than half a century. “Part of our goal here has been to show that diplomacy can work,” Obama said at the time.

But the array of agreements he put in place did not survive long once Trump took office. The new president pulled the United States out of the Iran deal, the Pacific partnership and the Paris accord. He halted and to some extent reversed the opening to Cuba. He withdrew from long-standing pacts including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty and even threatened to leave a 19th century postal treaty before reversing course after winning concessions.

While Trump fancied himself a stellar negotiator, he sealed fewer major agreements than he scuttled during his four years. His promise to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which he considered “maybe not as difficult as people have thought,” proved to be just as difficult as people thought. His efforts to strike a bargain with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to get rid of that country’s nuclear weapons and to rewrite trade rules with China to favor American interests both failed.

His most notable successes were an update of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, with Canada and Mexico, and the Abraham Accords, which opened diplomatic relations between Israel and several of its small Arab neighbors. The most consequential agreement Trump struck may have been his deal with the Taliban to pull American troops out of Afghanistan, an accord one of his own national security advisers called a “surrender agreement” and which was later executed by Biden.

Biden came to office determined to repair ties that frayed under Trump and quickly rejoined the Paris climate accord. But with free trade deeply unpopular in his own party, Biden chose not to rejoin Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership and has made no effort to forge a free-trade agreement of his own, unlike every president since Ronald Reagan. Instead his trade office is focusing on more limited agreements including the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, aiming to raise labor and environmental standards without offering more market access.

And while they do not have major new treaties to sign, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have successfully unified NATO against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and won support from other countries as well. American diplomats helped pave the way for Finland to join the alliance and are working to overcome Turkish objections to admitting Sweden. One administration official said that if the Good Friday Agreement was a home run, Biden has hit some solid singles and doubles.

Many diplomatic agreements are the product of several administrations, with one president benefiting from the spadework of predecessors. NAFTA, for instance, originated under Reagan as a pact between the United States and Canada; President George H.W. Bush expanded it to Mexico, and President Bill Clinton pushed it through Congress.

Trump left little for Biden to continue pursuing other than the Abraham Accords, which the current president would like to expand to include Saudi Arabia. So far, the Biden administration has brokered an expansion of airspace rights for Israel over Saudi Arabia, but Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had demanded other major concessions before agreeing to full diplomatic relations.

Even then, the Saudis are playing the Americans off other major powers these days, collaborating with Russia in setting oil prices over Washington’s objections and relying on China to facilitate a restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran.

The Good Friday Agreement that Biden will honor in Northern Ireland this week was no overnight success. In fact, it came together only after three previous attempts failed. And even after it was hammered out with the help of Clinton in 1998, the disputes did not actually end.

“The reason it succeeded when the others failed was because it was inclusive, because there were leaders on both sides ready to take risks and because there was a mutually hurting stalemate — both sides were tired,” said Jonathan Powell, who was chief of staff to Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and his chief negotiator for Northern Ireland peace talks.

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