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Brookings experts analyze President Biden’s first foreign policy speech

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On February 4, in his first major foreign policy speech as president, Joe Biden declared: “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”

Below, experts from Brookings Foreign Policy react to what the president said on Russia, China, refugees, and more, as well as the general tone of his remarks and how they might be interpreted in foreign capitals.


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Pavel Baev, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: In the foreign policy priorities outlined in President Biden’s back-to-the-business-of-leadership speech, Russia was granted a remarkably prominent position. President Vladimir Putin might find perverse pleasure in earning a place ahead of China, but he hardly learned anything new. The tough tone had been expected, and the extra-quick deal on extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) matters more to him than any amount of reproach. He heard demands from Biden and the U.S. State Department to release Alexei Navalny and to stop police violence against peaceful protests at least three times, and each time he opted for escalation of repressions.

Biden’s point about raising the costs of transgressions for Russia doesn’t become more convincing with repetition, and Putin believes that the repertoire of sanctions is essentially exhausted. He also assumes that Biden’s pledge to work closely with allies in charting a common course vis-à-vis Russia would work in his favor, knowing how little appetite there is among the Europeans for tightening the sanctions regime. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, is actually paying a visit to Moscow this weekend, and the Kremlin is inclined to see it as a major success, whatever polite words of criticism might be uttered.

Diplomacy is back and it works, asserts Biden; Putin is content with the former and challenges the latter. Biden’s team is set to conduct a thorough review of Russia’s behavior, but Moscow will not wait for this prudent policymaking to deliver a measured punishment.

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Célia Belin (@celiabelin), Visiting Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: In his address, President Biden insisted on the need to strengthen America’s alliances. “Alliances are our greatest asset,” he said, quoting several countries. But alliances to do what?

The United States will find eager partners in Europe. Not only has the European Union already provided a list of topics on which to engage, but all major European leaders have expressed a desire to work together.

One of them, French President Emmanuel Macron, participated in an Atlantic Council event a couple of hours before Biden’s speech, where he made the case for “result-oriented multilateralism.” In Macron’s view, Western powers have lost ground to China due to their inability to deliver results, such as an efficient vaccine distribution for the international community. So, if the U.S. is committed to regain credibility on the world stage, making the multilateral system work should be a priority.

Macron also reiterated his plea for “a new consensus,” echoing an op-ed, penned with global leaders, that promises to work towards an inclusive multilateralism that addresses global challenges (the pandemic, climate) but also democratic challenges and inequalities, since “many need to be reassured about the benefits of globalization.” As Biden promises to advance a “foreign policy for the middle class,” the United States should remember that friends and allies around the world share the same challenge. “Foreign policy for the middle class” should not be a means to simply promote a “buy American” protectionism, but an opportunity to work with world leaders towards a fairer, cleaner globalization that lifts all.

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Federica Saini Fasanotti, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology: Italy has suffered greatly from the diplomatic absence of the United States in the Mediterranean: Europe does not have a single strategic position with regard to immigration or Libya, so more muscular and systematic diplomatic action from Washington could help mediate between the European powers. The Trump administration’s absence in Libya meant that a void has been filled, with force, by Russia and Turkey. President Biden’s speech was marked by the words: “America is back.” No one expects that everything will simply go back to the way it was before, but there is hope that Biden’s words will be followed by a strategy, not only by more limited tactical actions (such as actions the Department of Defense has taken in Libya’s Fezzan desert and in the Sirtica area against isolated al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and ISIS jihadist cells). A long-term strategic vision for Libya is needed.

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Sadie Frank, Project Manager and Research Assistant in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative, and David Victor, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative: President Biden’s speech, promising engagement and leadership internationally, was welcome news to allies that have been questioning what we can do in a period of global turmoil. Most significant, though, was the tone of the mission — his emphasis on how the “whole of government” inside the country is essential to an effective foreign policy. Foreign policy starts at home.

In the area where we work, climate change, President Biden didn’t say anything new. What he did do, however, was articulate how the rest of the world should evaluate our commitments. The first big test of this approach will come later this year when the U.S. issues its new “nationally determined contribution” under the Paris Agreement — the rest of the world expects a lot from the U.S., 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 U.S. 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.

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James Goldgeier (@jimgoldgeier), Robert Bosch Senior Visiting Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed strongly yesterday that domestic affairs and foreign policy are linked. The president 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.”

