‘America is back’: Biden’s first foreign policy speech

On Thursday 4 February 2021, US President Biden gave his first speech dealing with foreign policy issues at the Department of State in Washington.

Key points included:

  • China: “…we’ll also take on directly the challenges posed by [sic] our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China. We’ll confront China’s economic abuses, counter its aggressive, coercive action to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance. But we’re ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so,” President Biden said.
  • Russia: “…the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens, are over,” he said. “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people.  And we will be more effective in dealing with Russia when we work in coalition and coordination with other like-minded partners.”
  • Alexei Navalny: President Biden called for the release of Alexei Navalny, saying that his “politically motivated jailing… and the Russian efforts to suppress freedom of expression and peaceful assembly are a matter of deep concern to us and the international community…  He should be released immediately and without condition.”
  • Myanmar: President Biden said, “The Burmese military should relinquish power they have seized, release the advocates and activists and officials they have detained, lift the restrictions on telecommunications, and refrain from violence… we will work with our partners to support restoration of democracy and the rule of law, and impose consequences on those responsible.” (Related: EXPLAINER: Myanmar, Burma and why the different names matter)
  • Yemen: President Biden indicated that the US would no longer support offensive operations in Yemen, and that it proposes to take a stronger role in supporting an end to the conflict. ”This war has to end,” President Biden said. He continued, “We’re also stepping up our diplomacy to end the war in Yemen — a war which has created a humanitarian and strategic catastrophe.  I’ve asked my Middle East team to ensure our support for the United Nations-led initiative to impose a ceasefire, open humanitarian channels, and restore long-dormant peace talks.” President Biden noted the appointment of Tim Lenderking as America’s special envoy to the Yemen conflict. 
  • Arms sales: Speaking about the war in Yemen, President Biden also said that “relevant” U.S. arms sales would end. The administration had already announced a review of pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia’s main partner in the Yemeni offensive.
  • Troop withdrawals and Global Posture Review: The US will not be withdrawing troops from Germany at this time. President Biden said that “Defense Secretary Austin will be leading a Global Posture Review of our forces so that our military footprint is appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities…  And while this review is taking place, we’ll be stopping any planned troop withdrawals from Germany.” Last year, then President Trump announced that he was going to withdraw around a third of the U.S. troops stationed in Germany.
  • Allies and partners: The speech included numerous references to the value and importance of US “allies and partners”. “American alliances are our greatest asset. And leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again,” President Biden said. “When we strengthen our alliances, we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they can reach our shores.”  President Biden referred to “reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect”. The speech also indicated an expectation that allies, partners and ‘like-minded’ countries will contribute to achieving the U.S.’s foreign policy objectives, for example in dealing with Russia, and in relation to the restoration of democracy in Myanmar.
  • Multilateralism and diplomacy: President Biden said that “accelerating global challenges — from the pandemic to the climate crisis to nuclear proliferation — will only be solved by nations working together and in common. We can’t do it alone…  we must start with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity. That’s the grounding wire of our global policy — our global power.  That’s our inexhaustible source of strength.  That’s America’s abiding advantage.” Helped by the Department of State’s diplomatic efforts, President Biden said, “… the United States will again lead not just by the example of our power but the power of our example”.  
  • International institutions:  “We will compete from a position of strength,” President Biden said “by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority, much of which has been lost… that’s why we have moved quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally and earn back our leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges.” President Biden referred to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and the World Health Organisation.
  • Refugee admissions program:  President Biden referred to the 80 million displaced people across the world and said that he would be “approving an executive order to begin the hard work of restoring our refugee admissions program to help meet the unprecedented global need… This executive order will position us to be able to raise the refugee admissions back up to 125,000 persons for the first full fiscal year of the Biden-Harris administration”. 

Read the full transcript of President Biden’s speech, ‘Remarks by President Biden on America’s Place in the World‘.

Related media coverage:

Biden lays out foreign policy plan to reverse Trump agenda (Al Jazeera)
America is back: Biden touts muscular foreign policy in first diplomatic speech (Reuters)
Biden halts Trump-ordered US troops cuts in Germany (AP)
Biden ending US support for Saudi-led offensive in Yemen (AP)
Biden strikes tough tone on Russia in diplomatic push (AP)
Biden Signals Break With Trump Foreign Policy in a Wide-Ranging State Dept. Speech (NYT)

Image: President Biden, Department of State, Washington DC, 4 February 2021. Original photograph CBS News