Biden’s Goldilocks Foreign Policy

“America is back” wrestles with the lingering imprint of “America First.”

By Elise Labott, an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Biden addresses Congress at the Capitol.
U.S. President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress as Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi look on in the U.S. Capitol in Washington on April 28. Melina Mara-Pool/Getty Images

A president’s first days in office are hardly a prediction of the long-term strength or achievements of an administration, but they do set a tone and a direction. In his speech to Congress Wednesday marking his first 100 days, U.S. President Joe Biden, who said he had inherited a nation “that was in crisis,” asserted that America was again “on the move.” In contrast to former President Donald Trump, whose inaugural address spoke of “American carnage,” Biden offered an optimistic assessment of the United States and its role in the world.

“We’ve stared into the abyss of insurrection and autocracy, pandemic and pain,” Biden said. “And ‘we the people’ did not flinch.”

International issues took a back seat in the speech to Biden’s ambitious $4 trillion domestic agenda, a sweeping social contract between Americans and their government that the president argued could reset the country and which has already drawn parallels to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. That’s partly because the Biden Doctrine views foreign policy as a facet of domestic policy and judges the success of U.S. engagement by a simple metric: Does it make life safer and more prosperous for American families?

The result so far is a patchwork of policies that seem to blend many of Trump’s populist instincts with the restoration of traditional U.S. foreign policy—but these competing imperatives are in danger of crashing at the corner of “America First” and “America is back.”

Following tradition, the administration has sought to break from Trump’s isolationist and transactional approach to the world and has instead reasserted U.S. leadership based on democratic values. Biden’s early return to international organizations such as the World Health Organization and accords like the Paris climate agreement, for example, reflects a return to normal U.S. priorities. His recent climate summit brought together the heads of 40 countries, including Russia and China, and committed the United States to an ambitious reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Meanwhile, Biden’s push to reinvigorate Washington’s broad network of alliances is a return to the long-held assumption, eschewed by Trump, that such partnerships are a pennies-on-the-dollar investment in fighting shared challenges like terrorism, nuclear proliferation, cybersecurity, climate change, and pandemics.

Biden’s competing imperatives are in danger of crashing at the corner of “America First” and “America is back.”

But America First hasn’t vanished. In his speech, Biden again stressed his “Buy American” mantra when it comes to manufacturing, echoing the nationalist industrial policy that drove the Trump administration.

The president has earned high marks for his COVID-19 response at home but less so overseas. Though the United States announced support for COVAX, the international effort to coordinate vaccine distribution to lower- and middle-income countries, Biden has been slow to tap into the surplus of U.S. vaccines until all Americans are vaccinated. Only after India reached a devastating phase of the pandemic, for example, did the Biden administration offer to send medical gear and agents to manufacture more vaccines.

Likewise, Biden’s vow to lift a record-low refugee cap set by the Trump administration collided with concerns over an influx of migrants at the southern U.S. border. Biden decided to keep the cap, against the advice of his top foreign-policy aides, only to backtrack after blowback from Democrats and U.S. allies.

The world, and America’s place in it, has changed in the last four years. The United States is pushing multilateralism and burden-sharing at a time when nations are still reeling from the pandemic and its associated economic and political upheaval. The world wants to believe Biden’s promises about U.S. renewal and resolve but need only recall the Jan. 6 insurrection to be reminded that America’s polarized politics could reverse all those commitments in less than four years. Biden even acknowledged that world leaders tell him, “We see America’s back, but for how long?”

“We have to show not just that we are back but that we are back to stay and that we aren’t going to go alone,” Biden said. “We’re going to do it by leading with our allies.”

Beyond the tension between populism and internationalism, the biggest challenge for the Biden administration will be turning its slogan of a “foreign policy for the middle class” into practice. His foreign-policy team understands that balancing U.S. interests and values will require more disciplined choices about where to spend political capital, both at home and abroad. The aim is to prioritize issues that affect Americans—trade, immigration, technology, and climate change—over ones that don’t. Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September—against the advice of his military advisors—recognized the lack of domestic appetite for such commitments.

Yet much of what the administration has done—and will continue to do—is hard to pigeonhole into that middle-class mantra, especially Biden’s commitment to defend human rights and fight authoritarianism abroad. Biden slapped sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2020 election and a massive hack of U.S. government agencies. He has also pledged to protect Ukraine against Russian aggression—Russia’s deployment of more than 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border was an early test for Washington—but it’s hard to make out which middle-class interests would warrant greater involvement in Ukraine.

And much the same holds true for China, which Biden called the defining challenge of his presidency; much of his economic renewal is meant to strengthen America for long-term competition with Beijing. But the United States will need to figure out how to balance pressure against China for its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, assault on democracy in Hong Kong, and aggressive attitude toward Taiwan with the need to secure China’s cooperation on issues like climate change, pandemic response, and nuclear proliferation.

Biden may want to limit U.S. overreach and focus on domestic renewal. But the rest of the world also has a say.

Ultimately, Biden wants to prove to Americans, and their adversaries, that despite the country’s smoldering political divisions and lingering questions about Washington’s long-term reliability as a partner, democracy and U.S. leadership will prevail.

“The autocrats of the world are betting we can’t,” Biden said. “We have to prove them wrong. We have to prove democracy still works, that our government still works, and we can deliver for our people.”

But fashioning a goldilocks foreign policy that serves all Americans, reestablishes global leadership, and bests China and Russia in a great-power competition will require more resources, bandwidth, and political capital than Biden seems willing to spend. With only a razor-thin majority in Congress, he faces great constraints from the nationalist right and the progressive left.

Biden may want to limit U.S. overreach and focus on domestic renewal. But the rest of the world also has a say. As the world’s largest economy and preeminent political and diplomatic power, the United States remains the closest thing to an “indispensable nation” the world has. The administration’s desires may prove largely immaterial. U.S. engagement, whether or not that serves the middle class or Biden’s goal of American renewal, will still be sorely needed.

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