US President Joe Biden laid out his foreign policy agenda on Thursday afternoon, unveiling a return to “standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once more” after years of the previous administration’s diplomacy, which tended towards isolationism.
“Over the past two weeks, I’ve spoken with the leaders of many of our closest friends – Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Australia – to begin re-forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscles of democratic alliances that have atrophied from four years of neglect and abuse,” Biden said.
“America is back. Diplomacy is back”, he added.
To date, Biden has focused on domestic policy to address the tumult of the transition and continuing fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The president is now looking to address issues from the “pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation – challenges that will only be solved by nations working together in common cause”.
Biden said the fight for democracy in the US, following the January 6 Capitol occupation that aimed to keep former President Donald Trump in power, will inspire pro-democracy diplomacy across the world.
Biden addressed the challenges from China and Russia and the military coup in Myanmar that saw former leader Aung San Suu Kyi, founder of the National League for Democracy, detained and charged with violating import laws after six walkie-talkies were allegedly found in her home.
“There can be no doubt, in a democracy, force should never be used to overrule the will of the people”, Biden said.
Wednesday’s speech is Biden’s first major foreign policy speech since taking office on January 20. Over the past two weeks, Biden’s foreign policy agenda has been discussed publicly by his foreign policy team, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Blinken announced ahead of Biden’s speech the US would no longer support offensive operations in Yemen, headed by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia that first intervened in 2015.
The operations enjoyed the support of the former President Donald Trump’s administration, which was friendly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The conflict in Yemen has long been criticised for its ever-increasing civilian death toll, caused both by fighting and a blockade which prevents necessary supplies and food from entering Houthi-controlled areas.
The Trump administration designated the Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls the majority of Yemen, a “terrorist” organisation. The Biden administration has authorised transactions with the Houthis as it reviews the designation.
The US is also reviewing arms deals with both the UAE and Saudi Arabia brokered by the Trump administration.
Sullivan said this includes “two arms sales of precision-guided munitions that the president has halted that were moving forward at the end of the last administration”, adding the administration has spoken with counterparts in the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in an effort not to surprise them with policy decisions.
Blinken and Sullivan look set to have an ally in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, who has worked to cancel the controversial arms sales.
Menendez will resume his position as chair of the Senate’s foreign policy committee after a Wednesday power-sharing agreement between Democrats and Republicans, who each have 50 seats in the 100-seat chamber.
Blinken and Menendez appear aligned on Iran and its nuclear programme. Biden opted to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement that saw the international community lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for guarantees it would not produce nuclear weapons.
Trump left the deal in 2018. Now, Blinken and Menendez have both called for a return to the JCPOA in exchange for further concessions from Tehran.
The Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy employed sanctions and tariffs, especially regarding China, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela.
Though often depicted as working closely with Russia, the Trump administration frequently sanctioned Moscow, though it remains unclear if Trump always supported these moves.
Blinken criticised Russian authorities over a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators following the arrest and sentencing of opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
Blinken told NBC News in an interview that aired Monday that further sanctions on Moscow are possible, without mentioning specifics.
The secretary of state also called out Beijing’s treatment of protesters in Hong Kong, along with its lack of transparency regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, which originated in China.
“If they’re the victims of repression from Chinese authorities, we should do something to give them haven,” Blinken said, referring to the Hong Kong protesters in favour of democratic systems.
Blinken also called China’s refusal to allow inspectors inside important sites related to the discovery of the novel coronavirus in late 2019 a “profound problem”.
Meanwhile, the US will pursue arms control with Russia and China, which is at odds with a renewed arms race between the three powers seen under Trump.
The Biden administration is also set to continue with aspects of the Trump’s policy towards Venezuela, the South American nation that has been at odds with Washington for more than a decade.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Wednesday the administration would continue recognising interim President Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s leader.
Price called Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro a “dictator”, but did not call for his removal.
The Trump administration was also known for allowing the diplomatic corps to wither. A report (PDF) by the Democratic staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee found that State Department officials found themselves “under attack”.
Biden said he wanted the State Department officials “in our embassies and consulates around the world to know that I value your expertise, and I respect you. I will have your back. This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicise you.”