Yet another Friday without a news dump from the federal government (woo hoo!) means that I have the room to highlight something really interesting that was buried in President Biden’s speech at the State Department yesterday afternoon. Not surprisingly, Biden announced a return to a more traditional foreign policy than his predecessor’s. But he did more than that: he tied foreign policy to domestic interests in a way that echoed Republican president Theodore Roosevelt when he helped to launch the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century.
Biden’s predecessor wrenched U.S. foreign policy from the channel in which it had operated since WWII, replacing it with a new focus on the economic interests of business leaders. Trump chose as Secretary of State the former chief executive officer of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, who oversaw the gutting of career officers in the State Department. When the department lost 12% of its foreign-affairs specialists in the first eight months of 2017, it was clear that the Trump administration was abandoning a foreign policy in which the United States tried to defend the idea of democracy and to advance its interests through diplomacy.
Instead, in his first trip overseas, the former president traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he announced the largest single arms deal in American history, worth $110 billion immediately and more than $350 billion over ten years. The White House noted that the deal was “a significant expansion of… [the] security relationship” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
"That was a tremendous day. Tremendous investments in the United States," Trump told reporters. "Hundreds of billions of dollars of investments into the United States and jobs, jobs, jobs." Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s largest defense contractors, cheered the sale.
It was a public relations victory for Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS and the deputy crown prince of Saudi Arabia at the time, coming as it did just a year after Congress voted to allow the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks to sue the country from which 15 of the 19 hijackers came. It also would increase the U.S. supply of arms to his country’s intervention in Yemen, the country to its south, where a pro-Saudi president had been ousted in 2015 by the Houthi movement, whose members accused him of corruption and ties to Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
In his remarks during his May visit to Saudi Arabia, Trump backed away from the role the United States had claimed to take on since its war with Spain in 1898, aiming to defend democracy around the world. “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship,” Trump said. “[W]e are here to offer partnership-- based on shared interests and values—to pursue a better future for us all.”
For the rest of his presidency, Trump worked to weaken the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance among 30 nations of Europe, the U.S., and Canada, formed in 1949 to stop the spread of Soviet, and now Russian, aggression in Europe. Instead, he worked to strengthen U.S. ties to countries with strongman leaders, such as MBS and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He sidestepped career diplomats to run his own, shadow diplomacy out of the White House, tapping his son-in-law Jared Kushner to secure peace in the Middle East, for example, and asking administration officials to pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
And he continued to sell billions worth of arms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, even after Congress halted such transfers as indiscriminate Saudi bombing in Yemen created a deadly humanitarian crisis.
One of the first things Biden did when he took office was to freeze for review $23 billion in pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates negotiated by his predecessor (including 50 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets). Yesterday, he announced he was ending U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen.
In his speech to the State Department yesterday Biden immediately indicated that he was restoring traditional American diplomacy. The first thing he did was to acknowledge his secretary of state, Antony Blinken, a career diplomat with a degree from Columbia Law School and a long and impressive resume including work on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan.
The next thing Biden said was to assure the world that diplomats around the world spoke for the country again: “when you speak, you speak for me.” Later on, he reiterated that idea: “I value your expertise and I respect you, and I will have your back. This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you.”
Biden emphasized that he had spoken to “the leaders of many of our closest friends — Canada, Mexico, the UK, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, Australia — to [begin] reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.” The message he wants the world to hear is: “America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”
Also back at the center of American diplomacy are “America’s most cherished democratic values,” Biden said, “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” The case of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned in August and returned to Russia in mid-January only to be thrown into jail, has enabled Biden to illustrate how dramatically his foreign policy differs from that of his predecessor. Biden called on Putin to release Navalny “immediately and without condition.”
Biden outlined his approach to Yemen, China, and Russia… and then he said something that jumped out.
Biden argued that foreign policy is an integral part of domestic policy. It requires that the government address the needs of ordinary Americans. “We will compete from a position of strength by building back better at home,” he said. “That’s why my administration has already taken the important step to live our domestic values at home — our democratic values at home.”
This idea—that the U.S. must reform its own society in order to extend the principles of democracy overseas-- was precisely the argument Theodore Roosevelt and other reformers made in the late 1890s when they launched the Progressive Era. When Roosevelt became president in 1901, he used this rationale to take the government out of the hands of business interests and use it to protect ordinary Americans.
Roosevelt argued that the government must clean up the cities, educate children, protect workers and consumers, support farmers, and make business pay its fair share. Biden shared his own list on Thursday: ending the so-called Muslim ban, reversing the ban on transgender troops, defending the free press, respecting science, addressing systemic racism and white supremacy, and rebuilding the economy.
“All this matters to foreign policy,” he said, “because when we… rally the nations of the world to defend democracy globally, to push back… authoritarianism’s advance, we’ll be a much more credible partner because of these efforts to shore up our own foundations.”
While this may be a little of off topic from today's letter, I thought I would share my exchange with my Trump Sycophant Congressman on Marjorie Taylor Greene
Thank you for contacting my office regarding H. Res. 72. As always, I welcome your input.
As you may know, H. Res. 72 was introduced by Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL). This resolution was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on February 4, 2021, by a vote of 230 – 199. The resolution removes Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene from the House Committee on the Budget and the House Committee on Education and Labor.
