The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden’s foreign policy aims to ‘win the 21st century’

Here are the moments President Biden focused on foreign policy during his first address to Congress on April 28. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

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In his first address to a joint session of Congress, marking his first 100 days in office, President Biden heralded his aim for the United States to “win the 21st century.” He spoke of a country that had “stared into an abyss of autocracy and insurrection, pandemic and pain,” but now was already on the way to renewal and uplift. Biden touted his ambitious proposals involving multitrillion-dollar legislation that would dramatically revamp the U.S. economy through investments in jobs, infrastructure and a far deeper social safety net. “We have to show not just that we are back, but that we are here to stay,” he said.

Biden framed the need for such transformation not simply in domestic terms, but as a plank of American foreign policy. Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden said, is “deadly earnest about [China] becoming the most significant and consequential nation in the world,” and America’s adversaries see the country’s political polarization and social inequities as “proof that the sun is setting on American democracy.” The president countered that “we have to prove democracy still works. That our government still works — and can deliver for the people.“

Even if foreign policy plays second fiddle to its domestic agenda, the Biden administration has had a busy first three months. Upon taking office, Biden initiated a slate of moves aimed at reversing President Donald Trump’s record of aggressive nationalism. He restored U.S. participation in the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, while working to salvage the wrecked nuclear deal with Iran. Biden has a major international summit on climate under his belt, perhaps the biggest marker of the reinvigorated American leadership he promised on the world stage.

“I wanted the world to see that there is consensus that we are at an inflection point in history,” Biden said. “And the consensus is if we act, we can save the planet — and we can create millions of jobs and economic growth and opportunity to raise the standard of living for everyone in the world.”

Biden also emphasized his commitment to reinvigorating alliances strained by Trump. “We aren’t going it alone — we’re going to be leading with our allies,” he said Wednesday. “No one nation can deal with all the crises of our time alone — from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to mass migration, cybersecurity, climate change — and, as we’re experiencing now, pandemics.”

Some of the United States’ traditional allies are already breathing a sigh of relief. “We felt the change in atmosphere from day one,” an E.U. diplomat told CNN. “Trying to get [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo to attend E.U. foreign minister meetings or Trump’s inner circle to coordinate on policy areas was very painful. But since the Biden administration has been in place, there have been discussions between diplomats on an almost daily basis.”

Of course, it’s early. Numerous senior positions in agencies tasked with the work of American foreign policy are yet to be filled. Biden is, to a certain degree, still unwinding the effects of Trump’s last 100 days — including a series of punitive measures against Iran and Cuba intended to complicate matters for the incoming administration — as much as he is trying to set new precedents. “President Biden’s first 100 days in foreign policy have been more about undoing than doing — fixing the messes he inherited but not yet building a new strategy,” wrote Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who sees the president charting a moderate course, aware of “the limits of U.S. power,” but also fine-tuning ways to better project it.

Critics on the right have attacked Biden and his Democratic allies with a familiar script, accusing them of weakness on Iran, magical thinking on climate action and softness against long-standing adversaries. “Afghanistan’s going to fall apart,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in an interview with Fox News, gesturing to Biden’s plans to fully withdraw U.S. forces by September after two decades of war. “Russia and China are already pushing him around, so I’m very worried.”

Critics on the left, meanwhile, have their own bones to pick. They want to see tougher measures against human rights-abusing regimes, stricter oversight of where the United States sells its arms, and the dissipation of talk of a new “Cold War” with China. On some of these fronts, Biden has demonstrated a degree of continuity with the Trump administration that makes more left-leaning Democrats uncomfortable.

“Biden and a seasoned group of foreign policy aides — most of them fellow veterans of the Obama administration — have set out on a rewrite of the Trump years that retains some of his populist focus on American jobs and some of his protectionist trade tariffs as well,” wrote my colleague Anne Gearan, adding that “Biden’s international agenda is defined by caution in most areas and conservation of American power for big-ticket priorities.”

Climate is at the top of that list, but so too is China. Biden linked the pullout from Afghanistan to a need for the United States to shift its strategic resources and efforts further east. Analysts see his administration broadly picking up the baton left behind by his predecessor. “In the first 100 days the emphasis has been on confrontation, with competition also being prominent,” noted David Dollar of the Brookings Institution. “There is little evidence of cooperation, the one exception being Xi Jinping’s participation in Biden’s virtual climate summit.”

Biden officials stress that, in a departure from Trump’s erratic unilateralism, they are working to bring as many allies as possible with them in a broader reckoning with China. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was the first foreign leader to meet face-to-face with Biden in the White House. Top administration officials have already made visits to New Delhi, Tokyo and Seoul.

But it’s in Asia, too, where the administration arguably faces its biggest imminent foreign policy challenges. The unprecedented surge in coronavirus cases in India cast an unwelcome spotlight on the slowness with which the United States has pivoted from vaccinating its own population to helping other parts of the world. And the violent coup-making junta in Myanmar remains a glaring challenge for a Biden administration that seeks to more overtly champion human rights and democracy.

“Biden’s State Department’s success will hinge on its multilateral policy success, as a stronger alliance presence was what the campaign billed as differentiating this administration from Trump’s,” Rui Zhong, a China scholar at the Wilson Center, told Today’s WorldView. “In Asia, the Indian covid crisis and Myanmar coups will be the biggest tests that are distinctly Biden-era problems. How they handle these regional issues will be watched carefully by China because the results will indirectly impact America’s self-image as a stabilizing presence in Asia.”

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