When it came to specific issue areas, however, the connection between domestic politics and U.S. foreign policy grew murkier. President Biden condemned those who carried out the military coup in Burma, expressed his opposition to the war in Yemen, and decried the Russian government’s actions against the recently arrested opposition leader Alexei Navalny and Russians peacefully protesting his jail sentence. But the president failed to make clear how American diplomacy will matter to citizens of the United States. After four years of a president not caring whether people abroad were oppressed, tortured, and victimized, Biden will need to draw more clearly for Americans how issues like these affect them. If his administration is serious about developing a foreign policy for the middle class, which was a major campaign theme, then the president’s speeches should make even more clear how events abroad shape the lives of Americans and how efforts to rebuild democracy at home redound to America’s advantage overseas.

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Ryan Hass (@ryanl_hass), Senior Fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies: President Biden’s treatment of China in his first foreign policy address signaled 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 U.S. 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 U.S.-China relations as an ideological and Manichean good vs. evil struggle. Biden clearly has no qualms about pushing back firmly against China, but he signaled 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 clearly has no qualms about pushing back firmly against China, but he signaled that he intends to do so purposefully.

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Bruce Jones (@brucebrookings), Senior Fellow and Director of the Project on International Order and Strategy: China; Russia; authoritarianism; support for democracy, alliances, and multilateralism — all the expected themes of Biden’s foreign policy were laid out in the first moments of his first foreign policy speech. The speech was more memorable for four things: the sharp words employed for the damage done to America’s standing by former President Trump; the frank denunciation of white supremacy in our own politics; the Executive Order to advance LGBTQ issues internationally; and the far-reaching language on climate change. It seemed mostly truly Biden’s own policy at the end — in impassioned words on how expansive international action redounds to U.S. “naked self interest” and the American worker. A joint State Department-Department of Defense review of global force posture will be a critical place to translate all those ambitions into outcomes.

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Kemal Kirişci (@kemalkirisci), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe, and Sam Denney (@samddenney), Senior Research Assistant in the Center on the United States and Europe: In his speech at the State Department, President Biden’s promise to reinstitute America’s traditional refugee readmission programs and reinvigorate U.S. moral leadership was very welcome — and echoed a piece we wrote in August 2020. His announcement that the United States would “defend the equal rights of people the world over” as part of its commitment to human rights in the United States is the antithesis of his predecessor’s worldview. As President Biden rightly mentioned, protecting refugees long enjoyed bipartisan support in the United States, and the United States long set the example for the rest of the world in its approach to refugees. But because of this history, the United States must do more.

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Today, the international regime to protect refugees is broken, as more and more refugees find themselves in protracted situations without durable solutions in the form of voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration. In 2020, 85% of the 26 million refugees in the world are hosted by developing countries, an especially unequal burden that has been exacerbated by COVID-19.

In addition to increasing resettlement, the Biden administration should also help refugees where they are, by endorsing the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Endorsing the GCR and mounting a diplomatic campaign to put its policy ideas in action would send a clear message that America is back. But more importantly, it would also send a message that America is willing to shoulder more of the burden to address both the problems of today and tomorrow.

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Daniel Magruder, Federal Executive Fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology: With regard to our adversaries and competitors, the takeaway from this week’s speech was: Cooperate when we can, but compete when we must.

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Giovanna de Maio (@giovDM), Nonresident Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: Similarly to his inauguration address, Biden’s foreign policy speech pushed back on sovereigntist and populist narratives. 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 U.S. engagement in the world is beneficial to its political, economic, and security interest. Second, in line with the measures he has already taken to reunite the children with their families separated at the U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

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Steven Pifer (@steven_pifer), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: In his State Department speech, President Biden sharply broke with his predecessor regarding Russia. While President Trump seemed incapable of criticizing Vladimir Putin or Kremlin misdeeds, Biden took Moscow to task for the jailing of Alexei Navalny and crackdown on protesters, said the days of “rolling over” to aggressive Kremlin actions were done, and pledged to work with like-minded partners for a more effective response to the Russian challenge.

At the same time, he made clear his readiness to engage Russia when doing so was in the U.S. interest, citing the U.S.-Russian agreement to extend New START for five years. Biden’s policy will combine pushback against egregious Russian misbehavior with dialogue where U.S. and Russian interests coincide. Many in Moscow seem to assume his presidency will mean continued deterioration in relations. Perhaps, but four years of Trump’s approach produced nothing of consequence that was positive for the U.S.-Russia relationship. Biden will not launch a reset. However, he will be open to guardrails, such as arms control, to manage the adversarial aspects of the relationship; he understands that difficult problems cannot be solved in a one-off meeting but require time and process; and, when he does meet with Putin, he will be prepared and ready to engage in a serious conversation. That approach will not turn things around overnight, but it might help chip away at some of the problems that currently burden relations between Washington and Moscow.

