President Joe Biden gave his first major foreign policy speech (full text) on Thursday during a visit to the Department of State, where he also met with new Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Declaring that “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” Biden scanned the horizon of challenges, from the coup in Myanmar, to the conflict in Yemen, to Russia and China, the pandemic, climate change, the refugee crisis, human rights abuses against the LGBTQ community, and the need to restore and reinvigorate America’s alliances to address those and many more issues that affect American security and national interests.
Below, top former diplomats and experts in human rights and international security offer their analysis of his remarks.
Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley (@AmbGinaAW), former U.S. Ambassador to Malta; she has also held senior positions at the Defense Department and National Security Council:
“America is back!” President Biden’s first foreign policy speech was balm to those who despaired of the short sightedness of an aggressive America first (and only) policy. Working with partners has been a proven way to amplify our own power and priorities. And the American people can expect dividends from the president putting the full force of the brilliance and dedication of our diplomatic corps to work on our international challenges.
Several messages included in his remarks were important symbols to the world of where we stand and what we stand for. America will again work to share in supporting the world‘s refugees. Americans who have been horrified at the humanitarian disaster that has unfolded in Yemen will be deeply gratified and relieved to hear we will extricate ourselves from that tragedy and refocus on a diplomatic solution. And everyone should welcome the new focus on ensuring that our foreign policy serves the American people. All of us. He made clear that all Americans are welcome to serve and should expect equitable treatment and opportunity.
New: E. Tendayi Achiume, UN Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Racism; Professor at UCLA School of Law; Just Security Board of Editors:
President Biden’s remarks underscored his administration’s distinctive and welcome break from the Trump administration’s foreign policy on a number of important issues. From rejoining the World Health Organization to the Paris Climate Agreement, he offered a number of examples illustrating a claim important enough it bore repeating: “America is back. America is back.”
For the global order and many of the most oppressed within it, there are many ways in which a Biden-led America is worlds safer than a Trump-led America. But what this transition will mean concretely for groups such as Palestinians subject to expanding unlawful Israeli settlements in the West Bank or Uighurs in China remains to be seem. At a more general level, while President Biden’s speech emphasizes a return to a global order with U.S. diplomacy at the helm, a return to the status quo ante—to American empire in the pre-Trump era—is cause for concern. It will certainly be important to beat back rising illiberalism, fascism and authoritarianism. But it is just as urgent for President Biden’s administration—along with other global hegemons—fundamentally transform their foreign policy and international engagement to account for the existential threats that have multiplied even under the leadership of the likes of President Obama. Merely going back to the pre-Trump order of things will be both insufficient and dangerous.
With respect to climate, experts widely agree, for example, that the Paris Climate Agreement is not enough to avoid the catastrophic horizons currently confronting the planet. Global and regional economic inequality, intimately connected to the foreign and domestic policies of the United States and other hegemons, had been growing increasingly untenable, even prior to the rise of the likes of Trump, or to Brexit and other visible flashpoints of a shifting liberal order. The human rights implications of a global counterterrorism machinery driven in large part by the United States have been alarming for decades. Many will rightly welcome President Biden’s commitment to raise refugee admissions to 125,000 a year, for example. It is a significant change relative to President Trump’s policy. But it remains woefully inadequate given the scale of global displacement, and in a world where a country like Lebanon has hosted Syrian refugees amounting to a quarter of its population for a few years shy of a decade. A return to the status quo ante of U.S. foreign policy—even with a recommitment to diplomacy, and values such as freedom and democracy—simply will not suffice.
Ambassador Eileen Donahoe (@EileenDonahoe), Executive Director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPI) at Stanford University; former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council; Just Security Advisory Board:
From my vantage point, there were three significant themes in President Biden’s speech at the Department of State.
First, President Biden sent a stark warning to our autocratic adversaries, most notably Russia and China, that they can expect the U.S. to confront them more directly and impose consequences for activities that undermine U.S. interests, particularly “grey zone” type activities that have escaped penalties in the past.
