Can the Biden Administration Restore America as a Global Leader?
- What is "A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class?" -

Matake Kamiya
Professor, the National Defense Academy of Japan


"America is back." At the beginning of his first post-inaugural address on US foreign policy on February 4, 2021, US President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. repeated this phrase twice in a row, punctuating each word with emphasis and saying that it was "the message I want the world to hear today." "America is back" are the words that expressed President Biden's determination to part with the Donald J. Trump administration's "America First" doctrine and to restore America to being a country capable of bearing the role of a world leader. This is evident from the fact that the White House titled the speech "Remarks by President Biden on America's Place in the World." 1 President Biden went on to say, "[W]e will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's." This remark already appeared in his inaugural address on January 20, 2021. 2

But what does it mean --- "America is back?" Does it mean the revival of US global leadership that had been familiar to us over the decades before the advent of President Trump? Or should we assume that President Biden's "America's place in the world" will include something different from the past?

1. Restoring US Global Leadership --- Biden's Consistent Foreign Policy Goal

Since deciding to run for the presidency in April 2019, Biden has undoubtedly continued to feel a grave need to rebuild US global leadership on the diplomatic front, which was damaged by President Trump. In a more than 40-minute long foreign policy speech delivered in New York City on July 11, 2019, Biden said that President Trump's "erratic policies and failures to uphold basic democratic principles have muddied our reputation, our place in the world, and our ability to lead it." He also warned, "If we give Donald Trump four more years --- we may never recover America's standing in the world or our capacity to bring nations together." And he added, "I will make it my mission" as US president "to restore American leadership." 3

This speech almost anticipated his article "Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump," which he contributed to the March/April 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. In this article, Biden argues, "[The next US president] will have to salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilize our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges." He declares, "As president, I will take immediate steps to renew US democracy and alliances, protect the United States' economic future, and once more have America lead the world." 4

Immediately following his de facto victory in the presidential election, Biden reiterated this diplomatic credo. In introducing the new administration's national security team on November 24, 2020, he said, "It's a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it"; "it embodies" his core belief that "America is most powerful when it works with its allies." 5 Biden stressed that the United States is "ready to confront our adversaries and not reject our allies, ready to stand up for our values." He also stated that he was strongly impressed to learn through telephone conversations with world leaders after winning the presidential election "how much they're looking forward to the United States reasserting its historic role as a global leader." That day seems to be the first time that Biden used the phrase "America is back." 6 But his conviction has been unwavering from during the election campaign to the present day that it is his most significant diplomatic task as US President to restore US global leadership damaged by President Trump's disregard of international cooperation and alliances.

2. Another Pillar of Biden's Foreign Policy: "A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class"

Meanwhile, we should note that there has consistently been another pillar of Biden's foreign policy. Right from the moment when he declared his presidential candidacy, he has been advocating that his administration will adopt "a foreign policy for the middle class." This motto became widely known around the world as it appeared in his article for Foreign Affairs magazine mentioned above:

… my administration will equip Americans to succeed in the global economy --- with a foreign policy for the middle class. To win the competition for the future against China or anyone else, the United States must sharpen its innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices and reduce inequality. Economic security is national security… 7

However, this was not the first time Biden mentioned "a foreign policy for the middle class." In his foreign policy speech in New York City on July 11, 2019, he already said that he would promote "a foreign policy for the middle class" once he came to power, in almost the same order of words as the above quotation. The idea that US foreign policy should benefit the American middle class, which is the majority of the population, constituted the starting point of "a foreign policy for the middle class." In his speech, Biden stated that while economic security is nothing less than national security, "there are a lot of communities across this country that are hurting because we've neglected the basics." He argued, "Our trade policy has to start at home, by strengthening our greatest asset --- our middle class." 8

This was not just a catchphrase for the election campaign. Biden has not dropped the "a foreign policy for the middle class" banner after he was elected president and has appointed chief advocates of the concept to primary posts on his foreign and security teams. A typical example is the appointment of Jake Sullivan as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs.

This appointment indicated how earnest the new president is about implementing "a foreign policy for the middle class" because Sullivan was a co-author of the report "Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class," released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in September 2020. 9

Based on interviews with many middle-class citizens in the three states of Colorado, Nebraska, and Ohio, the Carnegie report analyzes problems associated with conventional US foreign policy and proposes recommendations about what it should be in the future. 10 The three states where the interviews were conducted fall, according to the recent election results, into a predominantly Democratic state (Colorado), a predominantly Republican state (Nebraska), and a swing state (Ohio). The interviewees were carefully selected to avoid partisan bias. The Carnegie report was not prepared specifically for Biden. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace launched a research project in 2017 that produced the report. The year 2017 was the inaugural year of the Trump administration. Biden had not begun advocating for "a foreign policy for the middle class." The project members came from among high-ranking policymakers who had served in both Democratic and Republican administrations --- which accounted for the bipartisan character of policies recommended by the project report. 11

