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Opinion | What Should Drive Biden’s Foreign Policy?

It is true that the United States plays a less central role in the world today than it did 70 years ago. Over the last four years, the world’s democracies, whether in the West or in East Asia, have stopped looking to America for leadership. Europe has weathered a succession of grave crises with virtually no help from us. Yet we have negative proof of American influence in the way that illiberal leaders in Hungary and Poland, and nationalist figures elsewhere, have pointed to the United States as proof that they represent the wave of the future. Trumpism has been a disaster for beleaguered figures like President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany. You do not have to be intoxicated with “American exceptionalism” to believe that the United States needs to take a leadership role on restoring democracy.

“Lead” need not be a euphemism for “dominate.” Though we think of the Cold War as a series of military and diplomatic crises, liberals like Humphrey always understood it as a battle of ideas — a struggle over “the fundamental issue of man’s right to freedom,” as he put it when introducing civil rights legislation once again in 1958. The Marshall Plan as well as later food aid programs constituted acts of global leadership. But so, too, was civil rights, which liberals regarded as the ultimate demonstration project for the moral capacities of democracy. “If we wish to inspire the peoples of the world whose freedom is in jeopardy,” President Harry Truman said in his historic 1948 message to Congress proposing laws banning employment discrimination and lynching as well as segregation in interstate transport, “we must correct the remaining imperfections in our practice of democracy.”

Opinion Debate
What should the Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Congress prioritize?

  • The Editorial Board argues that the president should rely less on executive orders, which can prove ephemeral and “are not meant to serve as an end run around the will of Congress.”
  • Michelle Goldberg, Opinion columnist, writes that in this unique moment, Biden “has the potential to be our first truly post-Reagan president.”
  • Adam Finn and Richard Malley, physicians specializing in infectious disease, argue for a faster vaccination strategy: “The excess of caution is killing people.”
  • James Traub, a columnist for Foreign Policy, writes that “a politics of democratic renewal would once again bind together domestic and foreign affairs.”

Though preoccupied with the Soviet threat, the Cold War liberals regarded domestic policy as the hammer with which they could forge a democratic world order. Now our situation is reversed. At a moment when the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the economy and killed 400,000 people and counting, foreign policy feels like an afterthought; yet our failures at home contribute to democratic erosion abroad. To take only the most obvious and shameful example, the haplessness of President Trump’s response to the pandemic — and, if somewhat less egregiously, that of other Western nations — stands in glaring contrast to China’s success in both reducing deaths and restoring economic growth. Asian democracies, including Taiwan and Japan, have done just as well, but it is China, right now, whose demonstration project looks most powerful. Trump’s canting about “the China virus” and his bluster over China’s (genuinely unfair) trading practices only accentuate America’s weak position at a time when China is aggressively promoting its model of autocratic capitalism through trade, investment and cultural diplomacy.

A politics of democratic renewal would once again bind together domestic and foreign affairs. Mr. Biden has in fact argued that such a policy must begin with a reassertion of moral principle at home by banning torture and ending the gross mistreatment of migrants at our borders. Only then, having restored at least a measure of legitimacy, would Mr. Biden seek to revitalize the tattered global order by convening what he calls a “summit of democracy” in order to build a unified response to both autocratic states and backsliding democracies.

Joe Biden has every reason to emulate Harry Truman, another political lifer disdained by the party’s activist wing and admired for common sense and decency rather than vision. Yet the truth is that neither fair employment legislation nor any of the other major elements of Truman’s civil rights agenda became law during his tenure. They were blocked, not by Republicans but by Southern Democrats, who had throttled virtually all ambitious legislation after F.D.R.’s first term lest such laws raise the status of African-Americans. It was a foreign policy built on institutional cooperation and massive aid — not to mention the dynamism and prosperity of midcentury American society — that gave reality to the aspirations of the Cold War liberals.

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