Editor’s Note: This was excerpted from the February 5 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
We still don’t really know what “America is back” means yet.
In his first major foreign policy speech as President, Joe Biden on Thursday took significant steps on pulling support for the war in Yemen, boosting LGBT rights and removing Donald Trump’s draconian caps on refugees.
But on the most nettlesome issues — Russia, China, how Biden will honor his vow to save global democracy and what he will do about nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran – there’s not much to go on.
The new administration’s only had two weeks in office. But the White House did bill Biden’s speech at the State Department as a big deal — and it rarely tires of reminding everyone that he’s got more foreign policy chops than any new president in decades. For now, it seems, talking tough on not “rolling over” to Putin and sending a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait will have to serve as statements of intent.
Soon, Biden will have to show how he will actually back up his demands to free Russian dissident Alexey Navalny, or to reverse the coup in Myanmar. For now, Thursday’s speech seemed more of a thematic framing for Washington’s philosophical pivot away from “America First” and towards a more traditional stance.
The most significant line in Biden’s speech was not about the rest of the world – it was about America.
“There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy. Every action taken in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind,” Biden said, confirming the views of foreign experts who doubt the US appetite to resume its dominant global role.
“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,” Biden said. “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. When we invest in economic development of countries, we create new markets for our products and reduce the likelihood of instability, violence and mass migrations. When we strengthen health systems in far regions of the world, we reduce the risk of future pandemics that could threaten our people and our economy.”
National security adviser Jake Sullivan argues that US foreign policy has no chance of succeeding unless the middle class sees it advancing its own interests. That could rule out a return to the days when US pushed aggressive free trade, sent its troops into foreign wars, served as the global policeman and staged humanitarian interventions in places like Kosovo or Libya.
So yes, America is back. But not like before.