President Joe Biden’s maiden foreign policy speech would have come off as a string of clichés in normal times. But in the wake of Donald Trump’s four years of diplomatic decline and atrophy, it seemed fresh, even bracing.
The very fact that Biden delivered the speech at the State Department (which Trump scorned as “the Deep State Department”) and devoted much of it to thanking diplomats for their work (“I value your expertise … I will have your back”) must have been a morale booster to a foreign service whose ranks Trump and his team disparaged and decimated.
“Diplomacy is back, at the center of our foreign policy,” Biden proclaimed, along with other fine words about American values, the crucial need for alliances, the universality of human rights, the centrality of strengthening American markets and American workers, the importance of holding tyrants accountable while cooperating with them in the pursuit of common interests.
In the biggest news to come out of the speech, he announced that the U.S. would no longer provide support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen—he also named an emissary to Yemen’s long-dormant peace talks—while at the same time pledging to continue helping the Saudis protect themselves from Iranian-backed missile attacks on their territory.
He also said he would rebuild America’s long-standing program to admit refugees, raising the limit to 125,000 in his first fiscal year (Trump had reduced it to 15,000, the lowest ever). He directed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to lead a review of U.S. troop deployments worldwide, so that “our military footprint is appropriately aligned with foreign policy priorities.” This would be the first such review in many years—and it is significant that he said the review would be coordinated with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and all other national security agencies. Meanwhile, he added, he was suspending the troop withdrawals from Germany that Trump had ordered.
The speech was also notable for topics he did not mention. He uttered not a word about the Iran nuclear deal or about North Korea or—maybe a first for any president’s foreign policy speech in the past 70 years or so—Israel.
Biden has said he wants to restore the nuclear deal, but not until Iran resumes complying with its terms. (The Iranians want to return to the deal as well, but not until the U.S. returns to compliance. It may take a third party to devise a formula for who goes first.) His slighting of Kim Jong-un may reflect that a new U.S. policy is still in the works, but certainly it puts the hermit of Pyongyang on notice that the new American president might simply ignore him. As for Israel, Biden is on record for many years as a defender of its sovereignty—Blinken said in his confirmation hearings that he won’t retract Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as its capital—but he’s also known to resent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intrusions in U.S. domestic politics, and he clearly meant to signal that the days of unquestioning obsequiousness from the White House are over.
However, other elements of Biden’s speech were vague and unclear—hardly unusual for these sorts of things, but in this case the ambiguities might come back to haunt him.
For instance, he said that Russia should release the jailed dissident Alexei Navalny “immediately and without condition”; told China to stop stomping on the human rights of its own people; and instructed the leaders of Myanmar’s military coup to “relinquish” their power, “release” detainees, and “lift restrictions on communications”—adding that, in all these pressure campaigns, he “will work with our partners to impose consequences on those responsible” for the violations.
These are all fine words, but how will Biden translate them into action? There aren’t many more sanctions to be levied against Russia, including specific Russian officials and oligarchs. Chinese President Xi Jinping is determined not to let Biden compartmentalize policy toward Beijing, seeking cooperation on climate change while engaging in confrontation on other aspects of policy. (Striking the right balance on China will probably be Biden’s knottiest challenge. Both leaders may have to give a little to accomplish any goal.) As for working jointly with allies to maximize the pressure, whether against Russia or China or Myanmar or anyplace else, Trump’s dissing of U.S. partners may have taken its toll. Some of the European leaders have already learned how to go their own way, when they can. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance, has struck ambitious trade deals with China, making clear that she has no desire to take sides in some new cold war between Washington and Beijing.*
Biden is well aware of the damage that Trump has wreaked. In restating his plan, which he has mentioned before, to host an international “summit of democracies” early in his presidency, he acknowledged that many gasp or chuckle at any American effort to lead or lecture the world about democracy, given the rancor over our recent presidential election (to say nothing of our electoral system’s general bizarreness), capped by the near-insurrection of Jan. 6. In his speech, Biden argued that the events of the past month have strengthened our credibility on this score because, “even pushed to the brink,” we emerged “more determined to unite the world in defending democracy because we have fought for it ourselves.”
This isn’t exactly a closer. At best, our allies—even many of our own citizens—will read this claim, cock their eyebrows, and sigh, “We’ll see.”
Biden repeatedly stressed the strong link between U.S. foreign and domestic policy. He talked about a “foreign policy for the middle class,” a theme that his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has outlined in some depth. It may also be significant that Biden appointed Susan Rice, an experienced diplomat who was on his short lists to be vice president and secretary of state, as the head of his Domestic Policy Council.
And yet it’s not clear what Biden means by a foreign policy with, as he also put it, “American working families in mind.” It seems to suggest a strategy of protectionism—an inference bolstered by his proposal that the U.S. government, to the extent possible, should “Buy American” in procuring supplies. In the past, Biden has been a firm advocate of free trade. Even many free traders now support rerouting of supply chains away from China—which can pose national security dangers—toward more reliable, preferably domestic suppliers. But how far is Biden willing to go on this, with what economic implications?
Biden’s presidency is barely two weeks old. A speech such as this can’t be expected to plunge deeply into policies. Many of the policies are still being worked out. Nonetheless, Biden and his team are facing a very tough road, due in part to the ravaged landscape that Trump has left but also in part to the global changes—in the nature of new threats and the shifting balances of power among nations—from even the time, not so long ago, when Biden last spent time in the White House.
The watchwords of his foreign policy team are competence, experience, and familiarity. Almost all of them have worked with Biden, and with one another, in the past. They have similar views and similar approaches. There are likely to be fewer internecine clashes and bureaucratic rivalries than there are in the early days of many administrations. But that won’t make it easy to reassert American influence, much less solve the world’s problems.
Correction, Feb. 4, 2021: This piece originally misidentified Angela Merkel as prime minister of Germany. She is chancellor.