Biden Puts a Kinder, Gentler Spin on ‘America First’

To lead abroad, Joe Biden argued in his first foreign-policy speech as president, America must heal itself.

By Elise Labott, an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to staff during his first visit to the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks to staff during his first visit to the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 4. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Given U.S. President Joe Biden’s age and near half-century of experience in Washington, it was natural that as a candidate, he portrayed himself as a bridge between America’s past and its future. In his first major foreign-policy speech as president, delivered Thursday at the State Department, Biden sought to outline how he could bridge the transition from the Trump years to a new era of U.S. leadership and from an establishment Democratic foreign policy to one that is becoming increasingly progressive. In both cases, Biden is leaning forward—but not leaving the past entirely behind.

Two weeks into his administration, it’s too early to call the ideas Biden laid out a doctrine, which aides said will come later in the year. And his first foreign-policy decisions, such as re-entering the World Health Organization and Paris climate accord and overturning the Muslim travel ban, were simply reversals of actions taken by former-President Donald Trump. Even Biden’s decision to speak at the State Department was meant to reassure U.S. diplomats scarred by four years of the previous administration that diplomacy is once again at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

But even if his speech and early actions simply brought the United States back to a post-Trump baseline, some hints of how Biden will approach foreign policy in an age of authoritarianism, transnational threats, and rising economic competitors are already apparent.

Bidenism, if it can be called that, doesn’t entirely abandon Trump’s nationalist vision. Quite the contrary: Biden’s goal of making the welfare of the middle class the central tenet of U.S. foreign policy bears the imprint of the populist message that propelled Trump to power. Once a champion of a globalized economic system that included free trade, Biden now pledges that every foreign-policy decision must be taken “with American working families in mind.”

Bidenism, if it can be called that, doesn’t entirely abandon Trump’s nationalist vision.

But Biden, as expected, signaled a clear departure from Trump—and a return to U.S. orthodoxy. Instead of retreat and retrenchment, Biden pledged to rebuild the “muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse,” vowing once again to stand “shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners.”

Where Trump viewed allies as taking advantage of the United States, Biden sees them as a pennies-on-the-dollar way to bolster U.S. security, whether by helping the United States fight global threats like climate change and pandemics, amplifying U.S. power against rivals like Russia and China, or creating new markets to strengthen the country’s competitive edge. The United States doesn’t invest in diplomacy “just because it’s the right thing to do for the world,” Biden said. “We do it because it is in our own naked self-interest.” That sounds like a kinder, gentler “America First.”

Biden’s focus on making foreign policy work for the middle class reflects the ongoing debate inside the Democratic Party about the future of U.S. foreign policy. Thomas Wright, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, calls it a battle between “restorationists,” those who view U.S. leadership through the lens of globalization and multilateral diplomacy, and “reformists,” who believe foreign policy should primarily serve domestic economic and political goals. Biden’s remarks, and those of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan—who earlier in the day said the U.S. priority is “not to get access for Goldman Sachs in China”—highlight the influence of progressives who are skeptical of establishment economic policy and trade deals they say are unfair to working-class Americans.

But Biden isn’t all in—he’s maintaining some of the Obama-style pragmatism and establishment ideas despite the promise of a much tougher hand with Russia and China. Even as he warned the “days of rolling over in the face of Russian aggression” were over, he inked an extension to the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow in his first days in office. He committed to ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen but appointed a career diplomat, who is well-respected in Riyadh, as an envoy to help end the conflict and ensure protection of Saudi interests against Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

Rebuilding the U.S. economy, democratic institutions, and moral standing is the key to Biden’s strategy for restoring American leadership.

By protecting middle-class jobs through more equitable trade deals, promoting U.S. manufacturers through “buy American” policies, and by investing more in research and technology, the United States will strengthen its competitive edge and become a stronger bulwark against a rising China, Biden argued.

By eschewing the barrage of lies and vituperation of the previous administration and returning to traditional practices like briefing the press—which Biden called “essential to the health of a democracy”—he aims to start healing a body politic badly damaged in the last four years. Biden also told State Department employees that his administration would “empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you,” another break with the recent past.

And by fighting racism and domestic extremism—Biden’s already reversed the Muslim ban and announced a whole-of-government approach to fighting domestic extremism—U.S. promotion of human rights around the world will be that much more powerful.

Showing Trump the door will not by itself excise the rot.

The United States, Biden said, will once again “lead not just by the example of our power but the power of our example.” That means rebuilding moral leadership by living by U.S. democratic values, which Biden said “have come under intense pressure in recent years, even pushed to the brink in the last few weeks.” The four-year assault on democratic institutions and the rule of law, not to mention the violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, seems to have undermined the United States’ moral authority to lecture any other countries on democracy. But Biden concludes that the United States will be a more credible partner and one “better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy because we have fought for it ourselves.”

Just before his inauguration, I wrote that Biden must reinvent U.S. power for a post-Trump era in a way that recognizes its changed role in the world today and a diminished capacity to lead it. In his speech on Thursday, Biden predicted that stronger, more confident U.S. leadership will ultimately emerge from the country’s renewal—after its values and institutions went through a searing trial by fire.

But Biden’s pledge to shore up the foundations of its democracy is an acknowledgement that showing Trump the door will not by itself excise the rot. U.S. citizens must reacquire the habits of democratic behavior which, like the United States’ constructive engagement with the world, atrophied in recent years. Knowing how close it came to losing it all might be the most powerful catalyst for Americans’ own democratic renewal.

Elise Labott is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott