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What's the "North Star" for Biden's foreign policy?
The next few days of diplomacy will clarify America’s priorities, but much work remains ahead to craft a strategic narrative
President Joseph Biden is on the first foreign trip of his presidency after spending the opening months prioritizing the pandemic and economic response at home. He and his team set the stage for some foreign policy shifts in speeches and initial game plans, but this trip represents the first big move by the new administration to show the world that “America is back.”
Biden takes this trip just as his domestic agenda priorities such as infrastructure and voting rights have started to hit the potholes of the checks and balances in America’s system and the country’s chronic internal political divisions.
With the spotlight on foreign policy on this trip, the Biden administration has an opportunity to further clarify a new strategic narrative for America’s foreign policy communicating to the world and the American public what America stands for and what its priorities are. In the first few months, the Biden administration has made some important steps in several new directions, but it has not yet put together a central argument that clearly communicates its vision and ambitions.
Real change in U.S. foreign policy is usually incremental, even when power shifts from one party to another and a new president with a fundamentally different worldview and style comes into office.
Here’s a partial list of the national security and foreign policy issues the Biden administration has set out to tackle:
1. The global response to COVID-19
2. “A foreign policy for the middle class”
3. Climate change
4. Competition with China
5. Countering Russia’s actions
6. Enhancing cybersecurity
7. Writing new rules for trade and technology
8. Ensuring the security of supply chains
9. Curtailing corruption globally
10. Advancing a global minimum tax of 15% on multinational corporations
11. Immigration reform
12. Advancing democracy and human rights at home and abroad
13. Countering terrorism and violent extremism at home and abroad
14. Ending wars and conflicts
15. Reforming international and multilateral institutions
16. Advancing new arms control deals, including a new nuclear deal with Iran
Looking at this list, it’s not that different from what previous administrations had on their plates. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
The Biden foreign policy team is very ambitious and skilled, but one challenge it will face is coherence and communicating clearly what it is trying to get done in the world – importantly WHY it matters. That’s the central question when it comes to strategic narrative.
This was a challenge the Obama administration faced unevenly. By the end of his time in office, Obama settled on “don’t do stupid stuff” and spent a lot of time boxing back against the frame set by his critics and events in the world.
President Obama’s approach to strategic narrative, particularly in his second term, underscored a crisis of purpose about U.S. engagement in the world – he often articulated what and how America was going to address particular national security issues, but fell short on the why. He and his team left many Americans and others in the world wondering, “what’s the big idea?”
America’s strategic narrative drift long pre-dated the Trump administration, which only added to the confusion and division, and its roots stretch back decades.
The Biden team has the potential makings of a strategic narrative if you look carefully at recent speeches and Congressional testimonies by administration officials, but no clear through-line is present in part because it’s still early and the center of gravity has been on the home front in the opening months.
At a pre-trip press briefing, Biden national security advisor Jake Sullivan said the trip “will advance the fundamental thrust of Joe Biden’s foreign policy: to rally the world’s democracies to tackle the great challenges of our time.” That’s a pretty good start for a strategic narrative “North Star.”
But it will require working out a lot of details and dealing with incongruities on that list of issues above and communicating the narrative in both deeds and words. Also, recent polls of the American public find that the democracy promotion frame is not as resonant as it used to be in the immediate post-Cold War era.
As the Biden team hones a new strategic narrative, it should keep in mind three important questions:
1. How will it navigate dealing with the global freedom and democratic recession with efforts to achieve progress on global security issues like climate change and the pandemic?
Walter Russell Mead raised these questions in a recent article:
Can the liberal West impose a global order founded on liberal principles that dictators and many populist leaders reject? If not, and global order is the only way to address existential problems, does that mean that the U.S. must play down democratic values and human rights to save the human race? Even as Mr. Biden condemned the Ottoman murders of the Armenians in 1915, will he have to accept Chinese assault on the Uighurs to save the planet?
The Biden team should be able to tease out the answers to these questions because it is driven by pragmatism. Also nothing is static in the world, and there are more changes afoot in the international system, including the potential for the tides of freedom to turn in a positive direction in surprising places.
2. How can it maintain a focus on the “long game” proactive agenda while tending to the “short game” immediate crises that emerge?
The Obama administration’s performance was mixed in facing this challenge, particularly in its second term – how to avoid letting events in the world and critics at home from pushing the administration into a reactive, crisis management posture. Biden’s response to recent conflict between Israel and Hamas offered a good template: he ignored the noisy blowhards on Twitter and focused on getting results.
3. How can it anticipate the impact of America’s continued domestic political turmoil on America’s standing and image abroad?
The ongoing crisis inside of America’s democracy is far from over. The GOP’s fragmentation and collapse into fascism and rejection of America’s democratic values remains a real risk, and the Democratic Party also faces illiberalism within its ranks. Countries around the world are watching what happens closely because events inside of America affect its strategic reliability in the world.
Biden’s current trip abroad won’t answer all of these questions. A new strategic narrative that wins broad support of the American public will not likely emerge anytime soon given all of the variables that go into the equation of constructing one. Plus, it takes more than just the U.S. government to help craft a new strategic narrative. Institutions outside of government can play a vital role, and liberals need new institutions to help tell compelling political stories.
But the actions and words from the Biden administration on this trip – and how America’s own political ecosystem reacts to it – will offer some important indications of which direction America is heading in the world in the years to come.