The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Real talk about a foreign policy for the middle class

Some thoughts about turning a slogan into a grand strategy

Secretary of State Antony Blinken pauses during a meeting with Icelandic Foreign Minister Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson in Reykjavik, Iceland, on May 18. (Saul Loeb/Pool/AP)
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All incoming administrations have one thing in common: They genuinely want to follow through on their campaign promises. This, by the way, is a rare area where former president Donald Trump is not an outlier. He and his administration tried to take the slogan of “America First” and convert it into an approach to foreign policy. This included trying to build a wall along the southern border, restrict immigration and trade, and pull the United States out of as many multilateral institutions as possible.

For the Biden administration, this means creating a “foreign policy for the middle class.” But what does that mean exactly? To date the Biden administration has been a bit fuzzy about how to flesh out this concept. Part of this might be due to the fact that “middle class” is a tremendously elastic concept. Far more Americans think they are part of the middle class than actually are. This makes it a great term to use for a vague campaign promise and a difficult term to use for policy implementation.

Still, if I had to think about what a foreign policy for the middle class would look like, I would ground any grand strategy around three basic points.

First, foreign policy does not materially affect the middle class all that much. The Biden administration’s interim strategic guidance says that “trade policy must grow the American middle class, create new and better jobs, raise wages, and strengthen communities.” The thing is, no trade policy in the world can do that, because no trade policy has effects of that magnitude. The United States has been growing more disengaged from the global economy. Trade has been assigned an outsize role in affecting the middle class when, in point of fact, it is the lack of a U.S. social safety net that bears a much larger brunt of the blame. It is not a coincidence that in President Biden’s joint address to Congress, he referred to a long list of domestic investments and called that his foreign policy for the middle class.

This holds with even greater force for the security dimensions of foreign policy. The middle class might have opinions on NATO or the Afghanistan withdrawal or nuclear arms control, but none of those things materially affect their day-to-day lives.

Second, remember what the middle class says it wants. On the security side of the ledger, the middle class seems to like U.S. alliances and multilateral institutions. So does the Biden administration. Unity!

On the economic side, the disjuncture is more apparent. The Biden administration has chosen to walk away from trade liberalization even as the American public reacted to the Trump presidency by demonstrating again and again and again in polling that they are pretty enthusiastic about an open global economy. Gallup’s most recent poll shows that the coalition that voted Biden into office remains very enthusiastic about freer trade.

It is also true that the middle-class Americans who support freer trade probably do not feel as strongly about the issue as the middle-class Americans who want more protectionism. That problem of diffuse support and concentrated opposition helps to explain why the Biden administration seems determined to articulate Trumpism with a human face.

Finally, a foreign policy for the middle class should focus on security in all its forms. The past year and change is replete with massive supply and demand shocks that have caused more economic volatility than I have seen in my lifetime. A year ago, middle-class Americans were concerned about the dearth of toilet paper and personal protective equipment. A month ago, it was the possible supply-chain implications of a ship getting stuck in the Suez Canal. A week ago, it was the possibility of gas pumps running dry because of a foreign ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline. These events impact the middle class far more than, say, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

In some of these instances, the fear of what would happen proved to be exaggerated. In others, panicked responses helped to exacerbate the situation. This has led my colleague Philip Bump to say that middle-class Americans have lost their chill.

Much as the Federal Reserve can act as the lender of last resort and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve can smooth over disruptions in oil markets, the federal government needs to overhaul and enhance strategic reserves of other commodities in case of future disruptions. Concerns about resiliency are for the long term; in the shorter term, the Biden administration should focus on robustness.

A foreign policy that serves the middle class should reflect middle-class preferences and alleviate middle-class anxieties. This means demonstrating that the United States has recovered its good standing with allies and partners, and will address and alleviate fears that 21st-century asymmetric attacks can cause on the U.S. economy.