The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden attacks Trump’s foreign policy as an embarrassment

Former vice president and 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden said on July 11 that the world sees President Trump as "insincere, ill-informed and impulsive." (Video: AP)

NEW YORK — Joe Biden used the first big foreign policy speech of his presidential run to blast President Trump for embracing autocrats and promise that his administration would make the defense of democracy the center of its foreign policy.

He accused Trump of “walking away from American responsibility, lying about matters big and small” and bankrupting “America’s word.”

“He has alienated us,” Biden said of Trump on Thursday.

Biden’s alternative largely involved a return to traditional American principles such as the promotion of democracy and cooperation with allies. Instead of focusing exclusively on the United States’ unilateral interests, he spoke of a return to spreading American values.

“No army on Earth can match the electric idea of liberty,” Biden said in his speech at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. “It jumps borders and transcends languages. And can supercharge communities, ordinary citizens and activists. We must once more harness that power and rally the free world.”

Biden’s speech was short on new foreign policy ideas, bold visions or even detailed proposals. Rather, as he has throughout the early days of his presidential run, he promised a return to normalcy and the broad outlines of Obama administration policy after four years of Trump. The speech prioritized earnestness over excitement or even applause lines, of which there were few.

The former vice president twice drew modest applause, for proposing an end to American involvement in the war in Yemen and promising a return to the Paris accords on climate change, along with renewed investment in green technology.

The only new idea in Biden’s speech was a pledge to convene a meeting of the world’s democracies, civil-society groups and social media companies within the first months of his presidency. The goal, he said, would be to inspire a “renewal . . . of shared purpose” among the world’s democracies at a time when autocracy seems on the march.

Biden said he would demand that world leaders at the summit make pledges to fight corruption and advance human rights in their countries. Social media companies, he said, would be asked to work harder to “ensure their algorithms and platforms are not used to sow division” or enable autocratic surveillance states.

For the candidates at the top of the presidential polls, a big foreign policy speech has become a requirement, and that is especially true for Biden, who has made his decades of experience in Washington and internationally the core rationale of his campaign. Biden, however, delivered a speech that was less daring and disruptive than those offered by his challengers.

One theme of the competitors’ addresses has been to stress that the failures of American foreign policy predate Trump’s wrecking-ball approach to U.S. alliances and his embrace of authoritarians. “Much was already broken when this president arrived, and he immediately set about smashing whatever remained,” Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said in a speech last month.

“It has been difficult to identify a consistent foreign policy in the Democratic Party,” Buttigieg said of his party’s drift over the past two decades, a period that covers decisions by President Barack Obama and then-Vice President Biden.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) hit a similar note. “While it’s easy to blame President Trump for our problems, the truth is that our challenges began long before him,” she said in her foreign policy speech last fall.

Biden, who was a key figure in shaping Obama’s foreign policy vision, cannot represent a clean break from a Democratic foreign-policy past built around big trade deals intended to bolster the U.S. economy and extend democracy to places such as China and Russia. He supported that approach as vice president and earlier in the Senate.

“Wow! Did Washington get that one wrong!” Warren mused, regarding free trade as a democratizing force.

Instead of promising a war on “global oligarchy,” like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), or “new rules for global capitalism in the 21st century,” like Warren, Biden offered up practical, moderate and incremental solutions, such as greater investments in clean-energy technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing. He vowed to make sure “the rules of the international economy are not rigged against us. . . . When American businesses are on an even playing field, we win.”

And he promised to restore the United States’ global leadership role, which Trump had often cast as a burden and drag on the American economy. “The world does not organize itself, and if we do not shape it . . . some nation will step into the vacuum,” or no one will and “chaos will prevail,” Biden said.

Biden’s delivery throughout the speech was staid, and he occasionally seemed to stumble over his words. He became most animated when attacking Trump, who he described as the biggest threat to the country’s interests abroad.

Before he stepped on the stage in New York City, Biden’s campaign tweeted a 90-second video attacking Trump that began with footage of U.N. delegates laughing at the president in New York last fall. Biden then spent the first five minutes of his speech detailing what he said were Trump’s failings as commander in chief.

“The threat that I believe that President Trump poses to our national security and to our country is extreme,” he said. Biden cited Trump’s words in the aftermath of a 2017 neo-Nazi and white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville that erupted into violence.

Trump said that there had been good people “on both sides” of the violence.

Biden also slammed Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the president’s tendency to believe the Russian leader’s word over the findings of his intelligence agencies. He called Trump’s summit news conference with Putin last year in Helsinki “one of the most shameful performances by American presidents in history.”

The former vice president called the current president “dangerously incompetent and incapable of world leadership” and promised that once he was president that there would be “no more Charlottesvilles and no more Helsinkis.”

Biden was particularly scathing regarding Trump’s attacks on international trade agreements and his approach to NATO, which he said Trump has treated “like some sort of American-led protection racket.”

“Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ has too often led to America alone,” he continued, invoking the president’s foreign policy slogan.

Instead of new ideas, Biden stressed decades-old Democratic foreign policy principles and his experience in the Senate and the White House. He recalled his work in particular on nuclear nonproliferation, which dates to the 1970s and treaty agreements with the now-disappeared Soviet Union.

“I’ve worked on these issues my entire career. I understand what’s at stake,” he said. “And I understand the consequences of failing to act.”

Like virtually all of the candidates, he talked about reconnecting U.S. foreign policy to the needs of its middle class rather than those of wealthy corporations. But like most of his fellow challengers on the campaign trail, he provided few details as to what that actually would mean. “There’s not going to be a back-to-business-as-usual on trade,” he said. “We need new rules and processes.”

There were nods in Biden’s speech to new threats in the cyber realm and promises to protect the U.S. election system from foreign interference. But much of Biden’s speech was characterized by a nostalgia for the days when the United States’ leadership role was unquestioned.

“We’ll be back. We’ll be back,” he promised an audience of diplomats and foreign policy experts earlier this year in Munich.

In New York, Biden offered a similar message, calling for “more openness, not less, more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances, more democracy.” All were taken as unquestioned bedrocks of American foreign policy by Republicans and Democrats only a few years ago. Now, Biden said, all seem under threat.

John Wagner in Washington contributed to this report.