Joe Biden has always fashioned himself a foreign policy wonk.
As a senator, he was a longtime member — and eventually leader — of the Foreign Relations committee. As a presidential candidate in 2008, he focused his campaign on his ability to handle tough international entanglements, chief among them the Iraq war. And as vice president, he tackled a variety of foreign policy issues, from Central America to Eastern Europe.
But now that Biden is president after nearly five decades in public office, his foreign policy agenda has been largely overshadowed by enormous domestic crises at home. And so, as he embarks on his first foreign trip this week, Biden will attempt to fuse the two — emphasizing that the steps he as president takes on the international stage will have a direct impact for average Americans back home, according to eight current and former aides, colleagues and foreign policy experts.
Think of it as a more global-minded, multilateralist take on America First. It’s not a completely new concept for Biden. But it’s made all the more critical as he continues to push for trillions of dollars in spending and tries to maintain his grip on the portion of working-class voters who helped him win in 2020. His early tenure has been defined not by wars and foreign entanglements but the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn that spawned from it, forcing him to put his first love — foreign policy — on the backburner.
“He not only enjoys it but he understands it. He’s studied it. And it’s something that is very much part of who he is, because he’s always seen foreign policy not as separate from domestic policy or the interest of the United States,” said Chuck Hagel, a friend who served alongside Biden in the Senate and the Obama administration as secretary of defense. “He’s always seen foreign policy as part of the overall interest process of our country, whether it’s international trade or environment, terrorism, defense … all of those things are part of our own interests.”
But American voters aren’t Biden’s only audience. He leaves on an eight-day trip to Europe Wednesday amid enormous scrutiny from world leaders eager to see how he will approach international issues as president in part because of the lack of emphasis on it during his first four-and-half months in office.
Biden will attend a Group of Seven gathering of world leaders in Cornwall, England to discuss a host of issues, including trade, taxes and Covid. He will then confer with NATO and European Union leaders in Brussels about security in the face of challenges from Russia and China. His final stop will be in Geneva, where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a bilateral talk — a meeting for which Biden has already received criticism due to continued cyber aggressions from Russia into the United States.
Biden invited Putin to meet, even though that talk appears unlikely to reap any immediate benefits. Still, the White House says Biden wanted to meet with Putin to press him directly on cyberattacks and human rights as well as speak about areas where they may have common ground, including nuclear arms control and climate change. Biden aides say even though the meeting isn’t likely to lead to any major policy agreements, the president wanted to take the first step to establishing the relationship.
Biden’s record on the international stage has, at times, been a real vulnerability, most notably because of his support for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. In office, he has struck some similar notes as his predecessor, Donald Trump — including support for a firm withdrawal from Afghanistan. Still, during his upcoming trip, he will try to portray his vision as the opposite of Trump’s America First foreign policy that dramatically disrupted long-standing alliances and actively undermined the U.S.’s leadership role.
Yet much has changed in the four years of the Trump presidency at home and abroad. The populism that fueled Trump’s rise has ricocheted around the globe. China has secured its place as the U.S.’s dominant economic rival. And other countries, primarily European allies, including Britain, France and Germany, have attempted to fill the void the U.S. left in holding Iran’s nuclear ambitions in check and combating climate change, among other issues.
In effect, Biden will have to balance the desire to emphasize domestic priorities at a time when America’s global preeminence seems threatened like never before. He previewed the approach he’d take in remarks to the State Department in February, when he bluntly stated that “there’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” adding, “Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind.” He expanded upon it in an op-ed he wrote in the Washington Post this weekend ahead of his trip.
“[A]s America’s economic recovery helps to propel the global economy,” he wrote, “we will be stronger and more capable when we are flanked by nations that share our values and our vision for the future — by other democracies.”
Throughout the trip, Biden will stress that his foreign policies will strengthen his domestic policies, especially on the economy, marrying the two in a way other recent presidents, including Barack Obama, failed in marrying the two.
“It really seems pretty clear that he sees his main agenda is a domestic one,” said a former aide to Biden on foreign policy. “And to me, his foreign policy moves, in terms of the personnel and the investments, have reflected that.”
Some critics and foreign policy experts have questioned whether that’s practical given the scope of conflicts that he will face — everything from fighting in the Middle East to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. And they question whether Biden is just trying to do the minimum on foreign policy.
“There’s definitely a desire to put foreign policy on the back burner, and really kind of hammer on the domestic issues. I think they feel like they have a window for a really transformative domestic agenda,” said James Carafano, a former Trump foreign policy adviser who serves as director of the center for foreign policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It’s generally what I would call risk averse, which is, the less we do, you know, the less problems we’ll have, and to really kind of do the minimum path necessary. And then, if that doesn’t work, maybe we’ll do a little more.”
Biden allies say he’s hardly doing the minimum on foreign policy. Instead, he’s recognizing how interconnected it is with domestic concerns. The president and his aides have tried to stress that connection every chance they get on climate and trade, the economy and Covid. Last week, when Biden announced the U.S. will donate 25 million doses of surplus vaccine overseas he immediately said it would help keep still vulnerable Americans safe.
Even on the largest scale of foreign policy initiatives — the need to support democratic governance — Biden world has tied it squarely to domestic considerations.
“He rightly says we’re in a competition between democracies and autocracies, and that in order to win that competition, democracies like ours need to demonstrate they can still deliver for the people — above all those who were left behind,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who now serves as president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “That’s why his domestic focus isn’t only about Americans, it’s also about winning the global competition with autocracies like China.”
Ash Jain, who worked in the State Department under President George W. Bush, and is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Biden will endeavor to show that global alliances “matter to ordinary Americans and that they benefit from this notion of a foreign policy for the middle class.”
“I would expect to see him highlight how the G-7 can help with issues like COVID recovery, the economic recovery efforts, climate and other things on the minds of everyday Americans,” he said.
Nowhere is that more pronounced than on economic issues. Biden, who built his political brand on being from a working class family from Scranton, Pa., has talked repeatedly about how his jobs agenda and climate initiatives are directly needed to combat China’s economic ascendance.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said every foreign policy action will have a direct line to the economy. “We’ve set the foreign policy priorities for the Biden administration, by asking a few simple questions: What will our foreign policy mean for American workers and their families? What do we need to do around the world to make us stronger here at home? And what do we need to do at home to make us stronger in the world?” Blinken said in his first major speech in March.
Biden has been pushing Republicans to support a combined $4 trillion in spending a once-in-a-generation investment in infrastructure and social programs designed to ignite economic recovery and enhance America’s social safety net. But Republicans have been resistant to the size and scope of Biden’s proposals, which include tax hikes on corporate and wealthy Americans.
This weekend, G-7 countries reached an agreement to make it more difficult for the world’s largest companies to avoid paying taxes by setting a minimum 15 percent global corporate tax threshold.
Tellingly, the administration quickly touted the domestic benefit that would accrue from it.
Speaking at a news conference Saturday, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said, “That global minimum tax would end the race-to-the-bottom in corporate taxation and ensure fairness for the middle class and working people in the U.S. and around the world.”