In 1st Foreign Policy Address, Biden Looks To Move Beyond Trump's 'America First'

In 1st Foreign Policy Address, Biden Looks To Move Beyond Trump's 'America First'

1:14pm Feb 04, 2021
Then-President-elect Joe Biden introduces members of his foreign policy and national security teams in late November.
Then-President-elect Joe Biden introduces members of his foreign policy and national security teams in late November.
Mark Makela / Getty Images

Updated at 1 p.m. ET

President Biden is set to deliver his first foreign policy speech since he took office, on Thursday afternoon, providing early signals for his plans to chart a course away from former President Donald Trump's "America First" approach to the world.

Biden is set to say that American democratic values have "come under intense pressure in recent years" and were "pushed to the brink in the last few weeks" — an allusion to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as Congress gathered to tally the election results.

But he will vow to work with partners and allies on challenges ranging from the pandemic to climate change, according to excerpts released by the White House ahead of his remarks.

"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 is set to say.

During his first two weeks on the job, two new crises have emerged that will show how Biden plans to act on his pledge to recommit the United States to being a democratic leader on the world stage: the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a military coup in Myanmar.

On Myanmar, Biden is expected to talk about how he is working with congressional Republicans and international partners on sanctions on individuals and entities controlled by the military, his national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.

"We believe we have plenty of space to be able to find the types of sanctions targets necessary to sharpen the choice for the Burmese military," Sullivan said. The White House is also considering an executive order on the issue, he said.

Brett Bruen, who served as the White House's director of global engagement in the Obama administration, said Moscow and Beijing — which has close ties to Myanmar — are watching closely.

"What you're seeing in both Moscow as well as in Myanmar are efforts to test the president," Bruen said. "How far is he willing to go?"

Nations around the world will be watching to see whether and how Biden marshals support from allies and partners after Trump's willingness to upend longstanding relationships with allies and engage with autocratic heads of state, said Charles Kupchan, who was part of the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

"The American brand, America as the beacon, America as this 'City on the Hill' — all of that has been profoundly tarnished," said Kupchan, who served as the NSC's senior director for European affairs.

Leadership on Yemen

Biden will announce an end to U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen in his speech, Sullivan said. The administration will halt two arms sales to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – deals made by the Trump administration – as part of the decision, Sullivan said. But the move will not apply to actions the United States takes against AQAP, an extremist group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Biden will name a special envoy on Yemen at the State Department, and will say that the United States plans to play a bigger role in trying to end the conflict in that country, Sullivan said.

On U.S. force deployments, Biden will announce that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will lead a review of where U.S. forces are around the world, Sullivan said. Biden will put a hold on a Trump-era decision to move U.S. troops out of Germany during the review, Sullivan said.

Focus on refugees

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden's speech, to be delivered at the State Department, was aimed at thanking foreign service officers who "have had a challenging couple of years." During his tenure, Trump viewed many career civil servants at the department as part of what he called "the deep state" seeking to undermine him.

In his speech, Biden also will announce a presidential memorandum on protecting the rights of LGBTQ people worldwide, Sullivan said.

Biden is expected to talk about his goal to increase the number of refugees admitted into the United States. Trump had pushed to reduce refugee admission to 15,000 people, its lowest level in modern times. Biden had pledged during his campaign to raise the annual cap to 125,000 people per year, up from levels between 70,000 to 80,000 people during the Obama and Bush administrations.

"Raising the ceiling will literally be lifesaving for hundreds of thousands fleeing violence and persecution because of the color of their skin, how they worship or who they love," said Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, the chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in an interview.

"In the last four years under Trump, the refugee resettlement program hit rock bottom. If you think of the program as a car, not only did the Trump administration slam on the brakes, it tried intentionally to dismantle the engine," O'Mara Vignarajah said.

Kevin Appleby, a longtime immigration advocate who works on refugee issues, said it will take time for the Biden administration to lift the cap to reach its goal. "The Trump administration tried to strangle the program to death, and they nearly succeeded," said Appleby, a board member of the Hope Border Institute.

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