After a rocky few weeks, former vice president Joe Biden needed to reestablish his stature and remind voters why he’s the best candidate to take on President Trump. Interestingly, Biden chose a foreign policy speech at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York to plant his flag. The speech was large in scope and big on contrasts. His delivery was calm, restrained and, for lack of a better word, presidential.
Biden’s main message was that Trump has — by his impulsive actions and refusal to stand for democratic values — given up our position in the world, hurt our alliances, made it hard to enlist our friends and made us less secure. Perhaps with an eye toward polls showing Americans care most about what is happening at home, he argued that “foreign policy is domestic policy and domestic policy is foreign policy.” He proceeded to explain what had been lost with Trump’s “chest thumping.” And from the time that Trump equated Nazis and neo-Nazis with counterprotesters in Charlottesville; and to Helsinki, when the president gave one of the most “shameful” performances by a president on foreign soil in taking Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side over our own intelligence services. Biden argues that Trump undermines our democratic alliances by appealing to dictators who “play to his vanity.” Foreign leaders know who Trump is, and as a result, we’ve lost their respect. He vowed to tell the world, “We do not coddle dictators. . . . There will be no more Charlottesvilles, no more Helsinkis.”
“America First,” Biden argued, too often means “America alone.” As we have lost allies, illiberal regimes are gaining influence. Freedom is under attack but Trump “seems to be on the other team,” Biden asserted, and bereft of anything to offer besieged democracies.
It is in our “enlightened self-interest” to enhance and support democracy, which is the basis for our alliances and the source of our economy and ingenuity.
Biden made the case that our democracy at home must be strengthened to reassert our leadership internationally. That means everything from education reform to criminal-justice reform to voting rights to anti-corruption efforts to campaign finance reform, even to regular news conferences. Biden also argued that we must restore our moral position in the world which, in turn, means pursuing a long list of immigration reforms (e.g., end child separations and the travel ban) and supporting women’s rights around the world.
Biden pointed to his own role in founding member of the Transtlantic Commission on Election Integrity to fight back against Russia’s attacks on Western democracies, which included a pledge committing to transparency in campaign finance and to reject the use of fabricated or hacked material. The Democratic front-runner called on his presidential rivals to sign that pledge as well.
He then presented an original idea: A global summit for democracy during his first year in office to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. The summit participants would focus on: fighting corruption; defending against authoritarianism, including election security; and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad. Biden said he would implore civil society organizations to enlist these ideals in the cause of preserving open democracies and free speech.
Once more, veering back to domestic policy, Biden made the case that a strong foreign policy relies on a strong U.S. economy. That provided an opening to speak about his efforts to restore the middle class, promote innovation, providing workers with skills to compete and infrastructure. One could argue this has little direct implications for foreign policy, but Biden seemed aware that this is how voters view foreign policy — another reason to enhance our domestic economic and technological prowess.
He reaffirmed the threat from China, but criticized the tariff wars as doing nothing but hurting farmers. It wouldn’t be “back to normal” on trade, he vowed. That requires bringing all democracies into negotiations with China and pursue our own interest and values. If we don’t shape norms and institutions, “some nation will step into the vacuum or no nation will” — and then chaos will ensue.
Returning to the world at large, Biden made the argument for leading international efforts to solve problems that defy national boundaries. That means reviving efforts to fight terrorism, cyberthreats and climate change. In a nod to the sentiments of the Democratic base, he promised to end “long wars” but, unlike some of his opponents, he vowed only to bring home “vast majority of our troops” from Afghanistan and “narrowly focus” on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He also vowed to end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. He pledged to use force when necessary, but only as a last resort.
If elected, Biden said, he would “reinvest” in the diplomatic corps and put professionals back to work at the State Department. Diplomacy requires “credibility and Donald Trump has absolute eroded our credibility.” Pulling out of treaties and lying “about matters big and small,” he’s bankrupted our credibility and alienated friends.
This was a mature foreign policy address. While it may not make the base swoon, it does reaffirm that Biden at least understands how to puncture Trump’s facade of “toughness” without pandering to the left’s own isolationist tendencies. This was the Biden who needs to show up at the next debate — steady, thoughtful and willing to slice and dice Trump. His candidacy may depend on it.