Biden’s ‘Foreign Policy for the Middle Class’ Is a Revolution

The new administration is trying to forge a new national consensus on grand strategy that doesn’t privilege the rich.

By James Traub, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Joe Biden disembarks at a campaign stop in Ohio.
Joe Biden disembarks at a campaign stop at Alliance Amtrak Station in Alliance, Ohio, on Sept. 30, 2020. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Who is American foreign policy for? Why, the American people, of course. It is Americans, collectively, who are menaced by the ambitions of great powers or the fanaticism of terrorists; Americans, collectively, must act in the face of global threats like climate change or nuclear proliferation. Every other sentence of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, whose sole subject was foreign affairs, includes the word “we”—we Americans, prepared to pay any price to defend freedom.

This idea is so deeply ingrained that we may be pulled up short by the expression that has come to be identified with President Joe Biden: “a foreign policy for the middle class.” It’s a novel phrase. Former President Bill Clinton, with his laser focus on the middle class, never thought to use it. A former Obama administration official, now a senior member of Biden’s foreign-policy team, told me last year that during President Barack Obama’s tenure if a policy was understood to advance national interests, “people just assumed it was good for the middle class.” In fact, he said, “How do you know if a foreign policy is good for the middle class? And what do we mean by ‘foreign policy’?”

These are profound questions, if surprisingly unfamiliar ones. They are unfamiliar because only in recent years have foreign-policy thinkers come to recognize something that progressives have argued for quite some while: What is good for the gross national product is not necessarily good for the average citizen. It’s striking that in his first major speech Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted that “some of us previously argued for free trade agreements because we believed Americans would broadly share in the economic gains. … But we didn’t do enough to understand who would be negatively affected.”

It took the election of President Donald Trump to pry mainstream Democrats from their faith in free markets and globalization. Trump won by exploiting white middle-class anger. While many Trump voters plainly feared a loss of status to women, immigrants, and Black people, the election, along with the surging popularity of populists of the left and right in Europe, brought home the political consequences of the rapid decay of the 20th-century industrial middle class. For them, globalization has not been a godsend. The economist Branko Milanovic has shown that the benefits of global growth over the era of “high globalization” from 1986 to 2008 went overwhelmingly to the rising middle class in Asia and the rich in the rest of the world. Middle-class incomes in the developed world stagnated. This is the elemental fact of politics throughout the West.

Biden ran against his progressive Democratic rivals as the candidate of and for the middle class. Yet the meaning of that posture has changed drastically since the time of Clinton, when middle-class status was far more solid and Democrats felt compelled to rebut the charge that they had become too preoccupied with the plight of the marginalized. Welfare reform—that is, reducing government expenditures on the poor—was domestic policy for the middle class in the era of the Third Way. That is no longer true, as the combination of economic stagnation and the wreckage left by the coronavirus pandemic has threatened much of the middle class with immiseration. Everyone needs help. Depending on which light you regard it in, the $1.9 trillion bill Congress passed last week was either middle-class relief or a new chapter in the “war on poverty.”

Twenty-five years ago, a policy “for the middle class” would have been understood, sotto voce, as “and not for the poor.” Today it means “and not for the rich”—not for the winners of the globalization sweepstakes. Thus Blinken’s confession, which amounts to a repudiation of the neoliberal faith that free markets, by their nature, shower benefits on all, albeit unequally. The argument on trade may not be altogether convincing, since many economists argue that automation has done far more damage to industrial employment than the movement of factories abroad. Whatever the merits of that argument, international economists and foreign- policy thinkers now broadly agree that removing barriers to American products or firms matters less than creating conditions for middle-class prosperity. As Jake Sullivan, now Biden’s national security advisor, asked in a 2019 article in the Atlantic, “Whose interests are we serving by putting diplomatic muscle into helping companies like Walmart open stores in India?”

The answer, until recently, would have been “American interests,” as enhancing the profitability of American multinationals abroad increases tax revenue at home. But that’s not so, because global firms—above all, tech firms—have refined tax evasion to a malign art form. In 2017, a group of international economists calculated that 45 percent of multinational corporations’ profits—600 billion euros, or nearly $700 billion at the time—was booked in low-tax havens, though the firms in question have only a skeletal presence in these countries. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has spoken with European counterparts about putting a stop to this massive revenue drain. What’s good for Google may be good for Luxembourg, but not for the American middle class.

Meanwhile China, as Trump and Biden have both pointed out, is eating America’s lunch. By pouring immense subsidies into key industries it hopes to ultimately dominate while placing stiff limits on how foreign firms operate within its border, China is practicing what international economist Jennifer Harris calls “geoeconomics.” You can’t beat such a calculated, state-dominated strategy with good old-fashioned laissez-faire. This is why Biden is not only talking about enlisting allies to force China to conform to liberal trade and investment rules but also planning to adopt an industrial policy to meet China head-on—geoeconomics, American-style. That is a very different kind of weapon from the ones the United States used to outlast communism and blunt the threat of Islamist terrorism. Economics is more central to U.S. foreign policy than it has been since the creation of the Bretton Woods institutions after World War II.

