On February 04, newly-inaugurated President of the United States, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. (commonly known as Joe Biden), gave his first foreign-policy speech. In a wide-ranging address at the US State Department in Washington, Biden outlined his new foreign policy vision, declaring that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” President Biden sent a strong signal to the rest of the world that they will see a very different America under his watch. Communicating an important message to other international leaders about what the US will do over the next four years, the statement was also a public repudiation of many of the policies of the previous occupant of the White House, Donald Trump. It was a speech designed to restore order and global faith in the United States of America.
US President Joe Biden has promised that the United States would sharply increase its engagement around the world during his White House tenure, ending what he contended was the “past few years of neglect and abuse” of foreign relations by former President Donald Trump. “America is back,” Biden declared at the State Department, on February 04, in his first major foreign policy address as president. He said that “American alliances are our greatest assets,” while warning both Russia and China of American resolve. Trump, employing an “America First” credo, had often quarrelled with traditional US allies while taking a softer tone with authoritarian states.
1. A different ‘America First’
“America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.”
President Joe Biden vowed to repair alliances through diplomacy and restore Washington’s leadership position on the global stage. Biden said his administration was “ready to take up the mantle and lead again.” Biden rallied US allies and partners and promised to stand “shoulder to shoulder” with them on a number of shared issues like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. “When we strengthen our alliances we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they reach our shores,” Biden said. “America cannot afford to be absent any longer on the world stage,” he added.
President Biden’s speech promised the return of professional diplomacy as it should be conducted. By committing the US to reinvigorate relations with traditional allies and promising to halt the troop withdrawals from Germany, Biden sought to reassure the Europeans that the transatlantic alliance still matters.
2. Standing up to Russia
“I made it clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens — are over. We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people. And we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners.”
Addressing US relations with Russia, Biden said that the US would no longer “roll over” in the face of Russian aggression. He singled out “interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens”. He also raised the issue of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, demanding his release. Biden also nodded to the value of engaging with Moscow on areas of mutual interests. But he also stressed his willingness to work with Putin on controlling nuclear weapons and noted that the two countries had already agreed to extend the New START treaty that seeks to reduce US and Russian nuclear stockpiles for five years. This is a major break with the Trump approach, exemplified by the former president’s decision to abandon the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Open Skies agreements.
“We’ll confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance. But we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so. We will compete from a position of strength…”
President Biden’s treatment of China signalled that he views China as a central challenge, but not a burning issue that eclipses all other concerns. Biden embedded discussion of China within his survey of risks and opportunities on the international horizon. Biden emphasized that China poses significant challenges to America’s interests and values. To respond effectively, Biden argued, America will need to rebuild leverage, e.g., by pursuing domestic renewal, investing in alliances, reestablishing US leadership on the world stage, and restoring American authority in advocating for universal values. Such an approach marks a departure from the previous administration’s framing of US-China relations as an ideological and Manichean good vs. evil struggle. Biden clearly has no qualms about pushing back firmly against China, but he signalled that he intends to do so purposefully, with an eye toward advancing American interests. This includes cooperating with competitors when it is in America’s interests to do so. Even as it will take time for this shift in approach to take expression in specific policies and actions, there should be little doubt that President Biden and his team have their own views of how the United States can outcompete China. Much of their work will focus on efforts at home, with allies, and on the world stage. The shifts may be subtle and may not generate daily headlines. But with Biden’s speech, a course correction on China policy appears to be underway.
Biden’s speech was notable for what he didn’t say: he made no mention of Iran. The silence was almost jarring, given how relentlessly Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented Tehran as the root of all evil in the Middle East. This gives credence to the news that Biden administration is weighing ways to ease Iran’s financial pain without lifting crushing economic sanctions—including on oil sales—as a step toward reviving the 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by former President Donald Trump. Reviving the Iran deal has emerged as one of the Biden administration’s highest-profile foreign policy challenges. Biden has long criticized Trump’s decision to quit the Iran accord, saying it reduced the “breakout period” Tehran needs to build a nuclear weapon, but getting back into the deal is also fraught. Iran’s leaders are demanding an end to US sanctions and have since breached the agreement by enriching uranium beyond levels permitted by the accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Some options US officials are debating include providing backing for International Monetary Fund lending to Tehran for coronavirus relief and easing up on sanctions that have stymied international coronavirus aid from getting into Iran, according to four people familiar with the administration’s thinking. Such moves could be justified on humanitarian grounds.
5. Saudi Arabia
“We’re going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”
President Biden carefully worded his announcement to restrict support to ‘offensive’ operations and ‘relevant’ arms sales, while recognizing that Saudi Arabia is threatened by ‘missile attacks’ and ‘UAV strikes’ from ‘Iranian-supplied forces’ in ‘multiple countries.’ The measured language offered balanced perspectives, a far cry from what we heard on the campaign trail about Saudi Arabia, and bodes well for the upcoming strategic review of US-Saudi relations. The substance of that review is expected to be challenging enough; it’s an encouraging sign that both sides are approaching it without using overheated and undiplomatic statements. After four years of the Trump administration’s brand of diplomacy dominated by tweet, threat and insult, it’s a real pleasure to see professionalism once again.
