Building a "foreign policy for the middle class"

Assessing the Biden team's progress on its central foreign policy aim

In its first six months in office, the Biden administration has started to lay the groundwork for a new model of U.S. international economic engagement. On the campaign trail and in office, President Biden and administration officials pledged a “foreign policy for the middle class” – a phrase that reflects the disconnect many Americans feel between their own lives and their country’s involvement in the world. Though they haven’t received the public attention they deserve, the Biden team has made some important moves to connect economic renewal at home with active involvement overseas.

Take cybersecurity, for instance. Americans on the Atlantic Coast felt the cost at the pump of the ransomware attack on the Colonial Pipeline by Russian criminals. While Biden extracted a pledge from Putin to cooperate and crack down on hacks, cyberattacks originating Russia have proceeded apace – and led Biden to warn that the United States would retaliate if Moscow failed to take action when given the necessary information.

Russian cyberattacks may grab headlines and hit ordinary Americans more directly in the pocketbook, but Chinese cyber activities arguably present an even greater threat to America’s security and prosperity in the long run. The Department of Justice recently charged four Chinese nationals working for the Ministry of State Security, for instance, with involvement in “a campaign to hack into the computer systems of dozens of victim companies, universities and government entities in the United States and abroad between 2011 and 2018.” 

What’s more, the Biden administration got NATO, the European Union, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom to all finger Beijing as the culprit behind a campaign of hacks that included the breach of Microsoft servers in January. As Secretary of State Blinken put it, the Ministry of State Security “has fostered an ecosystem of criminal contract hackers who carry out both state-sponsored activities and cybercrime for their own financial gain.” The fact that a large and diverse group of nations and international bodies managed to agree on Chinese responsibility for cyberattacks represents an achievement in and of itself – and an important positive sign that the United States can bring other democracies together in practical ways to compete with Beijing.

On its own, though, enhanced cybersecurity cooperation with traditional allies and partners can’t build the new model of international political economy that the phrase seems to imply. But the Biden team can point to some signs of progress here as well, particularly when it comes to relationships with other democracies in Europe and Asia.

First, there’s the fact that the United States and European Union agreed to end their seventeen-year dispute over subsidies for aerospace manufacturers Boeing and Airbus for at least five years during Biden’s recent European trip – a critical truce in the face of China’s likely attempt to move into the commercial aerospace market. Then there’s the agreement reached at the G7 summit in Cornwall to introduce a global minimum taxof fifteen percent on multinational corporations, a deal later approved in principle by 130 nations. In addition, the Biden administration is currently debating a digital trade agreement with Asian allies and partners.

These moves don’t exactly attract the same headlines as other foreign policy decisions, but they’re an important foundation for future policy nonetheless. Moving forward the Biden administration should look for emerging opportunities on this front:  

  • New ways of thinking about trade policy. Throughout the post-Cold War period, many foreign policy thinkers and makers viewed trade policy primarily as a way to cement diplomatic and strategic ties with important countries. There are important signs that this mentality is shifting in the Biden administration, with U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai urging a more deliberate approach that takes the interests of American workers into greater consideration - a tack that the administration should continue to follow.

  • Anticipating potential disputes with allies and partners. The end of the Boeing-Airbus trade dispute between the United States and EU could be superseded by a larger dispute over climate tariffs the EU looks set to impose on countries with what Brussels deems insufficiently aggressive climate policies – possibly including the United States – in roughly two years’ time. With higher stakes involved, the United States and its allies need to learn how to manage these disputes much better than they have over the past thirty years.

  • Telling a new narrative. If the Biden administration wants to build support for its broader foreign policy, it should take the opportunity to tell a better story of what it’s trying to do in the world – and how that works for average Americans. Rising above the arcane details beloved by policy wonks and putting these moves in a wider context can help give a sense of what a foreign policy for the middle class actually means.

With competition with China emerging as the Biden administration’s foreign policy lodestar, reviving the economies of the United States and its fellow democracies will loom ever larger – and America’s international economic policy will need to deliver. There’s still much work for the Biden team to do on this front, but so far they’re off to solid start.