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Foreign Policy

New Tack for U.S. Diplomacy

Mar 02, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

Feb. 4 was an important day for the new U.S. administration’s foreign policy. President Joe Biden paid a visit to the State Department to deliver his first speech on foreign affairs since taking office. On the same day, the White House released two national security memoranda — a set of moves taken by the new U.S. administration to reshape American foreign policy. They signal a shift in foreign policy from a strong focus on military security to “diplomacy for the people.”

This shift reflects the new thinking that U.S. foreign policy should serve the welfare of the middle class and working people. In his speech to State Department employees, Biden said: “Every action we take, and our conduct abroad, you must take with American working families in mind. Advancing a foreign policy for the middle class demands urgent focus on our domestic economic renewal.”

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said at a White House briefing: “We will also be able to more effectively pursue a foreign policy for the middle class. This is ... an organizing principle for the work that we will do. Everything we do in our foreign policy and national security will be measured by a basic metric.”

For perhaps the first time in postwar U.S. history, the purpose of U.S. foreign policy has been explicitly linked to advancing the well-being of the domestic middle class and working families. With the coronavirus pandemic having killed 500,000 Americans and with 1 in 7 American families facing a shortage of basic food, making the well-being of the people the primary purpose of foreign policy represents a down-to-earth shift.

In addition, this shift reflects new thinking that expands and deepens the definition of national security interests in U.S. foreign policy.

In the briefing, Sullivan listed five of the Biden administration’s major lines of effort in foreign policy and national security. The first: “Investments at home to shore up our country’s foundations and the American Recovery Plan in that regard are not just a matter of economic policy; it’s a matter of national security strategy as well,” he said. 

This indicates that the U.S. definition of national security is expanding from the past focus on external threats (especially international military security threats) to cover internal threats arising from inadequate domestic economic development. After the Cold War, the U.S. self-perception, based on the End of History and other perceptions, gradually produced a messianic mentality aimed at transforming the world according to the U.S. vision to some extent.

The United States put this into practice through ambitious nation-building in other countries, especially in conflict areas. However, the stark contrast between short-term military victories and long-term nation-building failures in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq not only came at great financial and human cost to the United States but also triggered a rethinking of national security interests.

Under pressure from the financial crisis, President Barack Obama first proposed that nation-building should start from within the United States. However, the financial crisis didn’t seem to generate enough momentum to induce a qualitative transformation in U.S. foreign relations. By contrast, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has basically made domestic issues — infectious diseases, loss of jobs and the possibility of domestic violence flowing from political polarization — the primary security concerns of Americans.

The shift also reflects a new element of American values diplomacy. In his State Department speech, Biden emphasized America’s diplomatic values and pledged to continue to promote democracy and freedom internationally. But it’s worth noting that there was also a new element of reflection on America’s own approach. For example, Biden announced that the United States will end its support for offensive military operations in the conflict in Yemen.

Explaining the rationale for doing so at his news briefing, Sullivan said that support for offensive military actions had perpetuated the civil war in Yemen and triggered a humanitarian crisis.

This illustrates the Biden administration’s awareness that putting ideological values above everything else, coupled with a foreign policy that uses regime change and military intervention as a means, sometimes backfires.

The administration also announced that the U.S. will not only cease military support in Yemen but will also name a special envoy who will actively use his diplomatic good offices to seek a political solution to the war through multilateral diplomacy.

Admittedly, the statements of Biden and Sullivan on China were harshly worded, and one should not expect a fundamental change in the fierce competition between the two countries. But on the whole it’s evident that the Biden administration is taking a turn in its diplomatic philosophy toward diplomacy for the people.

At home, this shift is reflected in the idea that U.S. diplomacy should serve domestic economic development and improve people's lives. Internationally, it reflects an intent in U.S. diplomacy to bolster national interests more through diplomatic good offices than through military means.

All this fosters cautious optimism about the possibility of building a cooperative yet competitive relationship between China and the United States.

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