The same shock from both China and Trump that caused foreign-policy thinkers to recognize the limits of neoliberalism also made them see how far they had drifted from the concerns of ordinary Americans. In 2017 the Carnegie Endowment sent interviewers to talk to people in Nebraska, Colorado, and Ohio. They found, not surprisingly, that “the daily economic struggles facing Americans are of greater concern to them than foreign policy”—both because those struggles are so grave and because the foreign-policy threats are not. Few respondents felt that U.S. foreign policy—at least as they understood it—advanced their interests. The authors of Carnegie’s final report, “Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for The Middle Class,” concluded that neither a neoliberal foreign policy, nor Trump’s “America First” one, nor a progressive policy focused on social justice and climate change would either attract or fully serve the interests of the middle class.

The authors called for American leadership of global economic recovery, as opposed to Trumpian zero-sum competition; new thinking about trade and international economic rules; enhanced “adjustment assistance” for workers who lose their jobs when industries move abroad; ensuring a domestic supply of some critical goods; and fostering a “national competitiveness strategy”—industrial policy. It is no coincidence that this meshing of domestic and foreign policy sounds like the Biden administration. William Burns, an old Biden friend whom the president appointed as head of the CIA, commissioned the study, and Salman Ahmed, now head of policy planning at the State Department, served as co-editor. The authors included Jake Sullivan. What the report lays out is the new orthodoxy of the Biden administration.

That orthodoxy extends beyond economic policy. The ultimate goal of the Carnegie study was to forge “a new political consensus” around foreign policy. That consensus plainly does not exist right now. For all his rhetorical gifts, Obama watched helplessly as his audience drifted away on one foreign-policy issue after another—the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the war in Afghanistan, bombing Syria after that country used chemical weapons in 2013. Obama was forced to repeat some variant of “the nation we want to build is the one at home” every time he proposed something that sounded vaguely like nation-building abroad. By the time he stepped down, Obama was out of touch with his audience.

The Carnegie interviewers found very few Americans who thrilled to expressions like “the liberal world order.” The respondents cared most about trade, China, immigration, and defense spending. In general, only young progressives spontaneously raised climate change. Hardly anyone mentioned foreign aid, much less nation-building. The report’s authors urged policy-makers to “banish stale organizing principles” in favor of policies that “work better for the middle class.”

It is, of course, very different to say that a given policy should advance the interests of a given group of Americans than to say that it should advance their preferences. The latter is what Dick Morris, the Iago of political advisors, whispered into Clinton’s ear after the devastating reversals of the 1994 midterm elections, leading Clinton to endorse a series of poll-tested micro-policies. Should American policymakers leave off the business of nation-building, or cut foreign assistance, or let someone else sustain the liberal world order if middle-class Americans have lost faith in these enterprises?

You don’t have to be a cynical pol to believe in the virtues of consensus. John Halpin and Brian Katulis, veteran foreign-policy analysts at the Center for American Progress, recently cited a Pew Research Center poll on public attitudes toward foreign policy showing that Americans of both parties shared deep concerns about jobs and terrorist attacks, while a wide partisan split separated them on climate change and immigration. Nevertheless, Katulis and Halpin observed, policy elites focused insistently on the latter. “Americans are united on foreign policy priorities,” the authors noted. “It’s our political leadership that continues to focus on matters that drive divisions between people.”

Is that the right way of formulating the problem? Or should we say that both the Republicans who minimize the importance of climate change and the Democrats who consider Islamist terrorism a clear and present danger are wrong? Is it not the job of political leaders to convince people to care about what matters most—even as these leaders prudently repeat that the nation they want to rebuild is the one at home? (Katulis and Halpin, to be sure, also write that leaders should more clearly explain to voters how immigration or climate change affect their own well-being.)

The authors of the Carnegie report elide this problem by describing the preferences of middle-class Americans in a way that sounds suspiciously like their own views. Americans, they find, understand that the United States needs to remain globally engaged, that competition with China must be prudently managed, that diplomacy is a better tool than saber-ratting, etc. The only case where the alleged preferences of Americans might diverge from center-left priorities is the very strong belief in defense spending among people in states strongly dependent on it. That’s an understandable feeling, but it’s a very poor rationale for building fancy fighter jets. However, this may pose no problem for Biden, who has not spoken about major defense cuts and presumably does not favor them.

The truth is that polls mean very little on subjects where most people do not feel personally engaged and thus have weak preferences. The United Nations has generally polled well in the United States, but politicians can make a lot more hay running against it than for it. The reason why “foreign-policy elites” have had so much leeway to fashion policy is that, unlike with domestic affairs, most Americans don’t care that much about issues where the stakes fall below life and death. Policymakers operate with implicit consent—until they can’t.

Perhaps that’s changed. Americans no longer defer to experts, whether in science or medicine or public affairs, as they did a generation ago. Experts have to do a much better job of persuasion that they used to. I’m reminded of a conversation I had last year with a veteran foreign-policy practitioner who now occupies a senior position in the Biden administration. “Passive acquiescence used to account for maybe 70 percent of what you did,” he said. “Now it’s down to maybe 40 percent.” Any major initiative risks failure, he added, “unless the American people understand it and see how it advances their lives.”

American democracy is, in this one respect, increasingly democratic. Does that mean that a middle-class foreign policy must also be a majoritarian one? That is a trap in which no policymaker wishes to be caught. But Joe Biden need not be a wizard to escape it. If he succeeds in delivering what Americans want most from foreign policy—hope for a brighter economic future—he will have, not a free hand, but greater scope, to advance American national interests as he understands them.

James Traub is a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and a columnist at Foreign Policy, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.