In his first congressional address Wednesday night, President Biden said very little about foreign policy, and there’s no reason why he should have. He has done a lot in that realm in his first 100 days—mending alliances, rejoining global forums, renewing the New START treaty, restarting the Iran nuclear talks, among others—but the accomplishments are still tentative, and their impact on Americans’ day-to-day lives is vague.
Biden admitted as much in his speech, noting that in conversations with world leaders, they tell him, “We see that America is back—but for how long? My fellow Americans,” he went on, “we have to show not just that we are back, but that we are here to stay.”
In spelling out his plan on how to do that, Biden shifted the way that presidents usually define foreign policy, especially in these sorts of speeches. The shift was summed up in two lines of the address: “I’ve often said that our greatest strength is the power of our example, not just the example of our power.” And: “We’re in competition with China and other countries to win the 21st century.”
Essentially, Biden was saying—and he repeated the idea throughout the speech, in various formulations—that the crucial “example” we set, before the rest of the world, is whether we win that “competition,” whether we’re capable of winning the competition, whether a democratic government can still do big things for the benefit of its people, or whether, as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin have proclaimed several times, autocracies will win the contest because democracies can’t muster consensus.
One big test of whether we can do big things, Biden argued, is whether Congress will pass his multi-trillion-dollar programs for economic revitalization, infrastructure, scientific research, and family assistance—building on his existing record, remarkable in so short a time (and very popular among many Republicans, though not GOP legislators), of distributing vaccines to more than 200 million Americans and sending out $1,400 checks to almost as many Americans in need.
A televised joint session of Congress (even one with a fraction of live attendants, owing to COVID regulations) was the ideal forum for this message. Biden was able to spell out how his proposals would help American people, how they would shore up America’s technological advantage over China, and—the political point—how the biggest impediment to all this is the Republican caucus in Congress.
Time and again, Biden proposed what should have been uncontroversial improvements to life—clean water, free tuition for community colleges, cutting child poverty in half—and the camera would show Democrats applauding and Republicans sitting on their hands, some of them falling asleep.
Time and again, Biden implored his friends on the Republican side of the aisle, in a soft-spoken, conversational tone, to join him in his quest, or at least to suggest their own programs if they don’t like his. The implied message to the millions of viewers at home: I’m trying to salvage your lives, educate your kids, elevate the power of our example, and win the competition with China. If we don’t get it done, it’s the Republicans’ fault. “Get vaccinated!” was one of his explicit pleas, delivered straight to the camera. “Call your senator” or “Vote for Democrats in 2022” was the clear subtext.
And yet the mingling of domestic themes and foreign policy wasn’t merely political. It resonates with concepts of national security dating back to just after the end of World War II. George Kennan, the architect of America’s “containment” policy at the start of the Cold War, said, in 1994, on his 90th birthday, in a speech looking back on his career, “It is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts its most useful influence beyond its borders.” Kennan wasn’t engaging in revisionism. In his first writings on the U.S.-Soviet confrontation, in the late 1940s, when he coined the term, this was, as he saw it, the essence of containment: we stave off the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies, and, over the long haul, if we’re patient and true to ourselves, the Soviet system—which carries the seeds of its own destruction—will collapse, while ours will survive.
The competition with China is very different from the Cold War with the Soviet Union. But Biden’s recipe for handling the former takes some cues from Kennan’s for handling the latter.
Biden is also borrowing from President Dwight Eisenhower’s playbook for selling big domestic programs. In the late 1950s, Eisenhower, a popular Republican and war hero, pitched the spending of billions of dollars on an interstate highway system and more science classes in high schools and colleges by calling his bills the National Defense Highway Act and the National Defense Education Act. We needed highways, he said, so the army could mobilize and the people could evacuate, in the event of war. We needed more science classes, so America could compete with Russia in the race to launch rockets into space and develop other technological wonders.
It was a bit of a ploy, as is Biden’s pitch that costly social and economic programs are needed to win the competition with China. But there was, and is, substance to both campaigns as well. In the ’50s, American schools were woefully short of science teachers and lab equipment, while Soviet schools were eons ahead. Today, the U.S. leads in microchips and other high-tech gear; but China is catching up, it’s pivoting cyber technology in directions that threaten Western interests, and it’s capturing crucial supply chains.
Biden exaggerates when he depicts all of global politics as a contest between democracy and autocracy, but many leaders and ordinary citizens, especially in Europe and Asia, are closely watching whether the United States—the self-proclaimed leader of democratic nations—can work through its tribal divisions, calm its partisan violence, and solve its myriad big problems. The stakes are high. The theme of Wednesday night’s spectacle was that Biden seems to realize this—and the Republicans in Congress don’t.
Still, the world also poses problems, challenges, and impending crises that fit more conventional concepts of national security and foreign policy—and have little to do with whether America fixes its roads, bridges, or pre-school curricula. They include China’s incursions in the South China Sea, North Korea’s nuclear program, Russia’s taunts of Ukraine, Iran’s position in the rest of the Middle East, Afghanistan’s stability in the wake of the U.S. pullout, and, of course, the panoply of issues transcending borders, such as climate change, terrorism, migration, deep poverty, and—still—the pandemic.
Biden has recruited smart, experienced people to deal with these problems. They’ve made sound moves on a few of these problems already. But crises are sure to arise, and “the power of our example” might hold little sway when they do.
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