The White House released major new strategic guidance last week, declaring that “our world is at an inflection point.” That inflection point is whether the United States will survive as a democratic superpower in the face of rising autocracy, at home and in the world, technological shock; and the environmental consequences of the industrial age. No surprise, President Biden’s remedy is a sharp departure from Donald Trump’s approach, most notably in prioritizing climate change and calling out Russia for its aggressive and lawless behavior, but it’s also breaking new ground in other ways.
“My job is to deliver for you,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised last week, saying that his measure of success would be how foreign policy benefits the American people, especially the middle class. That’s not usually the direct focus for diplomats, but it seems to be working when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, Biden’s top priority. The Biden team is merging domestic and foreign policy, as promised, by turbocharging vaccine distribution at home, while also rejoining the World Health Organization and pledging $4 billion to a global vaccine effort. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, meanwhile, called the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan the “cornerstone” for the national security strategy. Foreign policy success can be hard to measure, but in this case, the yardstick will be the numbers of sick and dying and economic recovery.
The pandemic is notably not a traditional national security priority, and that’s consistent with another administration promise to lead with diplomacy and diminish the defense stranglehold on national security policy. For what that might mean in practice, consider Saudi Arabia. In two months, the Biden administration released an intelligence report that states Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is responsible for the gruesome murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, sanctioned key officials but not the crown prince, halted arms sales, and announced the end of support for the Saudi proxy war in Yemen. While the president chose pragmatism over principle (and campaign promises) when it came to the crown prince, taken in total, the administration sent a message to the Saudis — and everyone else — that having a common foe is not a blank check for bad behavior.
Of course, the Biden administration punctuated that soft power with bombs, hitting Iranian positions in Syria. The new strategy talks about better ways to “compete and deter gray zone actions.” That’s a reference to the murky territory between war and peace, where Russia used paramilitary actors to invade Ukraine and Iran attacks American soldiers in Iraq through proxy militia. The administration’s letter to Congress announcing the airstrikes seems an attempt to redefine limited retaliation against these gray zone acts as consistent with domestic and international law.
At the same time, the action toward Saudi Arabia and Iran is also about competing with China, and showing other countries that the United States will be a reliable partner. The Trump administration ripped the veil of ambiguity off of President Barack Obama’s genteel “rebalance to Asia” policy and organized around strategic competition with China, in fairly adversarial terms. While there’s no going back from such an overt policy, and the Biden strategy doesn’t even try to, it seems less personal, somehow.
The focus is more on building American strengths, such as the capacity for the renewal of and growth from innovation and immigration, rather reacting to the military threat of China. There’s also a stronger basis for collective action in making this about the international system, not just the United States. That’s practical, considering the United States has 23 percent the population of China, which will soon have the world’s biggest economy. That practicality is also a tonic for the scary air of inevitability to the Trump formulation, as though the United States and China are destined for World War III, because that’s just the way the balance of power works.
There’s long been tension in US foreign policy between words and deeds, but the Biden administration’s people-centric approach may offer an all-purpose justification for situational pragmatism, where values are interests and interests are values. That sounds suspiciously like a more polite version of “America First.” But then the trick has always been how to find peace and prosperity among nations and regimes all seeking their own best interests.
And while other nations with shared best interests are no doubt glad that “America is back,” in President Biden’s words, they are also probably keeping a skeptical eye on the 2024 presidential election. The Biden team has its work cut out for them.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated the US population compared to China. It is 23 percent.
Sharon E. Burke is director of the Resource Security Program at New America. She served in the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, most recently as an assistant secretary of defense.