Two weeks after taking office, President Biden went to the State Department yesterday to give the first foreign policy address of his presidency, “America’s Place in the World.” A key theme was the need to restore American leadership by “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 reference to abusing allies was his way of saying he would reverse the approach taken by Donald Trump, without having to utter the word “Trump.”
But Biden also emphasized that his approach would be forward-looking, saying that his administration would “engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.” The underlying implication appeared to be that his approach would be more than just Obama 2.0, although in a number of (positive) respects he is moving to restore or preserve key Obama foreign policy accomplishments like renewing the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, re-entering the nuclear deal with Iran and rejoining the Paris climate accord.
The most encouraging, specific announcement in the speech was the president’s pledge to end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” By contrast, the Obama administration had supplied Saudi Arabia with tens of billions of dollars-worth of armaments and provided logistical support for its brutal war in Yemen, only to do a partial about-face late in its second term by suspending a sale of precision-guided bombs to the Saudi Royal Air Force. Biden also announced the appointment of a special envoy to lead U.S. efforts to press for an end to the Yemen war, Timothy Lenderking.
Biden’s policy shift is a victory for a coalition of human rights, humanitarian, arms control, peace and foreign policy reform organizations that has worked closely with groups in Yemen and the Yemeni diaspora such as Mwatana for Human Rights and the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation – joined at key moments by Congressional leaders like Rep. Ro Khanna and Senators Chris Murphy, Mike Lee, and Bernie Sanders. These groups and individuals have worked for years to end U.S. support for the Saudi/UAE-led war in Yemen as well as an inclusive, peaceful resolution of the conflict, and Biden’s pledge is an historic step in the right direction.
As important as it is, Biden’s statement is in need of further clarification. What actions constitute “offensive operations,” and which arms sales are “relevant?” At a minimum, the new policy should block all major arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, including precision-guided bombs, combat aircraft and helicopters, and armed drones; and prohibit targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and maintenance and support of U.S.-supplied weapons systems. And it should rescind the Trump administration’s designation of the Houthi opposition in Yemen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), a move that greatly undermines the ability of humanitarian groups to get urgently needed aid to the long-suffering people of Yemen.
Another major proposal contained in the Biden speech was a review of the U.S. global military posture to make sure it aligns with major U.S. foreign policy objectives. This review will offer an opportunity to debate whether the United States really needs 800 overseas military bases, nearly 200,000 troops deployed overseas, scores of global deployments of special forces, and routine drone strikes in areas of conflict. The outcome of the review is by no means assured, but a thorough discussion of the issue involving the public, the Congress, and the administration is imperative if we are to give meaning to the phrase “ending endless wars.”
On an issue that will have much to say about the future security of the world and the size of the Pentagon budget, Biden talked tough about confronting the misdeeds of Russia and China, while acknowledging that it would be necessary and productive to cooperate with them on issues like nuclear arms control and combatting climate change. It will be important to determine what mix of military and diplomatic tools will be used to address the conduct of these two nations, with a special focus on avoiding a new Cold War or a dangerous and exorbitantly expensive arms race with China.
Biden’s speech was a refreshing change from the erratic, transactional approach of the past four years, but there is much that needs to be fleshed out if the United States is truly going to set a new course where diplomacy indeed comes first and the militarized approach to foreign affairs that has characterized U.S. policy throughout this century and before is going to finally be abandoned in favor of a more constructive and effective approach to helping solve the most urgent threats to our safety and security.