A Major Test Period for Biden’s Foreign Policy

The next few weeks will challenge Biden’s efforts to draw a stronger link between his domestic policy agenda and foreign policy approach

President Joe Biden is in Europe on his second overseas trip with an ambitious agenda topped by the international climate conference in Glasgow. Biden will arrive at that conference with a notional and far-reaching framework for climate investments at home, a plan not yet approved by Congress. 

This trip kicks off a new phase in Biden’s foreign policy, one in which what happens at home matters a great deal for shaping what might be possible for his foreign policy. Things that get done at home – as well as the things that don’t get done – will shape how the rest of the world views America and its ability to achieve the goals Biden has set.

Biden spent the first phase of his foreign policy setting a new tone and laying out some initial parameters for where his administration wanted to take things in the world.  A key part of the narrative it has started to construct is emphasizing the link between America’s domestic renewal at home and its engagement in the world, sometimes under the banner of a “foreign policy for the middle class.”  

Just hours before he left on this trip, Biden outlined the stakes for his domestic agenda, including infrastructure and social safety net investments before Congress, in a face-to-face meeting with fractious Democrats.  He made clear that his presidency hangs in the balance, plus any chance for Democrats to maintain control in next year’s mid-term election, slim as they already seem.  At least twice in the meeting Biden reportedly told Democrats, “The rest of the world wonders whether we can function. Not a joke.”

The confluence of a pivotal moment in Biden’s domestic renewal agenda and this European trip comes after the rockiest period of his young presidency with a number of unforced errors on the foreign policy front, including the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and bungled rollout of a new security agreement with Australia and Great Britain that rankled some other allies.  This rough patch coincided with new worries about the economy and the pandemic. All of these factors contributed to declines in Biden’s public support at home, especially among independent voters

Heading into the closing months of his first year in office, Biden faces tests on his efforts to draw a tighter domestic-foreign link on three key policy fronts:

1. Infrastructure and climate change investments.   The framework that the Biden administration released this week for its revised package to make investments at home – again something that doesn’t yet have the full approval of his party – is a major political gamble, as Dan Balz of the Washington Post describes it. 

The ambitious package is aimed at rewiring America’s economy and making it more competitive in the world through public investments, and it is also aimed at showing to the rest of the world that America is committed to taking steps it wants other countries to make on the climate front.   If the package ultimately fails, America’s credibility in international climate talks declines.  It also would negatively impact the Biden administration’s efforts to offer an alternative to China’s global economic agenda, something the administration awkwardly calls the “Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership.”  

Failure on the home front would undercut a lot of what the Biden Team has planned for its foreign policy. 

2.  The democratic values agenda.  The Biden administration plans to host a “Summit for Democracy” on December 9-10, with the stated goal of providing a “platform for leaders to make both individual and collective commitments to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.”

The Biden team has made one of its central arguments that democracies need to show that they can deliver results.  The gridlock on Capitol Hill adds to growing doubts about that argument, and not just on the infrastructure and social safety net packages before Congress.  The fact that Republicans in Congress blocked a debate on proposals aimed at strengthening America’s election system earlier this month is not a good sign, and some wonder what good a global summit of democracy can do if America won’t take care of the many significant problems in its own political system. 

The stability of America’s overall political system – underscored by the January 6 insurrection that led to the attack on Congress – has left a mark in America’s image around the world.  When America fails to take care of its own democracy and its own people, the world notices. 

3.   Strategic competition with China.   The third area the Biden administration has set a priority for its foreign policy that is closely linked to its domestic policy agenda is China, where Biden has put forward many priorities. A key part of the Biden argument for doing things differently at home is nested in this idea of a competition with China, and there’s a lot the administration would like to do. But if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.  The Biden team has conducted many internal policy reviews on China, but as yet it has not defined a strategic narrative on China designed to win the support of the American public. 

Furthermore, in this new geopolitical era of strategic hedging, many countries around the world will have their own reasons for not fully signing up to America’s emerging approach on China, especially if America’s overall political system appears dysfunctional and deadlocked. 

On these three fronts, the Biden administration’s theory of the case for linking domestic and foreign policy will be tested as 2021 draws to a close. The current trip President Biden is making in Europe will offer important indications of how receptive the rest of the world is to his approach.  But what happens in America doesn’t stay in America – the debates in Congress on Biden’s domestic agenda have important implications for whether his foreign policy does what it says it wants to do.