Second, he made the point that diplomacy is a primary vehicle for advancing U.S. interest and that his administration will invest significant resources in the international diplomatic realm, especially to address transnational challenges like pandemics and climate change.
Third, the president closed the speech with a subtle theme about the importance of American leadership on the world stage, not just to advance U.S. interests but to advance the interests of the democratic world. In effect, the president signaled that he will not retreat from the belief that the exercise of U.S. leadership contributes to global progress and good in the world.
This was perhaps the most significant point. President Biden knows he faces a delicate task of balancing a sense of humility with a sense of urgency, when it comes to restoring U.S. leadership around the world. The Trump administration not only ceded our traditional global leadership role on democracy and human rights — it contributed to the erosion of these core values at home and abroad. In the aftermath of the January 6 assault on the Capitol, our foreign adversaries were quick to comment on the need for the U.S. to focus domestically before criticizing others. The spectacle of an insurrection in the United States on January 6 provided an easy opportunity for Russia and China to suggest that the U.S. should cancel plans to host a Summit on Democracy. President Biden recognizes that domestic and foreign leadership are intricately intertwined. In this speech, however, he signaled that he has no intention of retreating from global leadership on democracy and human rights, even as we have lots of work to do at home.
Brian Egan, Partner at Steptoe & Johnson LLP; former Legal Adviser to the State Department and Legal Adviser to the National Security Council; Just Security Board of Editors:
President Biden delivered a wide-ranging 20-minute speech, hitting many of the foreign policy points from his inaugural address and cataloging the many changes to U.S. foreign policy under the Biden administration that are already underway. “Diplomacy is back” was the theme running through the president’s remarks, with strong criticism of the prior administration’s “neglect” and “abuse” of relations between the U.S. and its closest allies. Among many early initiatives and changes, President Biden noted the United States’ rejoining the Paris Agreement and re-engagement with the World Health Organization, a pause on U.S. troop withdrawal from Germany, a reinvigorated diplomatic effort to end the civil war in Yemen, and a commitment to restore U.S. “moral leadership on refugee issues” by rolling back the reductions in refugee admissions that were engineered by the Trump administration.
On Russia, President Biden characterized yesterday’s extension of the New START treaty between the United States and Russia as an important preservation of “the only remaining treaty between our countries safeguarding nuclear stability.” On Burma (Myanmar), President Biden noted the international (and, in Washington, bipartisan) condemnation of the military coup, vowing to “impose consequences” on those responsible. President Biden chose his words carefully in describing relations with China. He called China “our most serious competitor” and cited “the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States,” expressing readiness to “confront” China while also being “ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interests to do so.”
Biden closed by tying U.S. foreign policy to domestic interests, which will be one of many challenges for the new administration. He cited the “Buy America” executive order as one tool designed to align U.S. domestic and foreign policy interests. In a line that combined the complaint-speak of the Trump administration with the boundless optimism of the Obama team, President Biden declared that “if the rules of international trade aren’t stacked against us” and “if our workers and intellectual property are protected” then “there’s no country on earth that can match us.”
Ambassador Keith M. Harper (@AmbHarper), Partner at Jenner & Block and Non-Resident Fellow at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs; former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council:
President Biden today delivered his first major foreign policy address and what was so remarkable about it was how well it thematically fit in the ordinary traditions of the United States. The president spoke of a commitment to promoting “America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” President Biden reminded us of the dedicated men and women of the State Department, how they are our nation’s face around the world and how we, as Americans, owe a debt of gratitude to their service and the service of their families. He also affirmed a truism that many of us who have served know in our bones is that “America’s alliances are our greatest asset.”
