President Joe Biden delivered his first major foreign policy speech at the State Department Thursday morning, offering some new details about his plans for American activities abroad but making the biggest impression by what he didn’t do: behave like his predecessor.
Then-President Donald Trump’s first visit to a federal agency for high-profile remarks came in the days after taking office, when he stood in front of the CIA Memorial Wall – hallowed ground for those involved in U.S. intelligence-gathering – and criticized news outlets for what he considered their flawed reporting on the crowd size at his inauguration in a display that would partially define his four-year term. His remarks, and particularly the location of them, were widely panned as insensitive, uninformed and delivered without the sort of process that usually accompany comments by the commander in chief.
The lead-up to and delivery of Biden’s speech on Thursday served as a clear break from Trump’s style and seemed designed by the president’s staff to appear as such.
Political Cartoons on Joe Biden
The content was clearly planned and laid out – national security adviser Jake Sullivan took to the White House podium during one of the new, regularly scheduled briefings earlier on Thursday and announced that Biden would be making news in his remarks, in this case a marked shift in the U.S. involvement in the ongoing war in Yemen. Sullivan took questions, providing more details about the practical effect of Biden’s announcement.
Then Biden previewed his own speech in televised remarks in the State Department auditorium to a collection of Foreign Service officials. Biden’s introduction by Secretary of State Antony Blinken – about as close to an “establishment” foreign policy professional as one could imagine – was met with rapturous applause by the audience. The apparent relief in the room was the antithesis of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s now-notorious and widely shared grimace when Trump referred to the institution as “The ‘Deep State’ Department” during a coronavirus briefing last year.
There, again, Biden delivered remarks indicative of an administration focused on careful and thorough planning in addition to reversing the caustic effects of his predecessor, who actively worked to dismantle institutions of diplomacy in the government. Biden previewed his own speech to take place seven stories up and an hour later: “I’m going to send a clear message to the world: America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back. You are at the center of all I intend to do. You are the heart of it.”
In that subsequent speech – the third public event of the day that the administration planned around Biden’s remarks – the president began taking clear aim at Trump. He said he has spent the prior two weeks since his inauguration “re-forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the last few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.”
Biden called for Russian President Vladimir Putin to release from prison leading dissident Alexei Navalny, who earlier this week was sentenced to almost three years in a prison camp on what his team considers trumped-up charges.
“I made very clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the U.S. rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions … are over,” Biden said. “We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people.”
The president made some news in the course of the events Thursday, announcing his decision to cease offensive military support for Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, as well as his raising caps introduced during the Trump administration on refugee admissions.
However, while a focus on breaking from his predecessor may carry Biden through his first weeks in office, it will not suffice as a policy platform. The president conspicuously did not mention Afghanistan on Thursday or North Korea or Iran’s nuclear program – perhaps the thorniest issues the Biden administration will face and which have dogged U.S. leaders for almost two decades.
Analysts also say his plan for Yemen does not account for all of the realities on the ground. Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula remains one of the insurgent group’s most potent branches, and since the U.S. withdrew its overt military presence there in 2015, much of its counterterror mission has operated with the assistance of…