U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken made a plain-language, lucid pitch to the American people on March 3 that explained the Biden administration’s major goals and guiding principles in international affairs. The speech laid the groundwork for the release later in the day of a White House preliminary strategy paper on national security that delves deeply into the issues, challenges and new administration’s priorities.
At the heart of Blinken’s maiden policy speech was the promise that both the conduct and the outcomes of the administration’s foreign policy would serve the interests of the American people in direct and concrete ways.
This was clearly a speech aimed at the domestic audience and Blinken repeatedly made the case for why U.S. engagement, diplomacy and international leadership matter to the American people. This was no excursion into abstract principles of international relations theory. Nor was it a tour d’horizon of the complex international scene. He did not use soaring rhetoric or invoke grand strategic ambitions. Instead, the new secretary of state methodically laid out a concrete program of work and deliberately tied each element of his eight-point foreign policy plan to interests shared by average Americans.
In place of soaring rhetoric, Blinken made his arguments in straightforward and logical terms: We won’t be safe from new COVID-19 variants until the rest of the world gains immunity through vaccinations. Strong democracies are stable and better partners who magnify our clout. Eight-5% of the world’s carbon pollution is generated outside our borders. In other words, policies that promote global health, good governance and climate cooperation clearly help Americans.
Should America’s allies and partners worry that this domestic focus on “foreign policy for the middle class” is basically a variant of “America First?” Does Secretary Blinken’s speech suggest a self-centered “what’s in it for me?” approach from the nation that once pledged to pay any price, bear any burden and support any friend to assure liberty?
Before worried friends jump to this conclusion, there are several points to consider. The first is that Americans are exhausted from the “forever wars” in the Middle East, worried about their jobs and their kids and still have the last president’s isolationist tirades ringing in their ears. It makes sense to review the basics of why the world matters to them.
Second is a lesson that past presidents often learned the hard way — that foreign policy ventures without solid domestic support will not succeed. There’s no need to go back as far as the Vietnam War for examples. Obama’s Rebalance to Asia, in which Biden and Blinken played important roles, was stymied by resistance from political opponents in Congress. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Biden and Blinken supported, faced widespread opposition because so many Americans assumed it only benefited others and so few saw it as addressing their needs.
The seasoned veterans who make up Biden’s foreign policy team have learned the importance of winning public support. They recognize that in this period of intense partisan polarization, it is crucial to make the case directly to the American people and provide a straightforward and convincing answer to the question, “Why should I care?”
But Blinken’s approach is not simply a matter of messaging or persuasion. It is not merely that good foreign policy will benefit the middle class. His speech makes the critical point that making ourselves stronger at home is a prerequisite to dealing effectively with the external threats that endanger Americans.
Beating the pandemic, turning around the U.S. economy, shoring up our democracy, mending rifts in our society, managing immigration wisely and humanely, retooling energy policy, investing in education and infrastructure, advancing our technological edge — these of course have intrinsic value. But he also is making the case that renewal at home boosts our ability to handle challenges from abroad.
Joe Biden, who spent his formative years dealing with Soviet Bloc counterparts, understands the authoritarian mindset. Leninist leaders — including those in China, Russia and North Korea — carefully assess the “correlation of forces.” Simply put, they have contempt for weakness and a respect for strength.
Of course, bluster is not strength, and the past four years have shown that threats, tweets and tariffs don’t work. That’s why the Biden foreign policy is focusing on the mission of “building back better.” That explains the focus on renewing and strengthening partnerships and alliances instead of going it alone. That explains the commitment to live up to the values and principles that are the source of moral authority and soft power.
So Blinken’s decision to use his first foreign policy speech to make his case to the American people should be good news to those who hope for the return of American internationalism — an America that promotes security and prosperity. It’s an America that champions the rule of law, open markets and human rights.
Blinken’s focus on the domestic connection is the right place to begin engaging the world from a position of strength.
Danny Russel is vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
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