President Joe Biden delivers first major foreign policy speech at the State Department in Washington, D.C., February 4, 2021. (Reuters)
In major address Biden says ‘America is back.’ But what does that mean?

In his first major foreign policy address President Biden has announced a return to a global leadership role — a broad declaration for repairing U.S. diplomacy and a reset to the pre-Trump international order. 

What was not clear from his somewhat brief remarks today is exactly what that will look like in practice, as the 16 years prior to Trump were marked by U.S. wars and counterterrorism operations in several countries, with an accompanying refugee crisis, and plummeting regard for American influence across the board.

But in Biden’s telling, it was Trump’s destruction of democracy at home, and his eschewing of traditional allies which tarnished our reputation as a model for democracy abroad. Diplomacy is the only way to get it back, he said. “We need to be re-forming the habit of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the last few years of neglect and I would argue, abuse.” 

“We have to earn back our leadership position.” But don’t worry, he stressed, “America is back.”

Biden spun quickly through a number (but interestingly, not all) major foreign concerns and how the United States might deal with them with a renewed and amplified diplomatic approach. On China, which he called “our most serious competitor,” he took a tough tone, saying Washington won’t stand for Beijing’s economic abuses or other aggressive behaviors but will be happy to talk when “it’s in America’s interests to do so.” 

On what his administration has labeled a coup in Myanmar, he insisted the military relinquish control of the government and lift restrictions on social media and the internet immediately, or face consequences. He preserved his most forceful language for Russia, for which he said, “unlike my predecessor…the days of rolling over to Russia are over.” He demanded that dissident Alexei Navalny be “released immediately” from jail, “with no condition.”

Other than invoking “consequences,” he did not provide any direction of how he would enforce these demands of the Myanmar military or Vladimir Putin — there was no talk of sanctions, the prospect of which had been raised by himself and his officials in statements throughout the week.

Yet, the Biden administration’s advance on overturning Trump policy wasn’t all opaque: he announced that Washington was ending its support for “offensive” Saudi operations in the war in Yemen, “including all relevant arms sales.” He is appointing an envoy, Timothy Lenderking, a career diplomat with long experience in Gulf and Yemen affairs, to help negotiate a ceasefire and a real end to the conflict there. 

But he followed that up with a caveat: the United States would continue to help Saudi Arabia (which has been bombing Yemen since 2015) defend its own “sovereignty, and its territorial integrity and its people” from attacks “by Iranian supplied forces in multiple countries.” So would that also include defending Saudis from Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen? Would this not keep arms sales flowing and keep us in the war? He did not say.

Strikingly the president skipped over some of the greatest foriegn policy challenges of his early term. The words “Kim Jong Un” or “North Korea” never left his lips. There was no mention of the 20-year war in Afghanistan or the pending May 1 deadline to withdraw the remaining 2,500 American troops there. He said he has directed Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to review the entire U.S. force structure worldwide, but aside from announcing that he is stopping a Trump plan to withdraw some 12,000 forces from Germany (only half were actually supposed to come home, the rest were headed to other NATO outposts), he said nothing about our country’s longest war in history.

As for the Iran nuclear deal and Washington’s return to it, he was silent, even though the JCPOA is probably the best example of multinational cooperation of the last decade, and Trump leaving it in 2018 the starkest exemplification of the former president’s disregard for diplomacy in his tenure.

But aside from Yemen, this was not a newsmaking speech. It was more of a pep talk, aimed in part at State Department employees hoping for a morale boost and their own reset after the lean and anxious years under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a political striver with his own agenda. 

“I want the people who work in this building and in our embassies and consulates around the world to know that I value your expertise, and I respect you,” Biden said. “I will have your back. This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you.”

Meanwhile, he talked about how his foreign policy would enhance our “democratic values” here and abroad, including racial and LGBTQ equality, the domestic economy, and the American middle class. An executive order will reopen refugee admissions, and he noted the State Department’s role in addressing climate change, calling it an “existential threat” and pledging to work with other countries in a “climate summit” to pressure for change. He said there is no more “bright line” between foreign and domestic policy, and that decisions and actions will be made with the interests of the country first. 

“Investing in diplomacy — we do it for our own naked self-interest,” he said.

Diplomacy is much preferred to armed coercion and war, for sure, and any “return” to the more peaceful approach, one that focuses on what’s best for the American people would be a welcome one. But for two decades, U.S. foreign policy and military intervention have been inextricable, and ignoring that reality — particularly the thousands of troops still overseas for our 9/11 wars — won’t make it go away. Unless of course, he wants to maintain the status quo. That, perhaps, is fodder for another speech.

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