In the first two weeks of the Joe Biden presidency, through the medium of Thursday’s powerful speech, sweeping executive orders, a raft of phone calls to leaders on every continent, and an astonishingly, at time exhaustingly regular, series of press conferences, the first outlines of a Biden foreign and defense policy have begun to emerge. It is as total a reversal of the policies of his predecessor as are Biden’s economic, Covid-19 and broad domestic agendas.
On Thursday, to cement and provide a foundation for these Herculean efforts of transformation from the scattershot, at times wild-eyed meanderings of Donald Trump’s administration, Biden traveled to the State Department to meet his tireless, visionary Secretary of State Antony Blinken and personally thank foreign service officers for their service.
“America is back, diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” Biden said to the world. “America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.” He called on diplomats to include a few core tenets, “integrity in all you do, transparency and accountability to rebuild trust in America around the world.”
This represented a dramatic break with his predecessor, who had sought to dismantle entirely, or at best neuter, any efforts at maintaining a coherent, democratic presence of America on the world stage. Some of those actions, like the end of American involvement in the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear pact and the Open Skies Agreement, while shrinking American presence from Afghanistan to Germany are now being reviewed or reversed.
Small hints by press secretary Jen Psaki and an even more sweeping vision from National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and State Department spokesman Ned Price, followed by Thursday’s landmark address by Biden himself, suggest several key pillars of this foreign policy. First is that actions of other countries and America’s reaction must be, in virtually every case “in our interests,” as Price suggested when pressed on questions as disparate as the coup in Burma and Russian activities at home or with respect to key treaties.
“The denominator that we are adhering to in this case, are our interests. It is manifestly in our interest to have a full, five-year extension of the New START agreement,” Price pointed out on Wednesday about the nuclear arms treaty with Russia.
“As we engage Russia in ways that advance American interests…we can also remain clear-eyed about the challenges that Russia poses. Even as we work with Russia to advance US interests, so too will we hold Russia to account for its reckless and its adversarial behavior,” he added. In short, a pretty sharp departure from a Trump administration that rarely held Russia accountable for much of anything.
Indeed, even the read-out of Biden’s inaugural phone call with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, was revelatory. From the American side came word that the President “reaffirmed the United States’ firm support for Ukraine’s sovereignty,” and “raised other matters of concern, including the SolarWinds hack, reports of Russia placing bounties on United States soldiers in Afghanistan, interference in the 2020 United States election, and the poisoning of Aleksey Navalny.”
“President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies,” read the White House statement. And in his Thursday speech, Biden added “the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions, interfering in our elections, cyber attacks, poisoning its citizens are over.”
Above all, Biden released his version of the phone call well ahead of the Kremlin. “The presidents expressed satisfaction following today’s exchange of diplomatic notes on an agreement to extend the New START Treaty,” the Kremlin press service said.
And there are certain elements that will not please some of Trump’s closest friends abroad — especially his decision to suspend all American assistance to offensive operations in Yemen, a move aimed directly at Saudi Arabia and its leaders, who had developed close ties to Trump. “This war has to end,” said Biden, in another dramatic break with Trump who was all-in in support of his Saudi allies.
When Jake Sullivan briefed the press ahead of the Biden visit, he outlined five key pillars of the new Biden foreign and defense policy that ranged from ‘re-engaging key institutions and agreements” to “reasserting our values,” as well as “compete more effectively with our competitors across the board.”
Biden, in his remarks, mentioned he’s prepared to work with China “when it’s in America’s interest to do so.” Still, its leader Xi Jinping is the only major world leader Biden has not contacted personally.
On Wednesday, Ned Price had managed to extend an olive-branch, observing that the administration will continue to be “guided by the one-China policy.” This is unlikely to be viewed with pleasure in Taiwan, where leaders hoped to continue to assert a modicum of independence from the mainland and were buoyed by Trump’s early and clearly ill-informed gift of an unprecedented phone call even before he took office.
From the first hours of the Biden presidency, world leaders were being called to hear this world view enunciated. Between Biden, Blinken and National Security Advisor Sullivan they have called at least 45 presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and national security advisors.
As evidence of their priorities, Biden began with his two neighbors — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He then reached out to Britain’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel. Putin was followed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg.
Above all, the new administration, inheriting the largest collection of red lines ever assembled at any single moment on the planet, is being quite cautious about picking its way through them or especially establishing any new ones. Price, with the State Department, has already fielded, admirably, any number of questions on just this subject.
Price was asked Wednesday if Iran’s refusal to have some of its sites inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency would amount to a red line. “The sorts of decisions you’re pointing to is not something the United States would want to undertake alone or would want to consider or contemplate alone,” he said. This was a sharp break with the Trump go-it-alone policy. Price concluded, “I don’t want to set any red lines from here, certainly not today.”
Still, in his speech, Biden made no reference to the Iran nuclear accord — apparently prepared to let other aspects of his new foreign policy — building bridges to allies anxious to restore the pact and winning friends in Tehran with the end to military aid to anti-Iranian forces arrayed in Yemen.
All in all, quite the early actions and words of the Biden administration were an admirable start to developing a truly consistent and constructive foreign policy that will protect and defend America and cement its values around the world.