What is striking about this speech, its extraordinary quality is how ordinary it would be for an American President prior to these last four years. That is not to say it was not important – it was vital, essential. The world had to understand – had to hear it from our leader – that we were “back” and that we continued to embrace the fundamentals and our first principles. The world needed to be reassured of this because our traditional support of these values, norms and institutions have been wholly absent for four years. We have lived in a world where our likemindeds in NATO are more apt to be criticized than gross and systematic human rights abusers like Kim Jong Un in DPRK and mass killers such as President Duterte in the Philippines. There was an abrupt and disheartening abandonment of what role America plays in global relations. And in this speech, President Biden assured that we are back, not in mere platonic statements but in calls for specific actions such as with Yemen and Burma.
This speech was the setting forth of the continuing vitality of the principles which will drive our approach as a nation in international affairs and national security. It embodied moral clarity. It was the essential reset. But now comes the hard part. The rest of the world is skeptical of us – understandably so – precisely because of our unprecedented departure over the last four long years from our core tenets as a nation and our fundamental motivation to be a source of security, stability and ultimately prosperity. It is hard to blame them. And we will have to work to build back the trust of allies. This counsels a particular approach – one we may not be as used to: humility. Nations around the world understand the power of the United States – that is never in doubt. What they need to see now is our embrace of working with the international community, especially through multilateral organizations to address the greatest challenges the world faces – climate change, the continuing pandemic, nuclear arms, growing autocracy.
President Biden started us today on a long journey of recovery and renewal. It should be seen as speech that will give comfort to our friends and spark dread in rights abusers and international norm violators the world over.
Stephen Holmes, Faculty Director of the Reiss Center on Law and Security and the Walter E. Meyer Professor of Law at NYU School of Law:
There are two not-so-hidden ironies in Biden’s refrain about the U.S. leading by the power of its example.
First, what his across-the-board reversal of Trump administration policies most potently exemplifies is the spectacular vulnerability of American foreign policy to night-and-day convulsions every four or eight years. The effect of this built-in possibility of fixed-calendar policy flip-flops on the behavior of our allies and adversaries is not obvious, however. On the one hand, it is sure to raise doubts about the wisdom of relying on Biden administration promises or threats. On the other hand, it may create a sense of urgency among Europeans, for instance, about nailing down, when possible, sensible arrangements that could not easily be reversed should another or the same mentally unbalanced president be elected in the next round.
Second, the country’s exemplary failure to conduct a peaceful transfer of power in 2020-2021 is bound to cast a pall over American democracy-promotion efforts abroad despite Biden’s apparent desire to see them continued. Something similar can be said about the derogatory effect of well-publicized police misbehavior throughout the country on America’s once vaunted reputation as a defender of human rights. The paucity of instruments available to the U.S. to fight tyranny and oppression in China, moreover, makes promises to do so seem more an attempt to re-normalize American talking points than to prevent the mistreatment of Uyghurs or any other group.
Biden’s promise to “repair” our damaged alliances raises the question of how the U.S.’s relations with its allies will need to change to confront the challenges of tomorrow. That “an alliance” can no longer be 60 countries that do what we tell them is obvious. This is a cause for some optimism, it seems to me, because it means that circumstances alone will make it impossible for this seasoned foreign-policy team to return to the status quo ante, however desirable that might at first seem. The world before Trump is gone forever. That means that American diplomacy is going to be compelled to take an imaginative, out-of-the-box approach to defining America’s new role and place in the world. Our own struggles with authoritarian nativism and xenophobia should also steer our diplomats away from lecturing other countries in counterproductive ways. Simply reverting to familiar patterns, however appealing that might initially appear to the highly skilled professionals now celebrating the return of “normality,” is not really an option. That is all to the good. A time for some serious rethinking has arrived.
Finally, the decision to starve the horrendous Yemen conflict of American weaponry was the most substantive and most welcome message of the speech.
Ambassador Susan Page (@susandpage), Professor at University of Michigan Law School; former Ambassador to South Sudan; former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations in Haiti:
President Biden’s first foreign policy speech focused on “Diplomacy First” rather than the “America First” policy approach followed by his predecessor. Biden began his remarks mentioning the number of allies and friends with whom he had spoken since he took office. He emphasized the importance of re-forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances. “Leading with diplomacy,” Biden explained, “means we should engage with our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically, where it’s in our interest, to advance the security of the American people.”
