For Biden, 2021 Will Be Far More of a Challenge than 2020 | Opinion

The dawning of the New Year is a time of endless promise and possibilities, when people the world over ring in a fresh beginning with hopes, dreams, and a list of pledges to make themselves more well-rounded.

One person in America who won't be celebrating all that long is Joe Biden, who will enter 2021 staring at a near-insurmountable mountain of challenges in front of him. The President-elect, of course, is no stranger to adversity; the last time he took high office, the U.S. was undergoing its worst economic recession since the Great Depression. Biden, however, won't be playing second fiddle in the White House this time around. He is now the ultimate decision maker, the one who makes the tough calls on behalf of the American people.

Some issues, like how best to manage Washington's relationship with China, will be a long-term endeavor and will likely involve significant trial and error along the way. Other subjects will be pressing due to deadlines and unique circumstances. Still others will require significant time and political capital—and even then, solutions may still be out of reach.

Take Russia and its nuclear stockpile. As U.S. and Russian officials can attest, the relationship between Washington and Moscow is not exactly blossoming with hope and tranquility at the moment. The former Cold War adversaries are frequently on the opposite side of the field, where a combination of competing national interests, hostility at the leadership and working levels, and misreading of each other's intentions have produced an airing of grievances that only Seinfeld's Frank Constanza could love. As Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov bluntly told Russia's Interfax news agency on December 22, U.S.-Russia relations "are heading from bad to worse...We definitely don't expect anything good."

In daily life, antagonistic neighbors can largely avoid one another by staying in their yards. Unfortunately, the U.S. and Russia can't afford to pretend like the other doesn't exist. While the Russians aren't the formidable, 10-foot tall giants the U.S. media often portrays them to be, the fact that Moscow boasts the world's largest nuclear arsenal is enough reason for Washington to maintain a healthy dialogue with this most nettlesome of countries. Unlike Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, all of whom hoped to facilitate a renaissance-like era in U.S.-Russia relations, Joe Biden isn't even bothering to waste his time thinking this scenario is a possibility.

All the same, simply ostracizing Vladimir Putin as a rogue and sanctioning the Kremlin to the hilt is highly unlikely to convince Russia to change its foreign policy. The Biden administration will have to confront the Russia issue immediately whether it wants to or not; with the New START accord set to expire 16 days after Biden's inauguration, the next administration must quickly thread the needle of preserving a semblance of strategic stability between the world's two largest nuclear powers while pushing back on Moscow's behavior when it negatively effects U.S. national security.

Joe Biden will be the fourth U.S. President to inherit the war in Afghanistan, which entered its twentieth year last October. Courtesy of President Trump, the U.S. troop presence is now at its lowest level since the conflict began. There will be 2,500 U.S. troops in the country by mid-January. Biden will likely order another inter-agency Afghanistan policy debate in his first month on the job, a discussion he knows from personal experience can be lengthy, heated, and painful.

Biden will hear a wide range of views on what the U.S. should do going forward. Those who continue to believe the civil war in Afghanistan is America's to fight will seek to make inroads in the new administration, either by using their personal relationships with some of Biden's advisers or writing columns recommending more time, more patience, and perhaps even more troops. Biden heard all of these arguments before, and as vice president, he served as a strong counterweight to the Defense Department's more resource-intensive war strategy. Will Biden become bedazzled by the generals like Trump was early in his tenure, when took a decision contrary to his own instincts and increased U.S. troop numbers by roughly 3,000-5,000? Or will he do what the majority of the American people want and wind down America's longest war for good?

Biden will also need to come to an understanding early on about the proper role of the U.S. military in America's broader foreign policy and how large he wants the defense budget to be. While Biden may think defense budget cuts aren't inevitable, the coronavirus epidemic has been a drain on America's financial strength. Washington has spent nearly $5 trillion in 2020 on economic recovery funds, including a $900 billion measure Trump signed into law this weekend. The U.S. is now running record-high deficits comparable only to the tail end of War World II. This is an unsustainable amount of spending.

As Washington seeks to address its fiscal problems and focus more intensively on domestic priorities, no federal agency or department will be immune to sacrifice. This includes the Pentagon, a department where throwing money at a problem is often seen as a good-enough solution. Biden and his defense secretary-designate Lloyd Austin (assuming he's confirmed) won't have the luxury of simply requesting large, $740 billion checks for the Pentagon as if the country didn't have other immediate priorities. They will need to make tough decisions, and some of those decisions will cause hurt feelings across some branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

For America, 2020 was one of the most difficult years in modern times. But for Joe Biden, 2021 could be even tougher.

Daniel DePetris is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, a contributor to the National Interest and a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.