It is noteworthy that a person who has become the highest-ranking diplomatic and security advisor to President Biden co-authored the Carnegie report. Sullivan's sense of commitment to urgent improvements in the position of the middle class was quite keen. He had long been aware that behind the Trump phenomenon lies the reality that the American middle class is suffering disadvantages due to the expanding economic inequality. He argues that the United States has now reached "another turning point" comparable to the immediate aftermath of the Great Depression, and that US politics has to confront a new mission of "rescuing and rebuilding the American middle class," for Franklin D. Roosevelt it was "the fight was economic depression" and for Lyndon B. Johnson "it was a war on poverty." 12

In nominating Sullivan as the National Security Advisor, Biden took into particular account Sullivan's awareness of issues and his view that US foreign policy should be "a foreign policy for the middle class." This is discernible from his November 24 announcement of the core members of the national security team. On that occasion, Biden introduced Sullivan as follows:

Jake understands my vision that economic security is national security and it will help steer what I call a foreign policy for the middle class. 13

Salman Ahmed, another co-author and co-editor of the Carnegie report, was also appointed as director of policy planning at the Department of State in January 2021. The contents of this report will highly likely affect the direction of the Biden administration's foreign policy.

Thus, we can see that the Biden administration's foreign policy has two pillars: the reconstruction of the world led by the United States and "a foreign policy for the middle class." Although the new administration aims at achieving both, it seems that this will not be an easy task. To what extent are the two pillars consistent with each other? Or are there any tensions or inconsistency between them?

3. Awareness of the Issues behind "a Foreign Policy for the Middle Class" 14

According to the Carnegie report, the fundamental recognition that forms the background of "a foreign policy for the middle class" is a belief that US foreign policy needs to regain trust at home and abroad. First of all, a foreign policy lacking national support cannot work, and there is no guarantee that such a policy will gain continued endorsement over the long term. Support from outside the country is also important for a foreign policy to work.

The Trump administration's diplomacy, however, has damaged the trust of US allies and partners, "which no longer have confidence that the deals struck with one US administration will survive the transition to the next or that basic alliance structures that have endured for decades are still a given." There is an urgent need for US diplomacy to regain trust at home and abroad. 15

The Carnegie report focuses on how to regain the support of the American people for US foreign policy. US foreign policy cannot work without the support of the middle class or the majority of the population. Consequently, it must be recognized by the middle class that US foreign policy is something that will benefit them. Diplomatic and security experts and elites have, however, neglected this fact. The report harshly criticizes the following three chief visions of US foreign policy present in the past for their failure to sufficiently benefit the middle class. 16

(1) "Pro-business and pro-globalization approach"

This approach seems to refer to the claims of liberal internationalists who have led the foreign policy debate in post-Cold War America. This group believes the following: that foreign and security policies that advance US business interests and promote US values abroad will foster the interests of the American middle class; that foreign and security policies that strive to build a free and open international economic system and aim to expand democracy and human rights will advance the interests of the American middle class. It is also of the view that continued US global leadership would promote US national interests and improve the interests of the American middle class. According to the Carnegie report, however, the results of this approach have failed to sufficiently strengthen the interests of the American middle class. Indeed, overall American wealth has increased a great deal, but its benefits have been unequally distributed. The American middle class cannot perceive that US diplomacy has benefited them.

Diplomatic experts tend to look upon such complaints as a mere "communications problem," believing that the better the people become informed about and understands the government's foreign policy, the more they will support it. But such a view is incorrect. The American middle-class's discontent with US foreign policy comes from poignant feelings that the government's policies are not leading to better jobs, wages, etc.

(2) "America First approach"

The logic of Trump's America First approach may be construed as an attempt to respond to these complaints of the American middle class. In reality, however, it is fraught with problems because it serves the interests of some workers at the expense of other workers and undermines other vital US security interests at home and abroad. According to the Carnegie report, middle-class citizens interviewed in the three states welcomed some aspects of Trump's America First approach but expressed concerns about the following:

First, Trump's foreign policy has created winners and losers within the American middle class --- for example, an increase in tariffs on imports has prevented some manufacturing industries from transferring their production base overseas, thereby protecting the employment of workers in those industries; on the other hand, it has, as a result, harmed employments by impeding foreign direct investment in other manufacturing industries. The Trump administration's hardline stance toward China gained support across party lines in the three states as a whole. But there are concerns, for example, in Nebraska, where there are many jobs in the agricultural sector, that the US-China tariff war has led to a significant decline in agricultural exports to China.

