What does Biden’s foreign policy want to be?

Five dilemmas within the Biden team’s own emerging national security agenda

U.S. President Joe Biden addresses the United Nations this week in a speech that will be watched closely around the world for signs of where the U.S. administration is headed in the world. It’s a pretty good bet that Biden will declare once again, “America is back,” a slogan he used in the first eight months in office to signal a shift from the Trump era.

But which America is he talking about? 

Ignore for the moment the noisy competing domestic political echo chambers on U.S. foreign policy. Most of that debate gets stuck in the trenches on issues more relevant to caustic clashes between the two political parties and among various wings inside both, a form of elite tribalism that usually ends up confusing most ordinary Americans and the rest of the world. Much of the noise is not strategic.

Scratch beneath the surface of the recent concerns around the world about how America mishandled the Afghanistan withdrawal to the strongly negative reaction from close ally France to a new security partnership with Australia and Britain, and there are some bigger conceptual wrinkles to iron out in Biden’s own agenda for the world.

Examining the different actions and statements from the Biden administration so far, there are five dilemmas within Biden’s aspirational foreign agenda that haven’t yet been fully reconciled, and may never be.

1. China: compete or cooperate?

One leading topic for the United Nations meetings this month is climate change, and it’s hard to see much progress in the big picture without some form of cooperation between the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases: the United States and China.  The Biden team has attempted to counter and compete with China on human rights, trade, technology, and military issues while keeping open the space for cooperation on climate change.  Just a few weeks ago, however, China’s foreign minister warned U.S. climate envoy John Kerry that Beijing would not cooperate on climate change unless the Biden administration took a softer line on China’s human rights abuses and other outstanding bilateral issues.  

The reality is that the United States will have to seek to compete and counter China’s actions in certain realms while seeking cooperation on issues like climate change.  It would be unwise to pull punches on genocide or stand back while China asserts itself militarily and in the cyberspace in ways that undermine international security, as some progressive isolationists have advocated.  

All the same, the Biden administration needs to offer greater strategic clarity about its approach to China – it’s geared towards a sophisticated and nuanced approach, but it needs to more clearly communicate to the American public what it aims to do in what it considers the main event in geopolitics today.  

2.  COVID-19: take care of our own vs. strengthen international cooperation?

As the world gets closer to the two-year mark of the COVID-19 crisis, it’s clear that there’s still insufficient international cooperation to deal with this global challenge. At the same time, the United States still struggles to get a grip on how its own people have responded to various measures aimed at containing the pandemic.  

A patchwork of international rules about travel, combined with continued shaky international cooperation on vaccine distribution, are signs of how fragmented the international system has become.  

The Biden administration has sought to shape the landscape on the home front and made some small but important moves to help the rest of the world respond to the pandemic, but the big picture response is not nearly close to what’s needed. There remains a critical missing link between America’s own unfinished domestic vaccination campaign and global efforts to tackle the large populations of unvaccinated people around the world – populations where new variants of the COVID-19 virus could emerge. As a result, the pandemic remains a chronic condition straining the international system.

3.  The ever-present values debate: Human rights and democracy vs. security interests?  

Here, there’s really nothing new in terms of a dilemma for U.S. foreign policy.  Virtually all U.S. administrations have used the rhetoric of democracy and human rights in how they talk about their foreign policies, and then struggle to put this rhetoric into practice in a still-imperfect world.

At this early stage in the Biden administration, it’s hard to point to a major step forward on human rights and democracy in the world – but it’s also difficult to see where the administration is positioned to make major progress on this front in the coming year because of its “split the difference” approach on some of the toughest issues. Russia, China, Myanmar, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt are just some of the countries where the gap between the Biden administration’s rhetoric and actual policy has been noted– not to mention the massive backsliding in freedom in Afghanistan as a consequence of the botched diplomacy and security approach there.  

Biden’s planned Summit for Democracy later this year may end up looking like a hollow virtue signaling exercise in the face of these trends, all the more so if U.S. diplomacy continues to keep human rights in places like Iran and Palestine as lower priorities.

4.   Ending U.S. military engagements vs. continuing to protect the country from threats. 

Just a few steps away from the noise about “ending endless wars” and the sloganeering that dominates social media debates is the reality that the United States remains deeply engaged militarily across the world in working to counter a range of threats in more than 80 countries.  

The botched withdrawal from Afghanistan – including the drone strike that killed civilians in Kabul as the U.S. departed – raise important questions about the Biden administration’s plans for an “over the horizon” military engagement to counter threats that have already emerged there and will likely evolve

The main conundrum in Afghanistan is how to make the fiction of an over-the-horizon model a reality that produces security results in the face of a situation that has deteriorated significantly in the matter of a few weeks, as Peter Juul outlined in the Liberal Patriot.  

The bigger dilemma that applies to the Biden administration’s emerging vision is the gap between its own rhetoric on ending wars and the reality of its own actions of still leading with the military in many places, as well as a domestic political world in which both Democrats and Republicans in Congress recently moved to increase the defense budget above the amount proposed by the Biden administration earlier this year.  

5. “America first lite” economic nationalism vs. a new form of international economic leadership

The Biden administration has signaled an attempt to revamp America’s foreign policy to benefit the middle class, but the links remain unclear in practical terms. Divisions between Biden administration trade and foreign policy officials, for instance, have made it more difficult to formulate a coherent international economic policy that serves the interests of ordinary Americans.  The “Buy American” initiatives put forth by the Biden administration may make political sense in the short run, but it could have longer-term economic and diplomatic costs.

Moreover, international economic crises have a way of emerging and impacting America’s economy and diplomacy, as seen during the multiple financial crises in the 1990s and the 2007-2008 economic crisis that requires extensive international coordination.  Some rumblings of debt and cash flow problems inside one of China’s largest property companies in recent days could have ripple effects in the broader global economy

Zooming out, the Biden rhetoric is grounded in a new type of economic nationalism that wants to put American workers ahead of big corporations. It seeks to raise more public funds to pay for massive increases in government spending by raising a range of taxes, including on large corporations.  

But the main dilemma for Biden is on full display in the ongoing negotiations within the Democratic Party about the infrastructure and social safety net bills before Congress – how ready is his own party, let alone the broader country, to sign up for ambitious measures that aim to make massive, historic investments in public spending. This debate connects with the bigger questions about what the best model for America’s political economy in the world today.

Biden’s speech at the United Nations won’t resolve any of these dilemmas in his own foreign policy approach.  The reality is that most U.S. administrations never fully reconcile all of the competing things they say they want to do.

But by considering these internal tensions within its own set of ideas more carefully, the Biden team can take a few steps away from strategic incoherence that has undercut previous U.S. administrations and move closer towards defining a clearer “North Star” for its overall foreign policy.