On February 4th, Joe Biden was just in his third week of his new administration as he arrived at the State Department. He was to address the room and the nation on his vision of American diplomacy in this new era. For Biden, a former Benjamin Franklin Professor of Presidential Politics at Penn, making his address under the watchful portrait of America’s original diplomat was fitting. “…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.” After lightening the mood, the President launched into the issues his administration is prioritizing abroad as they attempt to establish their agenda on the world stage.
Just days before President Biden made his first official speech at the State Department, a military coup in Myanmar was in its opening salvos, with the civilian government of that country being overthrown by its generals. For Biden, this would be a first test of his new vision for American diplomacy in defense of democratically elected government. “There can be no doubt: In a democracy, force should never seek to overrule the will of the people or attempt to erase the outcome of a credible election.”
In Biden’s speech, the Myanmar coup is an extension of the authoritarian threats being projected by America’s two greatest geo-political adversaries, Russia and China. In the case of Russia, strategic diplomacy, exemplified by an agreed extension to the START nuclear treaty, will be coupled with clear-eyed resolve against Russian influence and interference. “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.” But with China, the stakes are higher.
“…We’ll… take on directly the challenges posed by our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China.” While the Russian threat is a constant specter in the American geo-political psyche, China is on the rise and far more capable in upending American superiority and influence abroad. “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.” Engagement with China is inevitable, and the balance must be struck to work together when necessary, or as Biden states, “…we are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.” But maintaining leverage over China means that international coalitions must be preserved through America’s diplomatic mission.
President Biden’s diplomatic calling card is simple enough: “America is Back.” But what does this mean when navigating the complex threats presented to us by our greatest competitors? Simply put, America’s Back is a euphemism for the return to a “globalist” philosophy repudiated by Donald Trump’s mantra of “America First.” What better way to reject the legacy of your predecessor than to rejoin an agreement he called one of the “worst deals” ever made? “On day one, I signed the paperwork to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. 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.” While even the UN notes that America was so successful in cutting carbon that it didn’t need to rejoin the agreement, doing so anyway can only be seen as an olive branch to the global institutions the Trump presidency targeted as ineffective.
In Biden’s vision for American foreign policy, the rejection of the America First Trump doctrine will extend to our military obligations overseas as well. NATO was always a target for Trump as candidate and as president, with the organization often being ridiculed by him as a burden on American taxpayers with little to show for it. “…We’ll be stopping any planned troop withdrawals from Germany.” Trump often targeted Germany for not paying enough for NATO support (in his opinion) and the loss of troops would have been the consequence had he remained in office. The strategic importance of troops there is an argument for another day but putting a stop to their withdrawal signals that NATO allies will not have the same scrutiny under Biden and the old order will be preserved.
In the Biden Administration, the message is simple: America’s place in the world is the same as it’s always been. In this presentation, the Trump years were an aberration. Biden’s speech was rife with innuendo implicating Trump in not only ignoring authoritarianism abroad, but tacitly supporting it. Trump’s time in office was a radical shakeup of the international order and now America will rechart the diplomatic course it has sailed for decades. This of course, is what led to the election of Trump in the first place. With Biden at the helm, “America is Back” simply means a return to the status quo.
Image Credit: Photo by Gage Skidmore Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) on Flickr
Over the decades, the Veterans of America’s armed forces and foreign wars have held a revered spot in the public consciousness as the embodiments of patriotism and national pride. But according to analysis recently conducted by the Roper Center, the public at large believes that the government is not doing enough through its federal programs to honor the sacrifices made by those in uniform.