Discover more from Letters from an American
July 29, 2023 (Saturday)
I had intended to write about Bacon’s Rebellion today, since on this date in 1676, Nathaniel Bacon published the Declaration of the People of Virginia, outlining the rebels’ demands —and, let’s be honest, also because I am giddy with relief at finishing the final stages of the new book and eager to be doing actual history again—but President Joe Biden gave a surprisingly interesting talk in Freeport, Maine, yesterday that hit my in-box today just as I was sitting down to write about Bacon. (I wasn’t at the event—I was in Boston recording the audiobook.)
When he first spoke at the State Department on February 4, 2021, Biden tied foreign policy and domestic policy together, saying: “There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy. Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind. Advancing a foreign policy for the middle class demands urgent focus on our domestic…economic renewal.”
“If we invest in ourselves and our people,” he said back in 2021, “if we fight to ensure that American businesses are positioned to compete and win on the global stage, if the rules of international trade aren’t stacked against us, if our workers and intellectual property are protected, then there’s no country on Earth…that can match us.
“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. When we strengthen our alliances, we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they can reach our shores.”
Yesterday, in a campaign reception at a private home in Freeport, he gave what amounted to a more personal version of that speech, updated after the events of his first two and a half years in office. As he spoke informally to a small audience, he seemed to hit what he sees as the major themes of his presidency so far. The talk included an interesting twist.
Biden talked again about the world being at an inflection point, defining it as an abrupt turn off an established path that means you can never get back on the original path again. The world is changing, he said, and not because of leaders, but because of fundamental changes like global warming and artificial intelligence. “We’re seeing changes… across the world in fundamental ways. And so, we better get going on what we’re going to do about it, both in foreign policy and domestic policy.”
“Name me a part of the world that you think is going to look like it did 10 years ago 10 years from now,” he said.
But Biden went on to make the case that such fundamental change “presents enormous opportunities.”
He began by outlining the economic successes of his administration: more than 13.2 million new jobs—including 810,000 jobs in manufacturing—inflation coming down, and so on. He attributed that success to his administration’s embrace of the country’s older vision of investing in workers and the middle class rather than concentrating wealth at the top of the economy in hopes that the wealthy would invest efficiently. The administration focused on infrastructure and manufacturing, using measures like the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act to jump-start private investment in new industries in the U.S.
Then he turned to foreign affairs. “Does anybody think that the post-war eras still exist, the rules of the road from the end of World War Two?” he asked. The Atlantic Charter of August 1941 that defined a post–World War II order based that world on territorial integrity, national self-determination, economic growth, and alliances to protect those values. It was the basis for most of the postwar international institutions that have protected a rules-based order ever since.
But the world has changed, Biden said. In recognition of the new era, in June 2021, Biden and then–U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson signed a “New Atlantic Charter” to update the original. The new charter renews the U.S. commitment to the old one, then resolves “to defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies,” and to “strengthen the institutions, laws, and norms that sustain international co-operation to adapt them to meet the new challenges of the 21st century, and guard against those that would undermine them.”
Yesterday, Biden noted that his administration has shored up alliances around the world, just as he called for at the State Department back in February 2021 and in the New Atlantic Charter of June 2021. It helped to pull Europe together to support Ukraine against Russia’s 2022 invasion, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “is stronger today than it’s ever been in its existence.”
The Indo-Pacific world is changing, with new alliances coming together to hold firm on the idea of a rules-based international order. Biden has supported “the Quad”—India, Japan, Australia, and the United States—to stop China from changing that order, and other countries are taking note, shifting toward support for that order themselves. Did “anybody ever think Japan would increase its military budget over its domestic budget and help a European war on the side of the West?” Biden asked. “That’s what it’s doing. It’s changing the dynamic significantly.”
“The world is changing in a big way,” Biden said. “And we want to promote democracies…. [T]here is so much going on that we can make the world…a lot safer and better and more secure.”
“So…if you think about what’s happening, there is a confluence, if we get this right, of both domestic economic policy and foreign policy. [It] can make [us] safer and more secure than we’ve been [for] a long, long time.”
For all that his talk was a heartfelt recap of his presidency, he emphasized that the key to those successes has been democratic institutions. Referring to President Bill Clinton’s secretary of state Madeleine Albright’s reference to the United States as “the essential nation,” he attributed the leadership of the United States in world affairs not to its military might or economic power, but rather to its ability to create and defend alliances and, crucially, institutions that aspire to a rules-based world that works for, rather than against, ordinary people.
“Who could possibly bring the world together?” Biden asked. “Not me. But the President of the United States of America. Who could do it unless the President of the United States does it? Who? What nation could do it?” His vision was not the triumphalism of recent presidents; it reached back to the 1940s, to the postwar institutions that helped to rebuild Europe and create lasting alliances, and expanded that vision for the twenty-first century.
He recognized that U.S. policies have caused damage in the past, and that the country must fix things it has broken. “We’re the ones who polluted the world,” he said, for example. “We made a lot of money,” and now the bill has come due.
And while the nation’s postwar vision was centered on majority-white countries, he emphasized that the modern world must include everyone. “[T]here’s a whole lot at stake, he said, “And I think we have an opportunity. And one of the ways we make life better for us is make life better for the rest of the world. That’s why I pushed so hard for the Build Back Better initiative to build the infrastructure in Africa…and in Latin America and South America.”
Biden noted that the strength of the U.S. is in its diversity. “I said when I got elected I was going to have an administration that looked like America.” He noted that there are a higher percentage of women in his Cabinet than ever before—more than the number of men—and that he had appointed more Black appellate court judges to the federal courts “than every other president in America combined.” He did this for a simple reason, he said: “Our strength is our diversity. It’s about time we begin to use it.”
“[T]he whole world is changing,” Biden said, “But if we grab hold,” he continued, “[t]here’s nothing beyond our capacity.”
If I were writing a history of the Biden administration 150 years from now, I would call out this informal talk as an articulation of a vision of American leadership, based not in economic expansion, military might, or personalities, or even in policies, but in the strength of the institutions of democracy, preserved through global alliances.
So I guess I got to write about history today, after all.