Joe Biden’s Everything Doctrine belies a radical shift

The ‘American First’ legacy lives on in ways the Biden White House might not like to admit

Diplomats under the Biden administration, have been busy promoting the US’s return to the liberal-multilateral mainstream. Photograph: Getty

Diplomats under the Biden administration, have been busy promoting the US’s return to the liberal-multilateral mainstream. Photograph: Getty

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It’s a staple of that dismal genre, the political memoir: the new leader, swept into office and eager to act, quickly confronts the limits of his or her power. You can have a massive mandate, a vast bureaucracy and energy to burn, but sooner or later it hits you: governments can only do a small number of big things at any one time. “To govern is to choose,” then French prime minister Pierre Mendès-France said in the 1950s.

Joe Biden knows all of this. He served two terms as vice-president to a man who met parliamentary gridlock at every turn and who developed a fatalistic sense of America’s limited ability to shape global events. Few Americans have spent longer, or grown more adept at, working the legislative levers of Congress. Yet to listen to Biden talk about his plans for America in the world is to hear a man who seems not to believe in this iron law of political power, or who believes he can defy it.

His first 100 days have been a frenzy of announcements and initiatives. The US has rejoined the World Health Organisation, signed up once again to the Paris climate accord, restarted nuclear talks with Iran and turned back on the funding tap to the UN agency that works with Palestinian refugees. The US Treasury has imposed or expanded sanctions against China, Myanmar, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Biden speaks constantly of repairing America’s alliances and reasserting its values. In contrast to his predecessor, who coddled despots and dictators, he gives them the cold shoulder. Moscow and Beijing in particular have felt the chill of the new regime.

When the dust settles, the tensions that such a broad policy canvass produce will become clearer

A reinvigorated State Department, now under competent and solidly internationalist leadership and sensing the shift in power from the generals to the diplomats under the Biden White House, has been busy promoting the US’s return to the liberal-multilateral mainstream, taking strong public positions – if not the more concrete action that many would like – on the military’s repression in Myanmar, the persecution of Russian opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny and human rights abuses in Ethiopia. A lot of this is course-correction.

Every president defines himself against his predecessor – Obama famously said the first task of a US president in the post-Bush international arena was “Don’t do stupid shit” – and Donald Trump’s wrecking-ball diplomacy left a lot of damage to repair. Still, gleaning patterns amid the frenzy of activity is not easy. The first 100 days suggest an “Everything Doctrine”, says Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. A president and his administration have limited time and attention, Shapiro remarks. If they want to achieve anything, they have to choose.

When the dust settles, the tensions that such a broad policy canvass produce will become clearer. Already the battlelines are drawn within the administration. Pulling in one direction is a traditional-minded Democratic establishment view that takes as its orthodoxy that foreign policy should be values driven. A second camp recognises that the domestic political climate as well as the international sphere have changed. At home, their argument goes, the idea of a values-based foreign policy no longer resonates – and certainly does not win elections – in a country where “America first” found a huge receptive audience amid widespread economic discontent. Globally, meanwhile, the days where America was guaranteed to succeed, and democracy to prevail, are long gone. In that more geopolitically competitive arena, the US must use its foreign policy to compete.

This ‘foreign policy for the middle class’ helps explain Biden’s pledge to withdraw from Afghanistan, the focus on climate action and fixation on competition with China

Biden’s moves to date suggest a balancing act between these two ideas of America’s place in the world. While Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spent much of the past three months reassuring allies and making familiar-sounding statements about human rights, democracy and multilateralism, the administration’s policy positions suggest more of a shift.

“We’ve set the foreign policy priorities for the Biden administration,” said Blinken in March, “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?”

This “foreign policy for the middle class” helps explain Biden’s pledge to withdraw from Afghanistan, the focus on climate action, fixation on competition with China and – of particular interest to Ireland – the desire to clamp down on US multinational tax avoidance. It will shape American trade policy, where the Biden White House will be cooler on agreeing any new trade deals and, where it does, will seek to build in worker protections, climate pledges and blocks on currency manipulation. And it could well mean dwindling US interest in the Middle East, where many influential Democratic foreign policy thinkers increasingly believe the US has little to gain from its entanglements in the region.

“America is back,” said Biden this week. His tone implies continuity over rupture, conveying a sense of restoration after the tumult of the Trump years. But quietly, America’s approach to the world is changing in radical ways.

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