When President-elect Joe Biden introduced his national security team last week, a line that received almost no attention defined what may be the most important challenge confronting his able group of experienced professionals.
Talk of a “foreign policy for the middle class” may sound like campaign boilerplate, but it accurately describes one of the central obligations this band of liberal internationalists has assumed. They need to demonstrate to Americans on Main Street that the diplomats in Foggy Bottom have their interests in mind.
The praise for Biden’s choices is certainly deserved. Antony Blinken, his secretary of state-designate, and Sullivan are not only smart and tested; they have also thought hard about what has and hasn’t worked in U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades. Both are deeply committed small-d democrats who understand that foreign policy realism won’t work if it is utterly disconnected from a commitment to democracy and human rights.
And Biden’s selection of Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations is inspired, and not just because you have to appreciate her commitment to “Gumbo diplomacy.” Her deep experience in Africa makes her the right person for the job at a moment when the United States is lagging China in the quest for influence on that continent.
At last week’s news conference, Thomas-Greenfield declared boldly: “America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.”
Yes, they are — for now. But the incoming administration needs to ponder why President Trump’s nationalism took hold. Part of it was voters’ sheer exhaustion with foreign military entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan. But over many years, there was also a rising and justifiable suspicion in our nation’s struggling communities that foreign policy elites didn’t really give a damn about how their decisions affected the lives and livelihoods of their fellow citizens.
Some of this had to do with trade policy. The loss of manufacturing jobs to China after its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization helped foster the Midwestern backlash that culminated in Trump’s electoral-college victory 15 years later. More broadly, there was little in the foreign policy conversation that related diplomatic statecraft to the construction of a decent society at home.
Here is where Biden and his colleagues can take a cue from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Sanders spoke of a foreign policy based on “shared prosperity, security and dignity for all people,” while Warren argued that “Washington’s focus has shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites.”
Ganesh Sitaraman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and a Warren adviser, argued for a new outlook that moved concern for the domestic economy from the periphery of foreign policy analysis to its center.
One need not agree with Warren or Sanders on everything to accept that the long-term durability of an internationalist foreign policy depends on reviving public confidence that its architects regard the home front as more than an afterthought. It’s worth remembering that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman — the presidents who built the post-World War II alliance systems and an impressive array of international organizations — inspired confidence among U.S. workers that they had their backs.
There is reason to hope Team Biden is thinking along these lines. Sullivan has argued for applying New Deal lessons to the 21st century and for paying particular attention to “the geography of opportunity so that all regions experience a middle-class revival.” He is unlikely to forget these commitments in his new job.
And Janet Yellen, Biden’s pick for treasury secretary, was far ahead of the conventional wisdom in warning that “globalization and skill-biased technological change may have been working in combination to particularly depress the wage gains of those in the middle of the U.S. wage distribution.” She said this in 2006. We might have avoided the Trump experiment if more people had heeded her warning. Wage earners can know that she is looking out for them.
It is a genuine relief that the incoming president understands the importance of alliances with democratic nations, views strongmen abroad with suspicion rather than envy and sees foreign policy as more than a disjointed series of transactions. But to maintain support for his vision, Biden will have to stay focused on the people who hired him.