It was nice to see Biden open his foreign policy address with a rather conspicuous set of references speaking to his age and experience as well as the influence of his time in the Obama administration:
“Good afternoon, everyone. It's an honor to be back at the State Department under the eyes of the first American chief diplomat, Benjamin Franklin.
And, by the way, I want you all to know in the press I was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Presidential Politics at Penn. And I thought they did that because I was as old as he was, but I guess not.”
At a folksy stroke, Biden sought to center diplomacy (rightly) as a priority the Founding Fathers would have celebrated while also aping Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s jokes about his age were top notch — “Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘We should never judge a president by his age, only by his works.’ And ever since he told me that, I stopped worrying” — but he set the blueprint for how to turn one’s age into an advantage in public by playing it off self-referentially, or else using it to attack opponent’s ‘youth and inexperience’ as he so famously did. Of course, I highly doubt the public watching cared much for either of these two points, but nonetheless, it tells you where his team’s head is at, especially since Obama did admire Reagan’s ability to channel a feeling at his moment in history and drew lessons from his presidency when trying to nudge the ship of state along in the right direction.
“As I said in my inaugural address, we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's. American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.”
One thing is clear: the foreign policy team in place at the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense view China and Russia as our biggest threats, and cautiously differentiates their scale. China matters way more, Russia is way more ‘annoying’ to be glib. Further, there’s a clear conflation between the domestic politics of this election and the rhetorical construction of foreign policy under Biden. The general election was itself billed to voters as a challenge to ‘meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism’ at home. Given Biden’s preoccupation with the Power of Example, this domestic shift neatly projects onto the political project of ‘undoing’ the Trump years. In short, we’re seeing US foreign policy once collapse into its domestic narratives in a manner far more akin to what George W. Bush aspired to with the rhetorical construction of the Global War on Terror than Obama did in trying to establish, with considerable success and failure, a US strategy substantively led by an earnest desire to use multilateral diplomacy whenever possible to advance US interests. Its greatest failures occurred when ostensible partners in diplomacy dragged US policy this or that way to meet their policy preferences at the expense of the US, whereas Bush’s mistakes were, in general, quite the opposite.
Biden makes an explicit appeal to the need for diplomacy and global cooperation and collaboration to resolve collective action problems from COVID to climate change to nuclear proliferation and then brings up the example talk:
“We must start with diplomacy rooted in America's most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”
The American middle class supposedly served by a foreign policy approach espoused by Jake Sullivan et al are apparently worried about American values abroad as much as at home. This is a huge leap, and something that polling I doubt adequately captures. It also tells you that military or otherwise coercive economic action, should it be deemed necessary by the current team, will most likely be justified on values grounds. The real audience here isn’t the public as much as Congress and foreign powers. Progressives and intervention skeptics alike will have a much harder time arguing for defense spending cuts and changes in budget priority when the very values they espouse are domestically under threat from white supremacists, Trump, or others are what’s justifying White House action. We’re a step away from hearing talking points taken out of the last two general election cycles’ culture wars turned into causes for action.
Biden quite smartly paints values as “America’s abiding advantage,” acknowledging that even with the last 4 years and the ostensible resurgence of Russia and challenge of China, no other country can touch the scope of soft power US policymakers can wield if only they got their own house in proper order and were smart about it. It’s something that certainly feels good and helps correct some of the worst parts of US policy under Trump, but like most rubber band policies, it’s going to be stretched to the breaking point eventually.
“Though many of these values have come under intense pressure in recent years, even pushed to the brink in the last few weeks, 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.”
It’s morning in America. Just don’t look at the unemployment figures or lines for food. On the whole, it’s a heartening message. But one that consciously obscures more than it reveals about US policy intentions.
The coup in Burma got top billing because of the news cycle, and it offered Biden a chance to highlight that he’d spoken with Mitch McConnell about it so as to assure foreign powers that the US is returning to a domestic consensus on foreign policy ostensibly (but not actually) torn apart by Trump.
“The Burmese military should relinquish power they have seized, release the advocates and activists and officials they have detained, lift the restrictions on telecommunications, and refrain from violence. As I said earlier this week, we will work with our partners to support restoration of democracy and the rule of law, and impose consequences on those responsible.”
So, we have no idea what Biden actually thinks or believes should be done, but he’s smart enough to message that he’s firm in his convictions and will act accordingly. This is where I think the least scrutiny will fall, but where the rubber really meets the road on making sense of the significance of a Biden presidency for markets and international politics:
“Over the past two weeks, I've spoken with the leaders of many of our closest friends -- Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia -- to being [begin] reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse. America's alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.”
The basic problem with this formula is that the freeriding of US allies on security commitments, their ability to draw the US into conflicts in which it has little explicit interest or stake (or else their ability to exploit domestic lobbies that align with their interests), and domestic trade preferences all run against the implicit assumption here of a prelapsarian policy world that somehow erases Trump. Biden ironically became VP just as the real rupture in international affairs kicked off due to the Global Financial Crisis, yet doesn’t seem to see that pivot point in history as a change. There’s little doubt a reassurance tour will help things. There is, however, great doubt about how much the atrophy was a result of Trump or structural factors Biden will have to contend with overseeing the US recovery from COVID.
Renewing START with Moscow is a relief for security stability and rightly got a shout out. Still, Moscow’s on watch:
“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. The politically motivated jailing of Alexei Navalny and the Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are a matter of deep concern to us and the international community. Mr. Navalny, like all Russian citizens, is entitled to his rights under the Russian constitution. He's been targeted -- targeted for exposing corruption. He should be released immediately and without condition.”