Second, Trump's foreign policy focused only on short-term gains. For example, Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement to protect the US coal industry. Yet, a significant portion of the middle-class citizens interviewed perceive that whatever policy the United States may adopt on climate change, it will not stop the market from shifting from coal to natural gas and to other energy sources. Trump's America First approach lacks the readiness to "step back" from short-term profit considerations "and look at the broader strategic trends."

Third, there is the danger of a Trumpian zero-sum approach to the world. The interview results for three states show that many middle-class citizens are not wholly opposed to a US role in international cooperation, aid to countries in need, or intervention in international conflicts. They tolerably understand the necessity of such US actions: If the United States abandoned such roles, it could destabilize the world and upset the economic interests of the American middle class. Nonetheless, they believe that when the United States takes such actions, it must be to help advance their interests. From this perspective, a Trumpian zero-sum approach to the world is not appropriate. The American middle class is not even completely against US military intervention abroad. However, they "want the country to exercise its power judiciously and to selectively seek out the best opportunities for effecting positive change." 17

(3) A "Socially liberal approach focused on economic justice, climate change, and nonmilitary means of foreign policy"

Another argument in the debate over US foreign policy comes from leftist radicals. This group not only rejects the Trumpian zero-sum world view but opposes a pro-globalization approach. They emphasize the importance of economic and social justice in US domestic and foreign policies and the centrality of climate change issues in national security policy. They are inclined to emphasize nonmilitary approaches in foreign policy and call for reductions in defense spending. Highlighting the need for a combination of stronger social insurance programs at home, ambitious environmental measures, domestic industrial policy, and multilateralist diplomacy abroad, this group seems to be growing more confident in its approach amid the novel coronavirus crisis. But the Carnegie report criticizes this approach because it fails to bring sufficient benefits to middle-class citizens.

First of all, this approach emphasizes addressing climate change issues while failing to give sufficient consideration to the fact that this will harm the interests of middle-class workers in industries such as coal, oil, and gas. Likewise, concerning curtailing defense spending, this approach does not take into account the problem that the defense spending cut could harm the interests of middle-class workers in some areas that are highly dependent on the government's defense spending.

Also, as with Trump's America First doctrine, the radical diplomatic approach does not squarely address the problem that if the United States made hasty cuts in defense spending, these could lead to long-term security and economic risks disadvantageous to the American middle class.

(4) "A foreign policy for the middle class" as the fourth approach

Thus, none of the above three visions of US foreign policy has succeeded in making the American middle class feel that it is sufficiently beneficial to them. The Carnegie report proposes a fourth approach to replace them: "a foreign policy for the middle class." It would:

1) "[A]ddress the downside risks of today's more interconnected security, economic, and social environments much more directly and pay more attention to ensuring that the benefits are more widely shared;
2) "[A]dvance a shared prosperity and global security through international leadership, engagement, and positive-sum thinking; and
3) "[M]aintain a robust defense posture to undergird US diplomacy, foster global stability, and ensure continued access and integration with the global markets on which the U.S. economy depends."

This is the gist of the Carnegie report's "foreign policy for the middle class. 18

At first glance, this may seem to recommend that the United States return to the liberal internationalism of the pre-Trump era. But "a foreign policy for the middle class" has a different orientation from traditional liberal internationalist foreign policy in one important respect. This is the idea of judging the success or failure of a foreign policy by whether or not it benefits the middle class. At the February 4 press conference, Sullivan referred to "a foreign policy for the middle class," saying, "Everything we do in our foreign policy and national security will be measured by a basic metric: Is it going to make life better, safer, and easier for working families?" And on trade policy, he explained, "We're not about trying to make the world safe for multinational investment; we're about creating jobs and raising wages here in the United States." 19

To what extent is it possible to reconcile this orientation with the other pillar of the Biden administration's foreign policy to rebuild a US-led world?

4. Emphasizing the US Role as a Global Leader: An Aspect of "a Foreign Policy for the Middle Class"

It is clear that the proponents of "a foreign policy for the middle class" regard it as consistent with the restoration of US global leadership. The Carnegie report says:

The United States should use its tremendous wealth and power to shape a global economic recovery that will help advance middle-class well-being. It should reject a zero-sum mentality and recognize that a collapse in the global economy would be disastrous for all Americans. 20

This statement admits that global economic recovery is the top priority for the United States and the international community when the world is in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. It demonstrates a strong sense that the United States must play the role of a global leader. In a webinar organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace based on the above report, the report authors, including Sullivan, discussed the necessity for the United States to regain its global leadership. 21

This was echoed by new Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who said the day after his nomination was confirmed by Congress, "America's leadership is needed around the world, and we will provide it because the world is far more likely to solve problems and meet challenges when the United States is there" 22 as well as by President Biden's words that the present author has quoted at the beginning of this article. These remarks make for a powerful message that the United States must take the lead on global issues. Given that the broad support of Americans is indispensable to empower such a foreign policy position, it is understandable that the Biden administration advocates the necessity of a foreign policy that benefits the American middle class.

