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On Feb. 4, President Joe Biden traveled to the State Department and in a 20-minute address lifted the pall that had descended over the U.S. foreign-policy community during the Trump era. Biden said everything that diplomats, regional experts, and policy mandarins had been craving for the past four years: The United States will repair its relations with its allies, pursue a foreign policy infused with American values, invest in the State Department, and listen to its experts. The hosannas rained down on Twitter. If there were no pandemic, I am certain that foreign service officers and think tankers would have poured into the streets singing, “Let the sunshine… Let the sunshine in… The sunshine in…”
It was, as almost everyone declared, a return to “normal.” A president’s speech without an airing of grievances, a review of how wonderful the incumbent is, and a litany of lies is refreshing and normal. Yet by “normal,” commentators were also suggesting that Biden outlined a foreign policy that hews to norms, ideas, and practices that were traditionally important—at least rhetorically—to America’s conduct in the world. After four exhausting and disorienting years, Biden declared in his best Joe-from-Scranton voice that “America is back!”
But back to where? I think the president means a restoration of U.S. leadership around the world. It is hard to argue with that goal, of course, especially in places like Europe. The United States has a compelling interest in helping to ensure that Europe remains prosperous, whole, and free. Left on its own, Europe has proved to be vulnerable to malevolent actors such as Russia and its own demons, most notably the menace of the far-right and neo-Nazis. The costs of continuing to play a stabilizing and constructive role in Europe are quite low, which is why that policy is the closest thing to a layup there is in foreign policy.
Biden also offered some other policies in his speech: ending Washington’s complicity in Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, confronting China, opposing Russia, and having a more inclusive foreign policy. Beyond these discrete issues, however, Biden never laid out what the United States should do with its power in the world.
Some analysts would argue that presidents do not need to lay out an overarching framework for their foreign policy. It is a good point; an administration can easily get stuck in a framework. At the same time, there is a value to understanding how and for what purpose the United States is going to use its power around the world. At the very least, we should have a debate about it. Otherwise, there is a risk that everything and anything becomes a U.S. interest. If policymakers and Americans do not know what is worth defending and sacrificing for, there are bound to be mistakes. Some will not matter all that much, but others could be costly. The United States went to war in Iraq because it had a surfeit of power and no coherent sense of how to use it.
So far, the president and the people around him have invoked the importance of values in U.S. foreign policy. The media and experts have picked up on this and inferred that Biden wants to return American values to U.S. foreign policy. Who could argue with that? It would be hard not to support a foreign policy informed by the democratic ideas that have always animated the country.
Yet “return” would not be the correct description of this shift. There is not a lot of evidence that values were previously a defining feature of U.S. foreign policy. Of course, defeating communism was a values-based policy during the Cold War, and U.S. policymakers used human rights, individual liberty, and other freedoms to delegitimize the authoritarian systems of its opponents. But U.S. policy in various parts of the world during that period often ran counter to those same American values. One could argue that supporting anti-communist dictators was worthwhile in the struggle with the Soviet Union—but it also required U.S. officials to look past the human rights abuses of friendly tyrants.
With the exception of Europe, adding values to U.S. foreign policy would be an innovation, not a reversion. In the Middle East, time and again, principles were set aside for strategic considerations because they often came into conflict. During President George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda,” officials sought to resolve this problem by asserting that democracies in the Middle East would be better allies. Yet, since there were none in the region to test the proposition, it was just an abstract judgment. There was more reason to believe that governments in the region that reflected the will of the people might oppose the United States. U.S. officials also argued that democracies were more stable. Here they were on firmer ground: Political systems that have the consent of the people are more stable. The problem was getting to more open, just, and democratic systems, a process that can be long and destabilizing. (Never mind that transitions most often fail.) Given the short time horizon for policymakers, the promise of generational change does not help with the issue or crisis of the moment.
If, in fact, values are to be an important component of U.S. foreign policy, how can it work now when it didn’t work before? The world is different from the way it was when Bush announced his “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” and in 2011 when Arabs rose up to demand the end of authoritarian regimes. It is, indeed, quite different. There are now new competitors to the United States in the region. There is also a strategic consensus among Israel and important Arab states that is at odds with the United States on both Iran and American values. And the region is more authoritarian. Maybe these are reasons to put values front and center, but if the United States does so, policymakers are going to have to grapple with how it complicates the country’s priorities in the region, including getting the Saudis out of Yemen and returning to or negotiating a new nuclear deal with Iran. The United States would be asking leaders to take what they no doubt believe to be security risks while at the same time pressuring them—whether implicitly or explicitly—to undertake reforms. It could work, but it could also lead to resistance and instability.
Perhaps a fallback is to create an environment conducive to democracy. Presumably, this would be heavy on rhetoric and symbolism. The global democracy summit that Biden has proposed would fit well here. It is not clear that this would place nondemocracies in the Middle East and elsewhere on the defensive, however. Unlike in the past, China is a legitimate player in global politics that, to a variety of countries, looks like a good hedge against the United States. In the Middle East, Russia has exploited U.S. mistakes and positioned itself as a nonideological, competent, and capable partner. Few want to eschew close ties with Washington, but they also want to reap the benefits of closer ties with Beijing and Moscow.
This is not to suggest that values have no place in foreign policy, but before declaring them to be central to America’s approach to the world, it is important to understand how complicated it can be to incorporate them into policy. In the meantime, there are two simpler ways the United States can showcase its values and regain its lost prestige abroad. First, stop pursuing ill-advised policies that have little to do with what is important to the United States—notably, trying to fix politics in countries of the region or continuing to pursue a two-state solution to the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Second, repair the damage that Americans have done at home to their own sacred values, principles, and ideals. Unless the United States demonstrates some humility on both fronts, its messages to the world about freedom and rights will be so diminished that they will be easily ignored.