The clear statement of commitment to Saudi Arabia’s security is meant to reassure the Gulf; prevent emboldening the Houthis and Iran; and quell the air strikes Saudi Araba is likely to conduct in response to continued Houthi attacks, which would be more lethal to civilians without US assistance on target de-confliction.”
6. Yemen war
“We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen — a war which has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe. … And to underscore our commitment, we are ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
While announcing an end to controversial US backing for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, President Biden followed through on several important campaign promises: to work to end the war, to help address the humanitarian crisis, to stop US military support to Saudi operations, and to work with the UN and re-emphasize diplomacy, which he did by naming Tim Lenderking, a highly respected professional diplomat, as the US special envoy.
Announcing a special envoy for Yemen right before announcing the end of the Defense Department’s support to the Saudi-led coalition engaged in fighting in Yemen and an end to related arms sales is a carefully constructed message by the administration that the US will keep skin in the game, but swap out military assistance for diplomatic effort.
The Biden administration has also halted sales of precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that were previously approved by the Trump administration.
“I’m approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program to help meet the unprecedented global need. … This executive order will position us to be able to raise the refugee admissions back up to 125,000 persons for the first full fiscal year of the Biden-Harris administration.”
Biden announced that he would increase the nation’s annual refugee admissions cap to 125,000 in the 12-month period starting Oct. 1. His promise to reinstitute America’s traditional refugee readmission programs and reinvigorate US moral leadership was very welcome.
Aside from important, yet expected, comments on the restoration of alliances and American posture around the world, two messages were particularly striking: 1) the interconnection between domestic and foreign policy, 2) the refugee issue. First, Biden explained how and why US engagement in the world is beneficial to its political, economic and security interests. Second, in line with the measures he has already taken to reunite the children with their families separated at the US border with Mexico and changing the legal language from “alien” to “non-citizen,” Biden stressed the importance of taking concrete steps to admit and integrate refugees.
By using the language of solidarity and leadership by example, and by stressing the firmness of the US commitment to a safer world where human rights are protected, Biden does not need to provide any justification to these policies in economic terms. This is quite striking at a time when refugees have been seen as a cost by sovereigntist parties around the world.
8. Climate Change
“We’re taking steps led by the example of integrating climate objectives across all of our diplomacy and raise the ambition of our climate targets.”
In the area of climate change, President Biden didn’t say anything new. What he did do, however, was to articulate how the rest of the world should evaluate American commitments. The first big test of this approach will come later this year when the US issues its new “nationally determined contribution” under the Paris Agreement — the rest of the world expects a lot from the US, but what we can deliver reliably is probably a lot less. Over the past four years, the world has seen the impacts of climate change become increasingly visible, requiring more urgent action. Building a new foreign policy by starting at home means that the country will need to rely on places, financial regulation and security strategy, where US action at home is most credible because it can’t be quickly undone in the future and isn’t mired in contentious action in Congress. By integrating climate goals across all of its own diplomatic efforts, the United States will “up the ante” on other large emitting nations and encourage ambitious global action. The rest of the world, meanwhile, is upping the ante on us too.
9. Domestic and Foreign Policies
“There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy. Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind. Advancing a foreign policy for the middle class demands urgent focus on our domestic economic renewal.”
President Biden expressed strongly that domestic affairs and foreign policy are linked. He persuasively explained why acting against discrimination at home — for example by ending the Muslim ban or promoting LGBTQ rights by lifting the ban on transgender individuals serving in the military — will have positive effects on America’s ability to lead abroad. In doing so, he repeated his mantra: “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
Domestically, however, some of the policies he announced in the speech might be difficult to implement. Biden wants a more sympathetic approach to immigration, and the promotion of LGBTQ rights. These policies are likely to upset right-wing Republicans, so Biden could face opposition at home.
10. Investing in Technology
“I’ll work with Congress to make far-reaching investments in research and development of transformable, in transformable technologies.”
President Biden’s technology policy and foreign policy will be intertwined and interchangeable. 5G, artificial intelligence, standards, batteries, semiconductors, enterprise software, advanced materials, cloud, and more are the new global battlegrounds. Coherent policies that drive US leadership in technology and align our allies with the US technology ecosystem will be as essential to America’s foreign policy success as its military strength, diplomatic skills, and moral leadership. The president’s speech did not touch on this reality, nor lay out the compelling case for the benefits of an American-led technology ecosystem (as opposed to a Chinese-centric alternative). However, his policies on China, on Europe, on trade and on national security will need to do so in the future.