5. Will "a Foreign Policy for the Middle Class" Lead to America First-ism?

However, there are some problems associated with this new foreign policy. The proponents of "a foreign policy for the middle class" make much of the reality that the American middle class believes that US foreign policy, especially US foreign engagements, should be implemented more "judiciously" and "selectively." They think that foreign and security policies that ignore such public wishes will not be endorsed or succeed.

But isn't there a risk that the foreign policy position derived from the argument that US foreign engagement should be more "judicious" and "selective" and that the criterion of choice should be whether it benefits the American middle class, will eventually become similar to Trump's America First-ism? Firstly, Sullivan and others say that the difference between "a foreign policy for the middle class" and the Trumpian one is that the former assumes a proactive stance toward US foreign engagement to a certain extent. They also stress that many middle-class citizens understand that US foreign engagement will benefit them in the long run. Yet, even if this is true in general terms, is it not often difficult to convince middle-class citizens that specific cases of "foreign engagement" benefit the American middle class?" If this is the case, will "a foreign policy for the middle class," like the America First foreign policy, not lead to an inward-looking US position?

Secondly, there is a question of how "a foreign policy for the middle class" with its focus on the economy and, in particular, the promotion of US economic interests will affect Biden's foreign policy. In an interview on National Public Radio broadcast on December 29, 2020, to discuss the prospects for Biden's foreign policy, Sullivan said, "every element of what we do in our foreign policy and national security ultimately has to be measured by the impact it has on working families, middle-class people, ordinary Americans here in the United States." 23 This is to the same effect as his remarks at the February 4 press conference and can be considered to represent the Biden administration's intention not to pursue a foreign policy that does not promote the economic interests of American middle-class citizens. It is also clear from the five policy recommendations 24 in the Carnegie report that "a foreign policy for the middle class" places the economic interests of the American middle class above all else. Biden and Sullivan's favorite phrase, "economic security is national security," represents the same.

However, if this is the case again, it would be difficult for the United States to pursue a foreign policy that does not bring economic and other benefits to "ordinary Americans." The question here is how "ordinary Americans" view the benefits that diplomacy would bring to them. In his February 4 foreign policy speech, President Biden said, "Investing in our diplomacy isn't something we do just because it's the right thing to do for the world. We do it in order to live in peace, security, and prosperity. We do it because it's in our own naked self-interest." 25 The emphasis on middle-class interests, as long as it is based on this broad view of national interests, will not pose a problem for US foreign policy. But ordinary citizens' views of national interests tend to be narrower in scope because they are not familiar with diplomacy. If "a foreign policy for the middle class" is carried out based on narrow economic interests claimed by "ordinary Americans," will it not virtually lead to a foreign policy that is akin to Trump's America First doctrine, which would hinder the revival of US global leadership?

In Lieu of Conclusion: Logical Problems of "a Foreign Policy for the Middle Class" Argument

There seems to exist a problem of principle with the "a foreign policy for the middle class" argument. It is the question of whether or not the logic is valid that a change in US diplomacy is necessary to rectify the reality that US diplomacy is not promoting the interests of the American middle class.

This is because all proponents of "a foreign policy for the middle class" admit that US foreign policy to date has helped increase American wealth. Nevertheless, economic inequality in the United States continues to worsen, and many middle-class citizens are suffering and growing discontent. The basic assertion of "a foreign policy for the middle class" is that fundamental reform of foreign policy is needed to resolve this problem.

But doesn't the fact that American wealth as a whole has been increasing mean that US foreign policy to date has been successful? Unquestionably, economic disparity is a grave problem in American society, and it is a vital factor that gave rise to the Trump phenomenon. However, the root of this problem lies in the way profits are distributed in the United States, and it may be misguided to blame diplomacy for it. In other words, what needs to be changed to solve the problem of domestic disparity in the United States are US laws and systems. Shouldn't we assume that US diplomacy is working well? No matter how much diplomacy is changed, if the domestic laws and institutions that give rise to the disparity remain intact, the discontent of middle-class citizens will not abate --- which may ultimately make the United States adopt a negative attitude toward the world.

The analysis in this paper indicates that whether the United States can be "back" as a global leader as the world anticipates will depend on whether the Biden administration can pursue both that very goal and a diplomacy that prioritizes the interests of middle-class citizens. However, these two directions are not necessarily consistent with each other. The success or failure of their compatibility remains unpredictable at this point.

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