Letters From an American

Biden Puts Trump’s Foreign Policy in Reverse

Putting the diplomacy back in diplomacy.

Biden Puts Trump's Foreign Policy in Reverse

Photo by Vladislav Klapin

February 5, 2021

Yet another Friday without a news dump from the federal government (woo hoo!) means that I have the room to highlight something really interesting that was buried in President Biden’s speech at the State Department yesterday afternoon. Not surprisingly, Biden announced a return to a more traditional foreign policy than his predecessor’s. But he did more than that: he tied foreign policy to domestic interests in a way that echoed Republican president Theodore Roosevelt when he helped to launch the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century.

Biden’s predecessor wrenched U.S. foreign policy from the channel in which it had operated since WWII, replacing it with a new focus on the economic interests of business leaders. Trump chose as Secretary of State the former chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, who oversaw the gutting of career officers in the State Department. When the department lost 12% of its foreign-affairs specialists in the first eight months of 2017, it was clear that the Trump administration was abandoning a foreign policy in which the United States tried to defend the idea of democracy and to advance its interests through diplomacy.

Instead, in his first trip overseas, the former president traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he announced the largest single arms deal in American history, worth $110 billion immediately and more than $350 billion over ten years. The White House noted that the deal was “a significant expansion of… [the] security relationship” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

“That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States,” Trump told reporters. “Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs.” Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, cheered the sale.

It was a public relations victory for Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS and the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia at the time, coming as it did just a year after Congress voted to allow the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks to sue the country from which 15 of the 19 hijackers came. It also would increase the U.S. supply of arms to his country’s intervention in Yemen, the country to its south, where a pro-Saudi president had been ousted in 2015 by the Houthi movement, whose members accused him of corruption and ties to Saudi Arabia and the U.S.

In his remarks during his May visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump backed away from the role the United States had claimed to take on since its war with Spain in 1898, aiming to defend democracy around the world. “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” Trump said. “[W]e are here to offer partnership— based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all.”

For the rest of his presidency, Trump worked to weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance among 30 nations of Europe, the U.S., and Canada, formed in 1949 to stop the spread of Soviet, and now Russian, aggression in Europe. Instead, he worked to strengthen U.S. ties to countries with strongman leaders, such as MBS and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He sidestepped career diplomats to run his own, shadow diplomacy out of the White House, tapping his son-in-law Jared Kushner to secure peace in the Middle East, for example, and asking administration officials to pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s son Hunter.

And he continued to sell billions worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, even after Congress halted such transfers as indiscriminate Saudi bombing in Yemen created a deadly humanitarian crisis.

One of the first things Biden did when he took office was to freeze for review $23 billion in pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates negotiated by his predecessor (including 50 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets). Yesterday, he announced he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen.

In his speech to the State Department yesterday Biden immediately indicated that he was restoring traditional American diplomacy. The first thing he did was to acknowledge his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, a career diplomat with a degree from Columbia Law School and a long and impressive resume including work on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

The next thing Biden said was to assure the world that diplomats around the world spoke for the country again: “when you speak, you speak for me.” Later on, he reiterated that idea: “I value your expertise and I respect you, and I will have your back. This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you.”

Biden emphasized that he had spoken to “the leaders of many of our closest friends — Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia — to [begin] reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.” The message he wants the world to hear is: “America is back.  America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”

Also back at the center of American diplomacy are “America’s most cherished democratic values,” Biden said, “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” The case of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned in August and returned to Russia in mid-January only to be thrown into jail, has enabled Biden to illustrate how dramatically his foreign policy differs from that of his predecessor. Biden called on Putin to release Navalny “immediately and without condition.”

Biden outlined his approach to Yemen, China, and Russia… and then he said something that jumped out.

Biden argued that foreign policy is an integral part of domestic policy. It requires that the government address the needs of ordinary Americans. “We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home,” he said. “That’s why my administration has already taken the important step to live our domestic values at home — our democratic values at home.”

This idea—that the U.S. must reform its own society in order to extend the principles of democracy overseas– was precisely the argument Theodore Roosevelt and other reformers made in the late 1890s when they launched the Progressive Era. When Roosevelt became president in 1901, he used this rationale to take the government out of the hands of business interests and use it to protect ordinary Americans.

Roosevelt argued that the government must clean up the cities, educate children, protect workers and consumers, support farmers, and make business pay its fair share. Biden shared his own list on Thursday: ending the so-called Muslim ban, reversing the ban on transgender troops, defending the free press, respecting science, addressing systemic racism and white supremacy, and rebuilding the economy.

“All this matters to foreign policy,” he said, “because when we… rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back… authoritarianism’s advance, we’ll be a much more credible partner because of these efforts to shore up our own foundations.”

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Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson teaches American history at Boston College. She is the author of a number of books, most recently, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America. She writes the popular nightly newsletter Letters from an American. Follow her on Twitter: @HC_Richardson.