Being Good Isn't Always Great in Foreign Policy
4 min read
fairly easy
"Goodness had nothing to do with it," Mae West retorts in Night After Night when a hat-check girl gushes: "Goodness, what a beautiful diamond!" The Biden team should...
"Goodness had nothing to do with it," Mae West retorts in Night After Night when a hat-check girl gushes: "Goodness, what a beautiful diamond!" The Biden team should hire someone like her as a consultant as it labors to undo what former President Donald Trump has wrought.

In the early days of his administration, U.S. President Joe Biden could serve virtue when the price was low and the goodwill earned was high. The United States rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization. No. 46 has soothed the European allies Trump loved to offend. He has affirmed Western values by chastizing China for killing democracy in Hong Kong, and Russia for routinely assassinating regime foes.

But states don't always do well by being good. The game is about gaining advantage while denying it to rivals like China, Russia, and Iran. The administration received an idea of just how difficult this will be when China and Iran concluded a 25-year investment deal that stands to infuse $16 billion annually into the Iranian economy. Hobbled by severe U.S. sanctions, Iran's economy limped along with about $1 billion of foreign funds last year. Chinese cash for Iranian oil is a perfect blockade breaker aimed against Washington. Though such a deal was first mooted four years ago, the timing is the real message.

This week, the signatories of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement with Tehran canceled by Trump in 2018, are convening in Vienna to talk about reinstating the deal. Iran will arrive with its bargaining position strengthened by Beijing. Biden in turn has less leverage, but great ambitions. He intends to trade the lifting of U.S. sanctions for a refurbished nuclear deal that would not just push back Iran's ability to build a bomb, as Obama's deal did, but would prevent it altogether. But why would Iran make this concession if China keeps the billions flowing?

As for China, Xi Jinping's…
Josef Joffe
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