What Biden Can Learn From FDR on Foreign Policy

On the campaign trail last year, political journalists and pundits speculated that President-elect Joe Biden would find himself in an “FDR moment” if and when he took office. After all, the nation confronts a national crisis of similar scope and scale to that faced by Roosevelt when he took office in 1933. A still-raging pandemic, a still-fragile national economy, and sedition fomented by the outgoing president present the incoming Biden administration with a complex of  challenges unseen in nearly a century. 

But even with Democratic victories in Georgia’s Senate races, it’s improbable that Biden will be able to enact as much of his domestic agenda as he’d like. Moderate Senate Democrats and the few remaining reasonable Republicans will likely determine which laws Congress sends to his Oval Office desk. All the same, Biden and his advisors would still do well to look to FDR for political guidance - but on how to rebuild support for America’s foreign policy rather than formulating and executing an ambitious domestic policy program.

Lesson number one is to talk in plain and simple language about the foreign policy challenges facing the country. FDR kept his foreign policy rhetoric free of jargon and talked about the issues at stake in ways that average Americans could easily understand. He consistently explained complicated foreign policy issues with reference to households and neighborhoods, as in his famous analogy of the Lend-Lease program to the loan of a firehose to a neighbor whose house had caught on fire. Roosevelt described the Axis nations as gangsters and outlaws, while the Allies were a “sheriff's posse” that assembled to drive the criminal gang out of town.

Unfortunately, political leaders and foreign policy experts today speak in jargon that few if any Americans understand. No matter how many times politicians and experts use them, abstract phrases like the “rules-based liberal international order,” “global governance,” and “multilateralism” mean little to those who don’t actively participate in the making or analysis of U.S. foreign policy - and even manage to confuse quite a few of us who do. Frequent entreaties for America to remain on “the right side of History” may play well in graduate philosophy seminars, for instance, but enjoy little cachet with the vast majority of Americans. At best, such phrases are likely to produce blank stares among average Americans trying to make sense of a complicated and constantly changing world. 

Lesson number two is to bring foreign policy back home and connect it to the everyday lives of Americans in tangible ways. For FDR, foreign policy and domestic well-being were inextricably linked both conceptually and rhetorically. He laid out the stakes of the war in clear terms, warning in a 1940 fireside chat for example that the United States “would have to convert ourselves permanently into a militaristic power on the basis of war economy” to survive in an Axis-dominated world. Similarly, Roosevelt put forward a vision of a post-war world that would “make strides toward a greater freedom from want than the world has yet enjoyed.” In other words, FDR made clear that prosperity and freedom at home depended on active American involvement overseas.

Today, however, many political leaders and foreign policy experts have failed to establish a convincing connection between America’s international engagement and its domestic well-being. They either ignore it altogether or talk in terms that are meaningless at best. It’s easy to see this negligence in discussions of trade and globalization, where since the end of the Cold War politicians and experts alike often emphasized aggregate gains and promised compensation for the so-called “losers” of globalization that never actually seems to materialize. But it also occurs in more traditional matters of diplomacy and security, where it’s difficult for even informed citizens to determine what frequent appeals to notions of “American leadership” might mean in practice. 

For average Americans, drawing a connection between international involvement and domestic well-being doesn’t boil down to the simple “what’s in it for us” question posed crudely by President Trump. That’s clear in public opinion research conducted by the Center for American Progress in 2019, where many Americans were willing to consider international engagement but appeared to desire a clear and concrete explanation how that engagement would affect their lives for the better. Indeed, just over half of those surveyed believed the United States was stronger “when we take a leading role in the world” – but 44 percent preferred a “focus on our own problems.” As FDR recognized, international engagement has to square this circle and link back to a broader national vision of the common good. That vision has to include badly-needed investments at home in order to be credible with the American public. 

The final foreign policy lesson President-elect Biden should learn from FDR is to focus on international political goals above all else. Though Roosevelt devoted much of his energy to creating the United Nations and other instruments of what we might today call global governance, he understood that international relations and foreign policy would remain primarily political realms. Allied war aims, for instance, were articulated in political documents like the Atlantic Charter, statements of principle like the Four Freedoms, and joint declarations made at summits with Allied leaders in Tehran and Yalta.

But over the years and decades, the political nature of international affairs has been lost as foreign policy has been conceived as an increasingly technical systems management exercise. It’s become an autonomous sphere of its own, executed by experts and largely disconnected from domestic policy considerations. The closest foreign policy experts have come to acknowledging the political core of their enterprise are underwhelming proposals to create a “league of democracies” or convene a summit of democracies to counter the growing power and influence of authoritarian governments like China and Russia. But these concepts remain too broad in scope to be realistic and lack the overarching sense of political purpose needed to be truly effective. 

In less than two weeks, Biden will take the oath of office and confront the most fluid and unstable world faced by any president since 1945 - a world facing an ongoing pandemic, fragile national economies, and challenges to liberal values around the globe unseen in decades. He should look to FDR for guidance, not just on domestic politics and policy but foreign policy as well. Americans remain open to international engagement, but the stale, jargon-riddled arguments offered by politicians and foreign policy experts over the last several decades won’t convince.

President-elect Biden has a real opportunity to rebuild support for America’s involvement in the world - but only if he learns from Roosevelt’s example and speaks in clear language about a foreign policy that’s relevant to average Americans.