There’s no clear policy response laid out here, but there is good reason to believe the State Department will be hollering at Brussels on the phone about Joseph Borrell’s shambolic visit to Moscow which reconfirmed what we all already knew: the EU is simply not a serious geopolitical player unless core commercial interests are at stake. What came next from Biden on China was similarly significant in what it says about his administration’s priorities in the year ahead:
“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 by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost.”
Russia is a security challenge. China is a material threat to the livelihood of Americans. A ‘middle-class first’ foreign policy is really about China, and Russia frankly is mostly getting a hearing because of domestic political preferences and squabbles, not as a result of a measured view that it threatens to undo the economic underpinnings of US power, which it seems Biden implicitly recognizes are most important.
The announced global posture review with the Pentagon is something to watch very closely. Whatever they come up with will reveal which factions in Washington ‘won out’ in terms of budgetary priorities and also just how serious Biden is about reducing US deployments to unwinnable conflicts or else eliciting greater military support from allies failing to do their part. The announcement of a cessation of all offensive military support “and relevant arms sales” in Yemen is wishy-washy at best. It says zilch about logistical support and seems to reiterate the same type of rhetoric used by the Obama White House to massage US involvement since it was integral to securing Saudi acceptance that the JCPOA was going ahead (a fact conveniently ignored by progressive criticism since that would entail acknowledging you can’t often do good things in world politics with clean hands).
“At the same time, Saudi Arabia faces missile attacks, UAV strikes, and other threats from Iranian-supplied forces in multiple countries. We're going to continue to support and help Saudi Arabia defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity and its people.”
Translation: we’re still protecting their oil despite Saudi policy triggering an escalatory cycle with Iran and military groups on the ground in Yemen, thus inviting these attacks in the first place. Nothing to see here. The executive order to restore refugee admissions to 125,000 annually in one year is great news, if actually far short of the capacity the US has to accept refugees (and actually, I’d argue, a net loss in the long-term since refugees start businesses at higher rates and contribute so much to the cities and communities they end settling in). This pares well with an executive order to make the US a leader on LGBTQI issues — great news if you’re an NGO and want a budget handout, decidedly more mixed in terms of its impact but it’s overall something I’m very happy to see. On the overlap between domestic and foreign policy:
“All this matters to foreign policy, because when we host the Summit of Democracy early in my administration to rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back the authoritarianism's advance, we'll be a much more credible partner because of these efforts to shore up our own foundations.”
Biden and Washington’s obsession with credibility is a red flag. Credibility engenders considerations for policymakers completely divorced from actual defined national interests. When ‘credibility is at stake,’ it means very little materially actually is. It’s crucial to take the steps Biden announced across the speech, it’s just telling that by couching it in terms of credibility, he’s pandering to a Washington audience and not the people who’ve been negatively affected or economically dislocated by US foreign and economic policy the last few decades. Domestic stimulus was also positioned as a foreign policy matter:
“And that's why I immediately put forth the American Rescue Plan to pull us out of this economic crisis. That's why I signed an executive order strengthening our Buy American policies last week. And it's also why I'll work with Congress to make far-reaching investments in research and development of transformable -- in transformable technologies. These investments are going to create jobs, maintain America's competitive edge globally, and ensure all Americans share in the dividends.”
This is smart, if meaningless until we see what bills actually pass through Congress. Here was the real kicker:
“If we invest in ourselves and our people, if we fight to ensure that American businesses are positioned to compete and win on the global stage, if the rules of international trade aren't stacked against us, if our workers and intellectual property are protected, then there's no country on Earth -- not China or any other country on Earth -- that can match us.”
Biden intends to make America great again. We’re still living in a MAGA policy world, just one with a different set of values under the same flag. It’s hard to ignore that all these policy debates will now be framed in terms of a restoration of national greatness and whatever isms can be conjured that apply to realizing said restoration. It’s a song we’ve been singing since the collapse of Bretton Woods, stagflation, and the Vietnam War. But it’s worrying how incapable we are of articulating national goals or interests without this kind of moral signposting. There’s going to be a ramp up in funding for State and aid programs and arms like USAID. This is, overall, great news. I’d still watch to see which lobbies in Washington strike first to use social justice narratives to advance their foreign policy preferences. They were a favorite under Trump to big up putting more troops into Syria.
There was effectively nothing on the JCPOA or Afghanistan. Given Tony Blinken’s statement that Iran could be weeks away from a nuclear weapons is openly contradicted by Israeli intelligence which pegs it at 6 months, the gathering of the NSC to talk Iran suggests State is actually hawkish and will scupper any chance at re-entering the deal while the other principals have unclear positions but Sullivan himself has agreed with expanding the deal to include other things. If Iran knows the US would re-enter the deal but immediately demand further talks, it’s unclear why they’d agree knowing that Washington is just moving the goalposts. Biden’s consciously not saying anything so he can position himself as needed and avoid public scrutiny. He’s a much smarter operator than he’s given credit for, just one who’s also not the starry-eyed idealist about letting the American people have their say he’s painted himself to be either.
This speech told us nothing of interest about what policy will actually be. It did reveal how it’ll be sold and that’s more important than anything else when assessing Biden — the tabula rasa candidate onto which we could all project our preferences — in the months ahead. America can still get up to no good with a multilateral flourish.
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