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Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Boils Down to One Word: Weakness

Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden reacts as he makes a statement about the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas shortly after Biden returned to Washington from his trip to South Korea and Japan, at the White House in Washington, U.S. May 24, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The wrong countries, notably Russia and China, are learning dangerous lessons about President Biden’s lack of international political resolve. Both substantively and in diplomatic tradecraft, his Administration is hesitant, submissive, and erratic. On issues as diverse as prisoner swaps with Moscow, American re-entry into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, the White House betrays a propensity to crumple under pressure. Weakness and uncertainty on these seemingly unrelated matters, and others, comprise a pattern heartening to adversaries and alarming to friends.

For example, long-standing, bipartisan U.S. policy has rejected negotiating with hostage-takers, whether terrorists or lawless states.  That policy has at times been breached, as in the dismaying Iran-Contra affair, but the underlying rationales are clear. Bargaining with hostage-takers epitomizes the moral-equivalency fallacy, legitimizing and publicizing their status;  often advances their cause by providing them resources or returning important personnel;  and invites more hostage-taking, thus endangering other Americans, by putting a price on our citizens.

Instead of incentivizing hostage-taking by trading prisoners, the correct response is harsh action, either economic or military, depending on the circumstances, against those who engage in such atrocities. Deal-making is congenial for terrorists and authoritarian states;  severe punishment is not. As painful as it is for hostages’ friends and families, a President’s responsibility is long-term, protecting the future security of all Americans, not placing more of them in jeopardy. This was Ronald Reagan’s mistake in Iran-Contra. The United States erred again by its utterly inadequate response to North Korea’s savage, ultimately fatal treatment of Otto Warmbier, taken hostage by Pyongyang in 2017.

Trading hostages with terrorists or rogue states is not comparable to well-established Western practices of exchanging prisoners of war and, more recently, intelligence personnel. Hostage-takers, including states under a pretense of “law enforcement.” are fundamentally illegitimate kidnappers seeking bargaining chips. Moreover, swapping personnel of different types (a common criminal offender for an illicit arms dealer, for example) encourages hostage-takers by conceding moral equivalency, obscuring their fundamentally unacceptable behavior.

Biden has shown little regard for these principles, as in his 2021 decision to grant Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou a highly favorable criminal settlement, dropping U.S. extradition proceedings against her in Canada. In exchange, China released two Canadian citizens it seized on fabricated charges immediately after Meng’s initial 2018 arrest in Vancouver. Biden’s retreat in Meng’s case undoubtedly colors China’s efforts to stop Pelosi’s Taiwan trip.

The Meng capitulation foreshadowed April’s exchange of American Trevor Reed for a major Russian cocaine trafficker, and ongoing negotiations to free Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. All three arrests were politically motivated (although Griner “confessed” to drug charges); Reed is now pressuring Biden on behalf of the others. Viktor Bout, the Russian offered for Griner and Whelan, is serving twenty-five years for selling arms to Colombian narco-terrorists.

Interestingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week the prisoner-exchange talks originated in the June 2021, Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva, where the leaders “agreed to appoint representatives in charge of these issues, and the Foreign Ministry is not among them.  The timing is consistent with White House deliberations on conceding the Meng case and the Russia prisoner swaps. Also quite interesting is Lavrov’s comment that negotiations initially were not in diplomatic channels but perhaps between intelligence or law-enforcement authorities.

Lavrov was uninterested in speaking to Blinken before they finally connected on July 29. Russia’s Maria Zakharova had earlier said Lavrov “has a busy schedule of real work,” and the two would talk “when time permits.” Moreover, Blinken, having avoided calling Lavrov for five months after the invasion of Ukraine, has repeatedly publicly discussed the substance of a possible deal, which the Russians have not. Similarly, the White House openly denounced as “bad faith” Russia’s proposal that the deal includes releasing a former intelligence official in German custody.

This public commentary reportedly reflects administration nervousness that talks are proceeding slowly, an error of tradecraft if accurate. Similar disarray has marked Biden’s efforts to stop Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. China’s rhetorical pressure has been intense, and the Administration’s discomfort far too visible. The President himself referred to Pentagon concerns for Pelosi’s safety, and anonymous officials confirmed Biden discussed the trip in his recent telephone call with Xi Jinping. Beijing was not so shy, saying Xi told Biden, “Those who play with fire will perish by it. It is hoped that the U.S. will be clear-eyed about this.”

China is, in effect, trying to make Pelosi’s trip a hostage. Some American analysts buy Beijing’s propaganda, worrying the trip “[C]ould ignite this combustible situation into a crisis that escalates to military conflict.” Such paranoia may well reflect White House insecurity, but it is badly misplaced.  Xi knows full well that any danger to Pelosi’s safety would prompt a robust American response, at least from most administrations.  And while military exercises were held in Fujian Province, there is no evidence of any real threat, according to the White House itself

Dreading Chinese fist-shaking without a clear-eyed analysis of reality has all the hallmarks of Biden vetoing the transfer of Polish MiGs to Ukraine, and hesitancy and delay in providing Kyiv with higher-end weapons, for fear of provoking Russian escalation. Administration trepidation about Pelosi’s travels is painfully visible worldwide, dispiriting our friends and whetting our adversaries’ appetites.

