President Joe Biden blended the old and the new in his first major speech on U.S. foreign policy on Thursday, calling for a restoration of multilateralism and U.S. alliances but at the same time rolling out a new organizing principle for national security: the welfare of America’s middle class.
In his remarks, which were largely a rebuke to former President Donald Trump, Biden said he had one message for the world: “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” He also said the world should take encouragement from the outcome of the Capitol riots on Jan. 6, provoked by Trump, declaring that Americans have emerged “better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy—because we have fought for it ourselves.”
Overall the speech was presented as a mixture of populist, anti-Wall Street ideas stemming from the Democrats’ powerful progressive wing and Biden’s declared intent to make the rest of the world forget the turbulent four years of Trump’s presidency and, instead, to see the United States again as a global leader and force for democracy and human rights.
The biggest news was Biden’s announcement that the United States would stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s military offensive in the war in Yemen, saying “this war has to end.” He appointed a special envoy to the conflict, the career U.S. foreign service officer Timothy Lenderking. He also said he would reverse Trump’s plan to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Germany.
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In other respects, the speech was largely aspirational, divulging few details about his major policies toward adversaries and rivals such as China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea, which his national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, said earlier in the day were still under review. But Biden said he wanted to stand “shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once more.”
What the president didn’t talk about, in a sometimes hesitant delivery, was how he was going to repair the damage in relations with Europe—except to keep troops in Germany—or design a multilateral approach to pressuring China. The administration has not expressed a desire to return to the negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership cancelled by Trump, and it failed in its efforts to stop the EU-China investment pact announced at the end of last year.
He signaled a new toughness toward Russia and China, saying “American leadership must meet this new moment of growing authoritarianism.” He demanded the release of the Russian dissident politician Alexey Navalny and the recently detained Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi—but without saying what steps he might take to make that happen.
The most significant new element was Biden’s focus on the working class: “No longer is there a bright line between foreign and domestic policy. Every action we take … we must take with American working families in mind.” Biden emphasized his focus on domestic economic renewal and his “Buy America” plan, adding: “If the rules of international trade aren’t stacked against us … there’s no country on earth that can match us.”
Biden’s remarks closely echoed the views of Sullivan, who has long criticized previous Democratic foreign policy, including that of former President Barack Obama, under whom he served, for sacrificing middle-class jobs and livelihoods through unfair trade deals that give short shrift to labor. Some of the language showed how deeply embedded progressive ideas have become in Democratic policy. “Our priority is not to get access for Goldman Sachs in China,” Sullivan said at a White House briefing before Biden’s speech.
But the president, who has spent his first two weeks in office restoring multilateral agreements and institutions that Trump discarded—mainly by rejoining the Paris climate pact and World Health Organization and extending the New START arms control treaty with Russia—said the cause of multilateralism was all the more pressing today.
“We must meet this new moment of accelerating global challenges—from a pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation—challenges that will only be solved by nations working together,” Biden said.
Biden said he has spent the last few weeks talking with major U.S. allies such as Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, NATO, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, “to begin re-forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the last four years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse. … American alliances are our greatest asset.” He also said he was raising the ceiling on refugee admissions imposed by Trump by about eight times.
And in a head-on rebuke to Trump’s conspiracy theorizing about a “deep state”—the government bureaucracy that the previous president said sought to undermine him—Biden praised the State Department staff in separate remarks, saying, “I promise you I’m going to have your back. I promise you. And I expect you to have the back of the American people. … You are the center of all that I intend to do. You are the heart of it.”