I believe Marjorie Taylor Greene’s offensive, unacceptable and inaccurate comments were hurtful to people across the nation. We are all accountable for our own. This is an unprecedented vote that only deepens divides in Congress where other members have not been disciplined for their anti-Semitic or violent comments. I want to work together with all the Republicans and Democrats the voters have sent to Congress so we can make our nation better rather than use our time to judge one another’s words. We would get a lot more done if members stopped attacking one another and focused on getting the American people back to work, getting our kids back in school, and distributing the COVID-19 vaccines.
Here's my response
You are welcome! I always appreciate your quick responses in regards to my concerns about your voting record and your response to issues such as raising the minimum wage.
I appreciate that you believe Marjorie Taylor Greene’s offensive, unacceptable and inaccurate comments were hurtful to people across the nation. Yet, you could not bring yourself to vote for her removal. Representative King was removed from his committee assignments for much less. While the removal was justified, it pales when compared to Representative King’s comments. Again, why wasn’t similar action taken. Yes, Democrats have said or done things that I find offensive. In a majority of those cases, there was a reckoning. However, I don’t recall seeing video of any Democratic Representatives before they were in office harassing a survivor of a mass school shooting or when they are in office coming out from the White House the day before a mass insurrection suggesting there was going to be some action the next day. Again, your support of keeping Representative Greene on her committees one of which was the Education Committee is unacceptable.
I also appreciate that you want to work together with Democrats and Republicans. If only your actions matched your words. Again, your voting record does not reflect that intent. In spite of your opposition, I think a lot of things are getting done. President Biden has hit the ground running working for the American people. He is focused on getting the American people back to work, getting our kids back in school, and distributing the COVID-19 vaccines. In spite of the fact, he was handicapped by President Trump’s refusal to cooperate during the transition due to claims of election fraud. As I recall you support President Trump’s fruitless efforts to claim election fraud. How many court cases did he lose? 60 out of 61. That was a good use of time. Imagine, if President Trump had cooperated how much better off we would be.
I've seen many memes where Biden is smiling or laughing, usually with Obama, that imply he's a fun loving prankster - not that there's anything wrong with that.
However, since the election there's been a sobriety or gravitas, or maybe it's earnestness, in his addresses, and even press releases, that's both striking and gripping. Why is this grabbing my attention?
“I value your expertise and I respect you, and I will have your back. This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you.”
One, Biden rarely uses the pronoun "I" unless he's assuming responsibility. He doesn't use it to focus on himself or to elevate his role or skills or knowledge above those of his staff, government employees, or the citizens of the US, not just his "followers." Two, he doesn't single out or denigrate individuals or organizations to blame for this lousy state of affairs, but offers a better vision by comparing where he wants to be against specific perceived failings that exist today. Three, he offers belief in, and respects the value of, both his nominees and all the people who come to work each day for the government, on behalf of all citizens AND residents of America. Four, his tone exudes belief and confidence in the hope and ability of collaboration to take on and resolve the challenges facing us. It's not "us vs. them," even in the face of recalcitrant Republican Senators and representatives. Five, there's a resolve to make things happen. While he didn't say "it's my way or the highway" about his COVID relief proposal, he did make clear that he'd use whatever levers possible to pass this bill, even if he would've preferred a fully bipartisan effort. Six, he's not castigating his political foes. When 10 GOP Senators asked to speak to him about a counterproposal, he accepted the request without any prior public condemnation. I'm sure he used a side by side comparison to evaluate each point of difference, and when deciding that their counter was insufficient to meet his goals, he didn't call out that group as stupid or radical or lazy or do-nothings.
I could go on but the contrasts with Trump are clear. Compared to Trump's wealth, arrogance, and hastily and performatively adopted "Christian family values" alliances with Evangelicals, Biden is more informed by the experiential difference of his humble origins, his personal losses, and his lifelong, but not outspoken, religious faith. Stylistically, Biden's quiet resolve stands out against Trump's bombastic threats. I'd characterize his approach to transition as "do no harm but take no shit." There are times to appease and times to move ahead without worrying about his detractors. He seeks counsel from those who agree with him as well as those who differ, but when he makes a decision he's politely but clearly saying "your opinion counts but your vote doesn't."
Look, Joe's not an angel. He's not a saint. He failed to stand up to Clarence Thomas's racist card when Thomas declared his Supreme Court hearing as "a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks" despite credible charges of sexual harassment. His mouth got ahead of him during the debate on the 1994 crime bill when he warned of "predators in the streets" and "lock the S.O.B.s up" in a tone eerily prescient of Trump's 2015 announcement of his candidacy. And he courted well known and unrepentant racists like James Eastland and Strom Thurmond.
Does he regret those things deep down or only for the sake of political expedience? I don't know, but they've not been consistent or current hallmarks of his public persona in the way that Marjorie Taylor Greene's social media posts have been. There are few, if any, concerns about questionable moral or ethical actions. He's not known as a liar or adulterer or megalomaniac.
In short (sorry, too late!), despite some human flaws, foibles, and failings, Biden doesn't attempt to impose a vision of America predicated on isolation, xenophobia, and disdain for those without privilege. After almost five years of the alternative, it's remarkable to hear the English language being used to unite instead of divide, and to call the nation to action on behalf of each other instead of for the white donor class. Welcome aboard, Joe, it's time to kick some ass and reintroduce the better angels of America.