In Tehran, the ayatollahs must be dismayed for having come in too low bargaining with Biden and not demanding more concessions before readmitting the U.S. to the 2015 nuclear deal. And no wonder Kim Jung-Un is again making nuclear-weapons threats.

By abandoning well-established American policy against negotiating with hostage-takers; by overestimating short-term pressures and underestimating longer-term ramifications;  and by repeatedly signaling weakness and uncertainty dealing with China, Russia and others, Biden has harmed American credibility and thereby invited more threats and challenges. This lack of resolve bodes poorly for Ukraine if Russia’s invasion grinds on, especially since several European countries, notably Germany and France, are signaling their own lack of resolve. Its no surprise that Taiwan wants a Pelosi visit.

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.

Written By

Ambassador John R. Bolton served as national security adviser under President Donald J. Trump. He is the author of “The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir.” You can follow him on Twitter: @AmbJohnBolton.



  1. Froike

    July 31, 2022 at 4:04 pm

    Add to that some other Adjectives: Corruption, Stupidity, Incompetence,
    Buffoonery, Clown Show. That’s a good start.

  2. John public

    July 31, 2022 at 5:05 pm

    You’re a war criminal though.

  3. Ezra Teter

    July 31, 2022 at 5:17 pm

    Biden is weak but Bolton is a discredited buffoon.

  4. John

    July 31, 2022 at 5:27 pm

    80,000+ dead, wounded Russians and a near collapse of the Russian economy along with pariah state as a symptom of weakness? Man, Bolton just cherry picks his facts to fit a agenda and worldview that isn’t factual.

    If your drumbeat for war for the calamity of a war with Iraq didn’t already discredit you …. take shame with pride and just quit the public life. You cary no shame or responsibility for the 5000+ dead and how many wounded Americans because your worldview was as farfetched then as it is now?

  5. Bruce Bahmani

    July 31, 2022 at 5:28 pm

    My how those who sent their entire careers directly involved in delivering the very same failed US foreign policy for decades, now suddenly see the light and acknowledge all the obvious wrong moves they helped America make!

    Really John? Now you get it? Wow. Some people really need to learn how to retire…

  6. Kevin

    July 31, 2022 at 5:38 pm

    Good analysis. With his fear of action Biden is inviting all kind of strategic troubles.

    It’s refreshing to hear someone with a more grounded and firm approach.

  7. Arash P

    July 31, 2022 at 8:26 pm

    John Bolton hasn’t seen a problem that bombs cannot fix!

    You can threaten a country only so many ties by telling them “All options are on the table” before they do whatever they can to get their hands on the ultimate deterrence.

    You upset about proliferation? Look at the cause of it then, international lawlessness promoted by likes of yourself!

  8. Arash P

    July 31, 2022 at 8:39 pm

    I lived in America for years.

    Never met an American who is willing to die for Taiwan!!

    China is simply calling America’s bluff. America simply doesn’t have the willpower to coerce the entire world to its will as likes of Bolton constantly bluff about.

    In a nuclear war, everyone loses, but Americans lose more simply because they have more!!

    Americans already occupy one of the richest pieces of real estate in the world, thanks to their historical luck and thorough ethnic cleansing of the entire continent of its indigenous population.
    Therefore, Americans are not willing to lose it all in an all out nuclear exchange with a country like China or Russia.

  9. Stefan Stackhouse

    July 31, 2022 at 9:25 pm

    Biden may very well be weak. To a neocon warmonger, anything less than a fire-breathing dragon is weak.

  10. pagar

    July 31, 2022 at 10:21 pm

    Biden’s foreign policy is exactly the same as hitler’s, and much the same as the one pursued by hirohito’s japan.

    A foreign policy dictated by national might not diplomacy.

    Biden has a lot of blood on his hands squeezed from the luckless peoples of iraq, afghanistan, syria, ukraine, latin america, south america and other places.

    Where would biden go after finishing his time ob this earth. The lake of fire!

  11. CRS, DrPH

    July 31, 2022 at 10:32 pm

    John, thanks, you nailed it! Bolton, all you’ve done in your career was screw things up. In your book “The Room Where It Happened,” you said “The characteristics of bioweapons’ attacks and pandemics can have much in common, and the medical and public-health expertise required to deal with both threats went hand in hand. Combining the two directorates therefore maximized the opportunities for working more effectively together, as well as raising the priority of biosecurity, by structurally recognizing that the threat could come from either of two directions, natural or man-made.” (hint: bioterrorism and pandemic science are barely related, except for microbiology). Your stupidity allowed COVID-19 to kill over one million US citizens.