Biden will not launch a reset.

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Douglas Rediker (@dougrediker), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: The most important, and likely overlooked, part of President Biden’s speech at the State Department was when the president turned to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and reminded everyone watching that the two had worked together for over 20 years. And then he stated the most important words a president can say to a cabinet official. Biden told Blinken that countries around the world needed to know that “when you speak, you speak for me.” Diplomacy only works if countries believe diplomats speak for the country they represent. Under President Trump, even the most senior foreign policy officials lacked credibility. How many times did Secretaries of State Mike Pompeo or Rex Tillerson assert a position only to find President Trump tweeting something entirely different and making them look foolish?

Biden’s speech was preceded by a more targeted one for State Department officials, where he told them that they were empowered, trusted, and that he had their backs. But those words would not be enough if the secretary of state himself were not seen as personally empowered. The close relationship between the two will provide enormous leverage, allowing the entirety of the foreign policy team to speak for the country under Blinken’s leadership. Trump was not the only president who failed to empower his secretaries of state. When President Obama reversed course on military action against Syria for breaching the “red line,” he let it be known that he had alerted his secretary of state after he had made his decision. John Kerry’s international credibility was never the same. In foreign policy, presidential authority is largely unencumbered by Congress. That makes the message that Secretary Blinken is fully empowered to speak for this country on the world stage the most powerful message Biden delivered today.

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Constanze Stelzenmüller (@ConStelz), Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe: Some in Europe have been heard to opine that post-Trump America ought to engage in some humble introspection before laying a claim to global leadership again. President Biden’s foreign policy speech this week did both. Biden said his administration was “ready to take up the mantle and lead again.” But he also explicitly acknowledged systemic racism and the “scourge of white supremacy,” making clear that repairing American democracy at home makes America a “much more credible partner” in defending democracy abroad. Your turn, Europe.

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Angela Stent (@AngelaStent), Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States in Europe: President Biden’s speech promised the return of professional diplomacy as it should be conducted. It should serve as a morale booster to the many foreign service officers who were often overlooked or sidelined during the Trump administration. By committing the U.S. 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. Biden’s message to Russia was tough — the U.S. will work with Russia on issues that are in America’s national interest but it will no longer “roll over” in face of malign Russian actions.

For those watching from the Kremlin, his speech confirmed what they have suspected since November 3 — that a Biden administration will have a unified, tough policy toward Russia and that any talk of a reset is off the cards. Apart from arms control, where the Biden administration will continue to work with Russia, there will be limited areas for engagement. Climate change and the Arctic could offer possibilities for cooperation. After the administration’s review of Russia policy is completed, and depending on what is uncovered about the Solar Winds hack and 2020 election interference, more sanctions may be coming. The Kremlin anticipates that U.S.-Russian relations in the next four years will largely be adversarial — and Biden’s speech confirmed that.

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Christopher Thomas, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Artificial Technology and Emerging Technology Initiative: Going forward, 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 U.S. leadership in technology and align our allies with the U.S. 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.

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Constantino Xavier (@ConstantinoX), Nonresident Fellow in the India Project: Despite being the world’s largest democracy, India is likely to have mixed feelings about President Biden’s foreign policy focus on values and human rights. Common values have facilitated India’s convergence with the United States but also led to differences in the past, for example on Syria, Ukraine, or Sri Lanka. While New Delhi and Washington share a strategic interest in a more democratic world, they often disagree on the best means, including the utility of sanctions.

The rise of an authoritarian China has raised Indian comfort to define democracy as a foreign policy interest, but Biden’s values-centric agenda may create tensions. This week’s exchange of statements on Indian farmer protests shows that New Delhi is concerned about falling under America’s liberal scanner, for example on Kashmir, press freedom, and minority rights. Biden’s harsh reference on Burma will also be seen with concern in New Delhi. As with Sri Lanka, India tends to privilege engagement over pressure in order not to increase these neighbors’ dependence on China.

On the other hand, Biden’s speech could also be the harbinger of a closer U.S.-India partnership for of a free, open and democratic Indo-Pacific. President Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi could revive the Community of Democracies and the United Nations Democracy Fund. The United States and India could also cooperate on joint economic assistance to support democratic governance in developing countries that are increasingly exposed to China’s authoritarian influence. India’s role at the Summit for Democracy will clarify whether foreign policy values will be a source of tensions or lead to a closer strategic alignment.



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