Biden puts a twist on 'America First' even as he moves to unravel Trump's foreign policy

  • In Politics
  • 2021-02-25 10:36:34Z

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration's national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, recently ticked off the usual suspects when asked to list the gravest threats facing the United States today: China, Iran, Russia.

Moments later, President Joe Biden's national security adviser offered a starkly different response to the same question.

"Right now, the most profound national security challenge facing the United States is getting our own house in order, is domestic renewal," Jake Sullivan said in a "Passing the Baton" forum hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace late last month.

Sullivan's answer signals the Biden administration's approach to foreign policy will acknowledge the appeal of former President Donald Trump's "America First" platform, even if they reject any comparisons.

Sullivan says that to rebuild American global power, the U.S. needs to start by getting the pandemic under control, addressing racial and economic inequities, and strengthening a battered U.S. economy with massive investments in technology and infrastructure.

National Security Advisor nominee Jake Sullivan speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden as he introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
National Security Advisor nominee Jake Sullivan speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden as he introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theatre on November 24, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.  

'Populist tinge' to foreign policy

If it sounds more like domestic policy than foreign affairs, that's no accident - Biden's adviser sees the two as inextricably linked.

"Everything we do in our foreign policy and national security will be measured by a basic metric: Is it going to make life better, safer and easier for working families?" Sullivan said during a Feb. 4 press briefing at the White House.

That's a lofty promise with a nod to reality: Americans feel deeply disconnected and often betrayed by Washington foreign policymakers - particularly the free-trade policies that decimated U.S. manufacturing towns.

In many Midwestern states, Trump tapped into a resentment among voters with his tough talk on China and his promises of an "America First" foreign policy that called for pulling back from "endless wars" and other global commitments.

"President Trump had it right on the divorce between American foreign policy elites and average Americans," says Kenneth Weinstein, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank.

The Biden administration, which calls its approach "foreign policy for the middle class," is trying to give a "populist tinge" to Democratic foreign policy ideals, Weinstein says.

Weinstein says the nub of Trump's approach was a demand for reciprocity from allies, and that struck a chord with American voters that the Biden administration cannot afford to ignore.

In practice, of course, many critics saw Trump's foreign policy as destructive - noting that he alienated allies and undermined U.S. credibility.

Jen Psaki, Biden's chief spokeswoman, bristled at any comparison between Trump and Biden on world affairs.

"I can assure you that this president ... is not looking to the last presidency as the model for his foreign policy," Psaki said earlier this month when asked to explain the administration's "foreign policy for a middle class."

Biden's approach "embraces Trump's most important insight - that the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to make life better for Americans - even as it rejects Trump's divisive nationalism on international trade and U.S. alliances," Edward Alden, an expert on global trade with the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent Foreign Policy magazine piece.

Biden has begun to reverse some of Trump's most controversial foreign policy decisions - rejoining the World Health Organization and Paris climate accords, for example - and vowed to restore America's standing as a global leader.

How the American people feel about its reputation

When it comes to U.S. military engagements, Biden will have to balance what he see as America's national security interests with skepticism among the American public toward foreign conflicts, said Nick Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College.

Americans have soured on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and public opinion is divided about whether the U.S. should be involved in nation-building in those countries.

Exclusive: U.S. counterterrorism efforts touched 85 countries in past 3 years alone

"They're of two minds," said Fran Stewart, an Ohio researcher who interviewed business owners, veterans and state and local government officials as part of a study about how middle-class Americans view U.S. foreign policy.

"On one hand, they don't appreciate going into endless costly wars, because ... in Ohio, we have a lot of families who were sent to serve there," she said. They believe "there's a high price that's been paid for the decisions that were made elsewhere, not made in Ohio."

On the other hand, she said, "they're very sensitive when people start talking about cutting defense spending because they know that ultimately it can affect their own communities, their own jobs."

Military service and jobs in Ohio's defense industry have been a major force in fueling the state's middle class, said Edward Hill, a professor of economic development at Ohio State University, who worked with Stewart as well as Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, on the study, which was spearheaded by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Many previous presidents have found themselves similarly torn between campaign promises to bring American troops home and the fear of leaving the U.S. vulnerable to attack, said Gvosdev, who is also a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council, an international affairs think tank in New York.

MILITARY EMPIRE: U.S. deploys thousands of troops overseas. As nonmilitary threats grow, is that the best defense?

Biden has already paused Trump's order to withdraw of thousands of troops from Germany, seen as a check against Russian aggression.

The Biden administration's idea is to reorient America's role in the world from "being the global cop on the beat" to using America's standing in the world to generate "concrete benefits" for U.S. communities, Gvosdev said.

Polls consistently show that Americans are far more concerned with proximate threats to their physical and economic security than with thorny tribal conflicts, ruthless dictators or any number of other problems abroad.

But that doesn't mean Americans are isolationists.

  • 69% of respondents said the United States should take a "leading" or "major" role in trying to solve international problems, according to a February 2019 Gallup poll

  • 63% of Americans believe it's important for the U.S. to be No. 1 in the world militarily, a February 2020 Gallup survey found

Yet there is disconnect between what Americans view as the most urgent threats facing the country - and what academics and Washington experts see as the top national security concerns.

  • 69% of Americans think terrorism is a major threat to the U.S. compared to just 14% of international relations experts

  • In contrast, 88% of experts say climate change is a major threat, compared to 62% of Americans.

"I think foreign policy is often practiced with the notion that if it's good for the nation, then ultimately it'll be good for communities," Hill said.

But that has not borne out - particularly when it comes to trade policy, which has benefited many U.S. corporations but devastated working families. Hill said the assumption should be flipped.

"If it is good for communities broadly across the country, then the country will benefit," he said.

Competing with China by focusing closer to home

Nowhere will the Biden administration's approach be more pivotal than in dealing with China. Lawmakers in both parties see China's economic, military and technological ambitions as the most urgent national security threat facing the U.S.

Biden argues that the U.S. can't compete with China (or counter Russia and other adversaries) if the American economy is in tatters, its democracy in disarray and its infrastructure dilapidated.

Take, for example, the pandemic, which has exposed the world's reliance on China for basic medical supplies such as masks and other personal protective equipment.

Timothy Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO labor organization, said the pandemic has made foreign policy even more relevant in Ohio and other states hurt by years of globalism, where communities have been ravaged by the erosion in America's manufacturing base and China's predatory trade practices.

"We don't have the ability to make our own personal protective equipment here. That is a national security issue," said Burga, referring to masks, gowns and other medical protective clothing U.S. health care providers had to import from China during the coronavirus pandemic.

During a Feb. 11 meeting with lawmakers on infrastructure, Biden noted that China is already ahead of the U.S. in investing in key technologies, such as high-speed rail and electric vehicles.

"If we don't get moving, they're going to eat our lunch," Biden said of China. "We just have to step up."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Joe Biden's foreign policy: 'America First,' with a twist?


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