  12. Scottfs

    August 1, 2022 at 12:14 am

    Mr. Bolton has few friends on either side. Foreign policy under George Weasel Bush was a disaster.

    We cannot and should not fight wars for other people. Aid is one thing (as long as it can be traced and not diverted to other countries to line the pockets; of the corrupt), sending American troops is another.

  13. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 1, 2022 at 3:40 am

    America is being humiliated by Biden.

    He is unworthy of the office he holds.

  14. Elso de Lacerda Silva

    August 1, 2022 at 7:01 am

    When I read Mr. John Bolton’s text, I remembered the book The March of Insensitivity by North American Barbara Tuchman. I really don’t know if John Boton is joking or has had a lobotomy. How can a citizen who, while he was Secretary of State. I remembered another book called by the American citizen Vincent Bevins who is an award-winning journalist and correspondent for several newspapers.Does Mr Bolton demand moral values ​​from China, Russia or Iran? He is simply once again defending the economic interests of the US arms industry. And for that, he has no qualms about writing a text that tries to justify the disastrous North American foreign policy.

  15. Yrral

    August 1, 2022 at 7:41 am

    Weak Republicans,only insecure people got to prove something, Pelosi should not made a statement about doing something ,that she did not intend to carry out,like lots of politican

  16. TG

    August 1, 2022 at 8:28 am

    It is frustrating to hear all this talk about “Biden.” He is not setting policy, that’s being done by the consensus of a large group of billionaires – let’s call it Zuckerberg et al.

    If Biden were physically dead and stuffed, and his staff took instructions from Zuckerberg et al. and dutifully executed them, would we still talk about “Biden” as being weak?

    Biden spent half a century in public service doing whatever his wealthy patrons wanted no questions asked. Politicians are often influenced by wealthy donors but Biden is a total marionette. He now ends his career as it began, he may have no brain cells left but how smart do you have to be to just sell out and do what you are told? Now he ends his career performing one final service: allowing his ‘weakness’ to take the blame for policies that others quite deliberately put in place.

    I call our rulers “Zuckerberg et al.”, but you can call it the ruling elite, the billionaires, whatever. Just don’t call them “Biden.”

  17. Jim

    August 1, 2022 at 10:53 am

    Joe Biden’s Foreign Policy Boils Down To One Word: Weakness

    I don’t know whether the present author created the above title (headline) or not.

    But responding to the headline, I suggest it’s Bad Foreign Policy decisions from the Biden administration, compounded by incompetence.

    A better headline: Biden, a one, two punch of Bad Policy & Incompetence

    Or, Biden’s neoliberalism, a failed doctrine.

  18. Patrick Hoogsteden

    August 1, 2022 at 11:00 am

    Well, that’s a lot of words
    for actually saying you have been a sleep for the past 6 months Mister Bolton.

  19. I. Martin

    August 1, 2022 at 1:16 pm

    Joe Biden is beyond embarrassment, as are his enablers. Despite John Bolton’s flaws, he is a one channel tv set: war all day, everyday, he is correct about this. As they say, even a broken clock is right twice a day. Well this is one of those moments for Bolton. Biden doesn’t seem to have any idea where he stands, except that he knows that hard thinking makes his head hurt. I hope the United States survives his term.

  20. I. Martin

    August 1, 2022 at 1:21 pm

    I lived in America for years.

    Never met an American who is willing to die for Taiwan!!

    To Arash P,

    What are you talking about?! Americans haven’t fought on American soil in over a century! We’re always dying for someone else’s land. What was Iraq?! Afghanistan?! Americans are just looking for a little more return for their trouble. You might have lived here, but you didn’t learn much.

  21. Jim

    August 1, 2022 at 3:02 pm

    The Biden administration has Flunked Mackinder 101: don’t push Russia and China together to form up “the World Island.” (and Iran, and maybe, now, India, too.)

    Professor Mackinder, if alive, today, would give the Biden administration an “F” for a failing grade.

    That neoliberals, neocons & warhawks are oblivious to the dangers of pushing Russia and China together via their Ukraine policy & China/Taiwan policy demonstrates they have no business running America’s foreign policy.

    What’s their excuse for such a bad set of foreign policies?

    I don’t know, they seem to have lost their voices when it comes time to owning up to their failures.

    No surprise on that one, really.

  22. Bobby

    August 1, 2022 at 3:18 pm

    John Bolton is a far right hawk that was instrumental in getting us into the Iraq debacle. His opinions are useless and dangerous.

  23. stanley grim

    August 1, 2022 at 5:28 pm

    Hard to know what to say – the Neocons steering the empire on the down slope, shouting at the clouds… what is so special about you guys that you think you can strut around bullying nations you have for so long try to reduce to second and third tier status? Do you imagine your own people are thankful for your psychopathic behaviour? What deep inner inadequacies you must harbor to lord your outsize egos over the rest of humanity.

  24. CRS, DrPH

    August 1, 2022 at 11:09 pm

    Ask al Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahri how weak Biden’s foreign policy is….if you can find enough pieces.

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