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In his first foreign policy address as president, delivered last week at the State Department, Joe Biden drew the curtain on the disastrous Trump era, rededicating the United States to repairing its tattered alliances, reengaging the world and defending freedom. “We are ready to take up the mantle of global leadership yet again,” he declared. “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”
The most novel aspect of Biden’s plainspoken speech was how he erased any clear distinction between foreign and domestic policy. The nation’s strength at home determines its success abroad—and vice versa. But there were still two lingering questions. First, are others are prepared to follow America’s lead, particularly in defending freedom, when its own democratic experiment is so tarnished? Second, can Biden reconcile his democracy promotion agenda with the need for practical cooperation with rivals in China and Russia on shared global challenges?
Biden advanced a foreign policy vision diametrically opposed to his predecessor’s cynical, nationalist, nativist and sovereigntist predilections, which had injured America’s interests and perverted its values. “America cannot afford any longer to be absent on the world stage,” Biden said. It must lead the world in resisting “advancing authoritarianism,” particularly from China and Russia, while addressing the “accelerating global challenges” that define our interconnected age, “from the pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation.”
“We can’t do it alone,” he conceded, so the United States was taking steps to “earn back our leadership position.” That included by rejoining the Paris climate agreement, hosting an Earth Day summit to address the “existential threat” of climate change, and nixing Trump’s plan to leave the World Health Organization, so that, with renewed American support, it has the capacity to detect and prevent the next pandemic.
Biden promised that the United States would once again lead not just by the “example of our power” but by the “power of our example.” To this end, he would reverse Trump’s Muslim ban, increase refugee admissions, defend freedom of the press, and address problems of systemic racism and white supremacy. “Defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal human rights, respecting the rule of law and treating every person with dignity—that’s the grounding wire of our global policy, our global power,” Biden insisted. “That’s America’s abiding advantage.”
The most intriguing passage of Biden’s speech was his effort to connect American diplomacy to the concrete interests of middle-class Americans. “There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” Biden observed. “Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind.”
This is savvy framing. One of the Achilles’ heels of the Washington foreign policy establishment is its assumption that any reasonable person will see internationalism as necessarily in America’s self-interest. The Trump years showed how easy it is for nationalists to depict such “globalism” as a giveaway to foreigners and a betrayal of average Americans.
Biden took this Trumpian narrative head-on: “Investing in our diplomacy isn’t something we do just because it’s the right thing to do for the world. We do it in order to live in peace, security and prosperity. We do it because it’s in our own naked self-interest.” The United States, he maintained, strengthens its alliances because they “amplify our power” and “disrupt threats before they can reach our shores.” It supports economic development to “create new markets for our products” and stabilize volatile regions that would otherwise generate “violence and mass migrations.” And it strengthens “health systems in far regions of the world” and supports agencies like the WHO to “reduce the risk of future pandemics.”
This focus on Americans’ concrete interests in global engagement should come as no surprise. Two architects of Biden’s foreign policy vision—his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, and the State Department’s policy planning director, Salman Ahmed—spearheaded a 2020 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled, “Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class,” which developed these very arguments.
Left unanswered in Biden’s speech was whether other countries are still prepared to follow America’s lead, particularly on democracy promotion—and whether the administration has figured out how to square its democracy agenda with its need to cooperate with authoritarian nations on climate change, nonproliferation, pandemics and other pressing global matters.
The first question is particularly relevant for Biden’s planned Summit for Democracy, which he has promised to hold “early” in his administration. Skeptics have questioned America’s credibility to host such an event after the Jan. 6 insurrection, when pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol. Biden conceded that America’s “democratic values” had been “pushed to the brink in these last few weeks,” but he sought to turn the nation’s recent travails into an asset. “The American people are going to emerge from this moment stronger, more determined, and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy, because we have fought for it ourselves.”
Biden’s speechwriters should be commended for their effort to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. But America’s ability to “unite the world” presumably depends on its internal unity. Today, the United States has only one major party devoted to the norms and principles embedded in the Constitution. The other remains in the grip of a conspiracy-minded political base untethered to reality and flirting with fascism. Which one truly represents the United States?
The second question is whether Biden can promote his democracy agenda without dividing the world into ideological blocs and jeopardizing cooperation with China and Russia. His speech suggested his administration can thread this needle. It can criticize Chinese and Russian domestic repression, and even impose sanctions—for example, on Kremlin leaders for poisoning and arresting dissident Alexei Navalny—without imperiling bilateral action on shared interests with the world’s two leading authoritarian powers.
It appears risky, but Biden’s instincts are probably sound. To begin with, Biden is not creating new ideological fault lines. These already exist, and they have not prevented China and Russia from collaboration with the United States on global issues that Beijing and Moscow view as critical. By the same token, neither Xi Jinping nor Vladimir Putin is letting their regime’s own abiding interest in continuing such cooperation dissuade them from seeking to undermine democracy in the United States or other Western countries.
Both China and Russia, in other words, have learned to compartmentalize different aspects of their relationship with the United States. The Biden administration should do the same.