Biden announced that “we must start with diplomacy, rooted in America’s cherished values of defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, and respecting the rule of law.” Going further, Biden told his audience that to successfully reassert U.S. diplomacy and to keep Americans safe, prosperous and free, “We must restore the health and morale of our foreign policy institutions.” President Biden then told State Department employees that he values their expertise and “will have your back.” “This administration,” he said, is going “to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you.”
Biden recognized that many of the U.S.’s own values have come under attack in recent years, but argued that the American people would emerge stronger, more determined and better equipped to defend democracy “because we have fought for it ourselves.” Importantly, President Biden acknowledged that to further repair the U.S.’s moral leadership, his administration has already taken steps “to live our democratic values at home” and to course correct our foreign policy and democratic values with U.S. diplomatic leadership. To begin, he said, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will lead a global posture review of forces so that the U.S. military footprint is appropriately aligned with U.S. foreign policy and national security priorities, in coordination with all national security agencies. While the review is underway, Biden stated, all troop withdrawals from Germany “are suspended.”
On Yemen, Secretary of State Blinken had just appointed Tim Lenderking as Special Envoy to “use his diplomatic skills” to support the U.N.-led cease-fire, work to open humanitarian corridors, and restore long dormant peace talks to find a diplomatic solution to end the war. Biden also announced an end to U.S. support for all offensive action in the war in Yemen, “including relevant arms sales.” Biden addressed the current challenges in Myanmar (which he called Burma), Russia, and China.
In focusing on additional steps the U.S. must take at home, Biden stated that ridding the country of systemic racism and the scourge of white supremacy “has to be the business of all our institutions.” Biden remarked that upon taking office, he immediately signed an executive order overturning the “hateful, discriminatory Muslim ban,” reversed the ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military, and began holding daily press briefings from the White House as a demonstration of his administration’s “commitment to truth, transparency, and accountability.” He emphasized that a free press, based on facts and evidence “is essential.” Biden also announced his approval of an executive order to begin restoring refugee admission numbers to 125,000 admissions.
Biden’s focus on “Diplomacy First,” along with his commitment to actualize democratic values within the U.S., will go a long way toward a more realistic and holistic U.S. foreign policy, military posture, and national security that works better for the American people and the U.S.’s standing on the world stage.
Kenneth Roth (@KenRoth), Executive Director of Human Rights Watch:
After four years of watching former U.S. President Donald Trump cozy up to friendly autocrats, it was heartening to hear President Joe Biden vow to stand up for democracy and human rights around the world. Human rights were central to the vision he articulated in declaring that “America is back.”
He promised to stand up to the Chinese government’s global attacks on human rights, to push the Russian government to release Alexei Navalny, and to impose “consequences” for the military coup in Myanmar. He also connected the defense of human rights at home to the effectiveness of U.S. promotion of human rights abroad.
In his biggest policy announcement, he said the U.S. government would end support for offensive operations in Yemen. That’s an important step, given the Saudi-led coalition’s disturbing pattern of using U.S. precision weapons and intelligence to hit Yemeni civilian targets such as markets, funerals, and even a school bus. Trump closed his eyes to all that in the name of (illusory) U.S. jobs. Biden rightfully will have nothing to do with it.
Biden noted that the U.S. government would continue to help Saudi Arabia to defend itself from missile and drone attacks. But he didn’t address other abuses by one-time members of the Saudi-led coalition, such as the United Arab Emirates, which has been supporting highly abusive forces in Libya. The U.S. government should have nothing to do with that, either.
Biden addressed the importance of alliances and partnerships. While Trump largely abandoned the defense of human rights, other governments came to the fore—Latin American democracies on Venezuela, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation for Rohingya Muslims, various Western governments on China, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, among others. Arguably, the defense of human rights is more powerful today than four years ago because it is more genuinely global. The U.S. government’s task is to join that multilateral effort, not supplant it.
