How Biden Became a Nationalist by Necessity

What the U.S. president’s first year teaches us about him—and the world.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Joe Biden takes his sunglasses off as he arrives for a campaign event with President Barack Obama at Strawbery Banke Field in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Sept. 7, 2012.
Joe Biden takes his sunglasses off as he arrives for a campaign event with President Barack Obama at Strawbery Banke Field in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Sept. 7, 2012.
Joe Biden takes his sunglasses off as he arrives for a campaign event with President Barack Obama at Strawbery Banke Field in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Sept. 7, 2012. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

Rarely, if ever, in modern history has foreign policy mattered so little to a U.S. president’s standing at home as it did in 2021. This was so for two reasons. First, and most important, the American public is seized by a sense of crisis at home that spreads across the economy, public health, politics, and culture, and blots out almost all other concerns. Second, there has been no cataclysm abroad great enough to divert public attention for long, though Russian President Vladimir Putin might produce one within days or weeks if he decides to invade Ukraine.

This extraordinary situation shapes our understanding of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy in his first year in two ways. First, what has mattered most in his performance is the domestic dimension of foreign policy. Second, the absence of foreign crisis means that Biden has been able to pursue the goals he set before assuming office, as presidents typically do until events force them to improvise. Former President Barack Obama, for example, made serious headway on his promises to reset U.S. relations with allies and to advance the cause of nuclear nonproliferation before his administration was overwhelmed by the issue of intervention in Middle East conflicts. We can judge Biden on how well he has fulfilled his promises.

In the obligatory Foreign Affairs article he wrote, or had written for him, during the 2020 campaign, Biden laid out three main foreign-policy objectives: strengthening democracy abroad and at home in order to face a growing autocratic challenge, above all from China; forging a “foreign policy for the middle class” that would enable the United States to “win the competition for the future against China or anyone else,” and winding up the “forever wars” of the last 20 years.

Rarely, if ever, in modern history has foreign policy mattered so little to a U.S. president’s standing at home as it did in 2021. This was so for two reasons. First, and most important, the American public is seized by a sense of crisis at home that spreads across the economy, public health, politics, and culture, and blots out almost all other concerns. Second, there has been no cataclysm abroad great enough to divert public attention for long, though Russian President Vladimir Putin might produce one within days or weeks if he decides to invade Ukraine.

This extraordinary situation shapes our understanding of President Joe Biden’s foreign policy in his first year in two ways. First, what has mattered most in his performance is the domestic dimension of foreign policy. Second, the absence of foreign crisis means that Biden has been able to pursue the goals he set before assuming office, as presidents typically do until events force them to improvise. Former President Barack Obama, for example, made serious headway on his promises to reset U.S. relations with allies and to advance the cause of nuclear nonproliferation before his administration was overwhelmed by the issue of intervention in Middle East conflicts. We can judge Biden on how well he has fulfilled his promises.

In the obligatory Foreign Affairs article he wrote, or had written for him, during the 2020 campaign, Biden laid out three main foreign-policy objectives: strengthening democracy abroad and at home in order to face a growing autocratic challenge, above all from China; forging a “foreign policy for the middle class” that would enable the United States to “win the competition for the future against China or anyone else,” and winding up the “forever wars” of the last 20 years.

Biden deserves credit for making real progress on all of those goals. Last month’s Summit for Democracy, for all its shortcomings (as I have discussed here and here), constituted a very public statement that the United States—once again—cares very much about the preservation of democracy. We will see over the course of the next year whether countries take seriously the pledges of reform they made at the summit. That said, Biden’s record on the perennial American problem of autocratic allies is no better than mixed. While he has been prepared to castigate the more medieval aspects of the Saudi regime, he has held his tongue in the case of Egypt, which the United States finds useful as a regional interlocutor and source of intelligence. Biden has yet to demonstrate that he cares about democracy abroad as much as at home.

The premise of a foreign policy for the middle class is that international rules should be shaped by what is good for ordinary Americans rather than global corporations. Here the Biden administration has racked up some real wins. At the G-20 summit last October, states agreed to apply a 15 percent global minimum tax to prevent corporate tax evasion that had cost the U.S. Treasury about $60 billion a year. The United States and the European Union also ended the mutually destructive tariff war initiated by former President Donald Trump, lowering prices for American consumers. These achievements nevertheless pale in impact next to the rescue package passed in March 2021 and the infrastructure bill passed that November, which together authorized $2.5 trillion in government spending.

