Joe Biden has given countless foreign policy speeches as a senator, vice president and presidential candidate. On Thursday, he went to the State Department to deliver his first foreign policy speech as president. His remarks were hardly radical, but they were important nonetheless, because they signal a new tone and a new attitude in U.S. foreign policy after four years of “America First.”
Biden made clear he understands that the damage done by former president Donald Trump, who was never mentioned by name, will not be repaired overnight. “We’ve moved quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally,” Biden said, because it is imperative “to earn back our leadership position” and to reclaim “our credibility and moral authority.”
Although Biden proclaimed, “America is back. Diplomacy is back,” he showed keen awareness that other nations around the world will be distrustful of U.S. leadership after the disasters of the past four years. Why should anyone trust again a country that couldn’t handle a pandemic — and that just saw a violent insurrection in its Capitol?
No doubt Biden noticed what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said to Axios a few days ago: “We are used to believing that the United States has the ideal democratic institutions, where power is transferred calmly. … In Ukraine, we lived through two revolutions. … We understood such things can happen in the world. But that it could happen in the United States? No one expected that. … I was very worried. … I did not want you to have a coup. After something like this, I believe it would be very difficult for the world to see the United States as a symbol of democracy.”
Biden tried to allay such concerns by suggesting that Trump’s attempts to overthrow democracy could actually make us more determined champions of freedom. “The American people will emerge from this stronger, more determined and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy — because we have fought for it ourselves,” he said.
It’s a neat argument — trying to turn our weakness into strength — and I hope it’s true. But if the Senate votes to acquit Trump — as seems almost certain, given that all but five Republican senators voted to dismiss the charge — it will unfortunately send a message of impunity for misconduct that will undermine Biden’s efforts to rebuild confidence in America as the leader of the free world.
There is nothing Biden can do to force Republicans to do their duty. But he certainly is doing all that is in his power to reinvigorate American diplomacy and standing in the world. Much of what he had to say on Thursday would have sounded like tired banalities coming at any other point in our history — but given what we have just experienced, the familiar phrases that rolled off Biden’s lips sounded fresh and important.
He called for “defending freedom,” “upholding universal rights,” “respecting the rule of law” and “treating every person with dignity,” and he said those principles constitute “our inexhaustible source of strength” and “America’s abiding advantage.” On one level: No kidding. So what else is new? But on another level: Thank goodness he’s saying it! I felt like cheering while Biden was talking. Those are all concepts we once took for granted yet are now badly in need of articulation after Trump trashed them.
So, too, there was something deeply comforting in Biden, first, admitting that we must address “global challenges” ranging from “the pandemic to the climate crisis” and, second, asserting that these challenges will only “be solved by nations working together and in common.” This is not exactly a blinding insight, but we can no longer take anything for granted. Trump, too often, treated climate change as a hoax and the pandemic as a plot to depress his popularity ratings.
Biden also struck an “old is new” chord by calling out Russian dictator Vladimir Putin: “I made it clear to President Putin in a manner very different from my predecessor that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions — interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens — are over.” He didn’t have a lot of specifics to offer — he did not unveil any new sanctions on Putin and his gang — but simply the fact that he spoke the truth about Russian attacks and demanded that Putin release jailed dissident Alexei Navalny marks a sharp and welcome break from the recent past.
Biden made clear that Russia isn’t the only dictatorship that is no longer going to receive a blank check from Washington: He announced that the United States will no longer support Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen, which have produced a humanitarian catastrophe.
In a sense, Biden did not break much new ground: He merely said the kinds of things that any president before Trump would have said. But to hear them now, after four years of unhinged rhetoric and actions, is novel and newsworthy.
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