America is not only “back,” President Joe Biden boasted on Wednesday night; it’s here to win.
Again and again, Biden sold his signature domestic initiatives as not only worthy in and of themselves, but as a means to assure America’s continued global leadership and fend off challenges from authoritarian governments—principally China.
“China and other countries are closing in fast,” Biden warned. He twice argued that we are in a competition with China and its fellow authoritarian states to “win the 21st century,” necessitating spending on infrastructure, education, and research. Speaking of efforts to combat climate change, he said, “There’s no reason the blades for wind turbines can’t be built in Pittsburgh instead of Beijing,” flipping President Donald Trump’s quip, after withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, that he had been elected to represent “the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Summing up, he warned that “America’s adversaries—the autocrats of the world—are betting” that American democracy is too weakened and divided to meet global challenges, but “we have to prove them wrong.”
Using superpower competition to sell domestic programs is nothing new. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan notes, Biden often seems to be borrowing directly from Dwight Eisenhower’s Sputnik-era playbook. But what was striking about how Biden employed this rhetoric is that this is exactly the sort of internationalist talk that, not so long ago, Democratic foreign policy thinkers had concluded was no longer effective.
In his speech, the president referred to a “foreign policy that benefits the middle class,” reportedly one of the administration’s guiding concepts, and one which Secretary of State Antony Blinken has also heavily emphasized. The phrase originated in a Carnegie Endowment Project to reimagine U.S. foreign policy which began in 2018. In 2020, Carnegie released a report co-authored by Biden’s now National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, which notably warned that:
[T]here is no evidence America’s middle class will rally behind efforts aimed at restoring U.S. primacy in a unipolar world, escalating a new Cold War with China, or waging a cosmic struggle between the world’s democracies and authoritarian governments. In fact, these are all surefire recipes for further widening the disconnect between the foreign policy community and the vast majority of Americans beyond Washington, who are more concerned with proximate threats to their physical and economic security.
Likewise, a 2019 Center for American Progress report on public attitudes about foreign policy based on voter focus groups stressed, “Traditional language from foreign policy experts about “fighting authoritarianism and dictatorship,” “promoting democracy,” or “working with allies and the international community” uniformly fell flat with voters in our groups.” The report also found that “Despite Russia being viewed as mostly an enemy of the United States and China being seen as the chief global competitor, American voters are conflict-averse, strongly desire more cautious steps with both of these countries, and firmly reject a primarily military-based response in dealing with them.”
This seems a far cry from Biden’s pledge to “maintain a strong military presence in the Indo-Pacific.” And while there wasn’t any talk of rebuilding partnerships with democratic allies in the speech Wednesday, the theme is omnipresent whenever the administration is more explicitly discussing foreign policy.
Establishment politicians’ attachment to fuzzy concepts like the international community, global leadership, and spreading democracy—which to many Americans, have come to connote endless wars and jobs flowing overseas—supposedly provided an opening for Donald “America First” Trump, who took a narrowly transactional view of world affairs that viewed alliances with suspicion and considered democracy promotion a waste of time.
Subsequent events—the pandemic, the election, Jan. 6—may have shifted Americans’ view on the value of promoting democracy and maintaining global leadership, but they haven’t shifted them that much. A February Pew poll found that only 20 percent of Americans view “promoting democracy in other nations” as a top priority for the U.S., the lowest score out of 20 foreign policy issues it asked about. Forty-eight percent of Americans overall believe containing China is a top priority, but only 36 percent of Democrats.
So what is the theory behind Biden’s message? Before he took office, it was hard to get a handle on what “foreign policy for the middle class” meant in practice. Beyond a trade policy that creates rather than destroys jobs and a basic level of security from foreign threats, does the middle class really have cohesive foreign policy priorities? The catchphrase seemed more like a way for “the blob”—Obama adviser Ben Rhodes’ term for Washington’s hawkish bipartisan foreign policy consensus—to repackage its longtime preoccupations for an increasingly skeptical public, rather than a departure from them.
After 100 days of Biden being in office, the “foreign policy for the middle class” premise is coming into focus a bit more. It seems, however, to be running in the opposite direction from how it was originally anticipated to operate. In 2019, Sullivan imagined a White House national security team in the habit of asking before making key foreign policy decisions, “What will this mean for the middle class?” Perhaps that is happening at the meetings Biden leads in the White House, but in public, the president is more likely to emphasize what domestic initiatives—targeted at the middle class, naturally—will mean for foreign policy.
Here, Biden may quietly be taking some cues from the left side of his party. Despite his recent decisions on Yemen and Afghanistan, which did more to extricate the U.S. from “endless wars” than many of this critics on the left had expected, Biden’s hawkishness on China and his all-out embrace of American exceptionalism might seem at odds with the progressive drift of his domestic policy. But during the Democratic primary, both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren tried to tie the main themes of their economics-focused campaigns to a global struggle against what Sanders called an “authoritarian axis.” Their argument went that the same dynamics that created unaccountable corporations and politically powerful billionaires in the U.S. are what keep autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman in power. They also argued that measures to make the U.S. system more democratic would help promote democracy abroad. It was democracy promotion without the military interventionism that gave that concept a bad name during the George W. Bush years.
Biden has adopted some of this approach, particularly the emphasis on global anti-corruption efforts as an autocracy-fighting tool. Still, his pairing of it with directly confronting Beijing and maintaining military supremacy is probably not what these progressives had in mind.
To his credit, Biden does appear to have found a way to discuss America’s global leadership in a way that at least feels less abstract than the usual blob rhetoric, and is less likely to make viewers’ eyes glaze over. In his vision, the country’s competition with the forces of authoritarianism is a common project that Americans can participate in as they work to rebuild the country’s economy and tackle climate change.
But this brand of muscular progressive internationalism involves some risks. It assumes that Americans actually care about beating China rather than just being safe from it, or care about whether other countries choose a path more like America’s or China’s. A significant number of Democratic foreign policy experts, including a number who now work for this administration, concluded just a few years ago that Americans don’t care about these things and it was counterproductive to try to make them care. It would also be nice to think that economic inequality and climate change are big enough priorities that we could mobilize to confront them without tacking on an international conflict as extra motivation. Polls suggest these domestic priorities are actually more popular than the international ones they’re being tied to.
More consequentially, the fusion of domestic policy ambition with promoting the country’s international standing risks unleashing some forces this administration won’t be able to control. Biden’s China rhetoric comes without the conspiratorial, nativist edge of Trump’s, and the president spoke on Wednesday about efforts to combat anti-Asian hate crimes, but Americans’ track record of drawing a clear distinction between the enemy abroad and minorities at home is not all that encouraging.
Then there are the risks of international conflict itself. Biden emphasized that the U.S. will still look to cooperate on areas of mutual interest—climate, nonproliferation—with countries like Russia and China. I’ve been more optimistic than some that this is doable, even as tensions remain high, but it would be naïve to think there will be no trade-offs at all. And with heated rhetoric, sanctions, and military pressure escalating, there’s always the risk that the “competition to win the 21st century” could turn into an actual conflict—either a Cold War–style proxy battle or something more direct. A war between two or more nuclear-armed superpowers would not benefit the middle class.