The importance of that legislation reminds us that even Biden’s foreign-policy goals really belong to domestic policy; both the democracy goal and the focus on middle class benefit are part of his larger effort to address the radical polarization that has poisoned American life and enfeebled its politics. Yet that very polarization has hobbled Biden’s agenda, because domestic matters, unlike foreign ones, require legislative as well as executive action—and America’s hopelessly divided Congress has been unable to agree either on electoral reform or on Biden’s mammoth “Build Back Better” legislation. Biden may thus have already achieved all he can on both objectives, leaving him to boast about diminishing returns in the years to come.

The president has kept his promise on the forever wars by withdrawing from Afghanistan and choosing not to enhance troop strength in Iraq or elsewhere. With the competition with China having moved to the center of Biden’s policy, he hopes to pivot away from the Middle East and toward Asia, as Obama tried to do. Yet his eagerness to leave the Middle East behind may come back to haunt him. Biden has devoted few diplomatic resources to resolving the grinding civil wars in Yemen and Syria or to alleviating tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The haste with which he ordered troops out of Afghanistan gave the impression that he was pivoting not to some other part of the world but back home—that is, that he was catering to the deep American wish to shuck off the burden of global leadership. The results have been catastrophic both for the tens of thousands of people who hoped to escape Taliban reprisals and for the 38 million Afghans who are now facing a terrifying humanitarian situation, including the prospect of mass starvation. It is a matter of irony, or perhaps poetic justice, that the only foreign issue that has seriously harmed Biden’s popularity at home is one to which he may have felt impelled by public opinion.

What, if anything, does this fiasco reveal that would help predict Biden’s behavior in the coming years? The Council on Foreign Relations’ Richard Haass has cited the abrupt withdrawal as evidence that, despite his rhetoric to the contrary, Biden shares Trump’s “America first” impulses and “the new paradigm” Trump embodied that denies that the United States “has a vital stake in a broader global system.” That seems seriously overdrawn. Biden’s current efforts to rally global opinion and Western institutions to stand up to Putin on Ukraine demonstrate a commitment to the liberal order utterly foreign to his predecessor. Biden is the internationalist he says he is.

Yet he is an internationalist in an intensely nationalist age. Biden’s deep sense of urgency about the domestic crisis he inherited has made him act rashly and, at times, callously. He barely bothered to consult European allies on Afghanistan, and his team somehow forgot to tell the French that they were working with Australia, which moved to buy submarines from Washington rather than Paris. Biden left Europeans with the impression that they just didn’t matter very much, though he has since gone to real lengths to repair the breach. Nothing, however, is likely to seriously alleviate the suffering of the Afghans, another secondary issue largely ignored in the haste to depart. Even to people (like me) who thought that the time had come to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, Biden looked like an internationalist willing to act unilaterally and a champion of human rights prepared to accept their wholesale abuse. It was the ugliest episode of Biden’s tenure to date.

Biden’s first year in office has exposed the unresolved, and perhaps unrealized, tension between nationalism and internationalism to which Haass was alluding. It’s impossible to say with confidence that the president believes, as postwar internationalists have, that what is good for the world—at least the democratic world—is good for America. Of course he doesn’t share Trump’s zero-sum, steel cage match worldview. The democracy summit was a hopeful exercise in mutual benefit. But a “foreign policy for the middle class” certainly sounds like “ours, not yours.” Reshoring the manufacture of critical products sounds like a recipe for protectionism. Despite strong words about free trade, Biden has not tried to renegotiate the trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) nor to move forward with other pacts. The one area in which he made no break with Trump policy is trade with China, where he has chosen to retain tariffs covering two-thirds of that country’s exports. China, meanwhile, is seeking to join the new version of the TPP. Biden aspires to lead, but on this subject many of his allies are heading in a different direction.

What will Biden do in the coming years as the domestic side of his foreign-policy ledger comes up empty? Will he try to show the American people that he stands with the middle class by bashing China, or by granting big subsidies to American industry, or by imposing impossible standards on trade agreements? Or will he have the courage to explain to skeptical voters that the United States benefits when others do—even, at times, China? That, certainly, is what the Biden we have known for the last half-century believed.

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

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.