Despite Biden’s rightful endorsement of international institutions, he left two key human rights bodies dangling. He trumpeted the U.S. government’s rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement and its re-embrace of the World Health Organization but said nothing about re-engaging with the United Nations Human Rights Council, which Trump abandoned, or lifting Trump’s outrageous sanctions on the International Criminal Court, an affront to the rule of law.
With the U.N. Security Council often stymied by the Russian and Chinese vetoes, the Human Rights Council has frequently been the most important source of multilateral pressure on highly abusive governments. And the International Criminal Court—which just hours before Biden’s speech convicted a notorious commander of Uganda’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army—represents an international commitment to fight impunity for mass atrocities. For the U.S. government to join with its democratic partners in defending human rights, re-engaging with these two core human rights institutions should be a central part of the plan.
Ambassador Donald Steinberg (@dksteinberg), Executive Director of Mobilizing Men as Partners for Women, Peace and Security; former Deputy Administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development; and former U.S. Ambassador to Angola:
On Jan. 21, the day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration as president, alarms were sounding among advocates for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). President Biden had not followed the example of his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, by immediately rescinding the Global Gag Rule on his first day in office. Further, in a briefing to the World Health Organization, Dr. Anthony Fauci had used language that seemed to backtrack on progress achieved under the Obama administration. A colleague wrote to me, “We are disappointed, and frankly angry, by the proposal to do the minimum expected of a Democratic administration, not ‘building back better’.”
This was fully understandable. The American people, and especially we in the advocacy community, have become so deeply distrustful of those in power that the idea of President Biden backtracking on his long-standing principled commitments to sexual and reproductive health and rights became plausible.
A week later, I got another message from the same colleague in response to President Biden’s actions that day: “We are thrilled with the presidential memorandum on SRHR. It was not our ‘dream’ Executive Order, but it was not business as usual. To have the Biden administration state that it is U.S. policy to support SRHR in the order to rescind the global gag rule is meaningful and significant, as was his putting in motion the U.S. retreat from the Geneva Consensus.” (The Geneva Consensus is a U.S.-sponsored extreme anti-abortion declaration issued by 34 countries in October 2020.)
I thought of this exchange when listening to President Biden’s speech today outlining new directions for American foreign policy on such vital issues as global health, climate change, arms control, China, Russia, Yemen, democracy and human rights, global development, and the importance of U.S. alliances. It was encouraging to hear ideas that both take us back to status quo ante Trump and propel us forward to face new challenges. But even more striking was the clear message of a return to predictability, principles, partnership, and patience.
I was reminded what it is like to have an administration that does what it said it would; that has basic guiding principles reflected consistently in policy; that does not deceive or over-promise; that values multilateralism; and that has a maturity and sense of history that does not demand immediate results.
Having professional interlocutors does not mean the advocacy community can let up. Indeed, it bestows an even greater responsibility when you know that rational, responsible policymakers are listening and weighing these arguments against other priorities and pressures. While immigrant rights proponents were disappointed by President Biden’s decision to “study” rather than “rescind” the so-called Remain in Mexico policy, for example, we understood the decision reflected prudent concern about launching waves of new migrants, rather than a xenophobic and anti-migrant rights philosophy.
On sexual and reproductive rights and health care, too, the job is far from over. For example, the Biden administration should put its full weight behind the repeal of the Helms Amendment, which has resulted in a total ban on U.S. assistance for any abortion services or counseling abroad, even in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother.
For nearly a half century, this malign provision each year has driven more than 35 million women — mostly poor and women of color — to have unsafe abortions and resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. The politics of abortion on Capitol Hill will make this a formidable challenge, as was made clear again today by the introduction of even more draconian restrictions on a woman’s reproductive rights by several Senators. But as we press the administration to help, we know at least that our interlocutors share our commitment to the principles of women’s rights and empowerment. It is a refreshing change.
Image: US President Joe Biden, with US Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, DC, on Feb. 4, 2021. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)