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A nation must think before it acts.
The Biden administration has multiple competing priorities: COVID-19 and its economic impacts, long-ignored racial fissures, and a growing tenuous relationship with truth, reality, and trust among the populace, just to name a few. President Joseph Biden also has the challenge of representing the United States on the foreign stage. In that capacity, he is charged with crafting a new foreign policy—one that champions a balance of hard and soft power, tailored for the most efficient use of resources and the most effective results.
He is off to a good start; in his interim national security guidance released in early March, President Biden acknowledges the role of soft power resources in building and maintaining U.S. strength, even if he doesn’t call the concept out by name. He posits,
Achieving these goals rests on a core strategic proposition: The United States must renew its enduring advantages so that we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength. We will build back better our economic foundations; reclaim our place in international institutions; lift up our values at home and speak out to defend them around the world; modernize our military capabilities, while leading first with diplomacy; and revitalize America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships.
Focusing on economic strength, alliances, and institutions and exporting American values and ideals are good starts to restoring American soft power abroad—a critical component of American leadership. In fact, the post-WWII world order, and, more recently, the post-Cold War international system with the United States emerging at the sole superpower, was only possible through U.S. soft power. Historically, the United States has maintained its power and influence abroad, in part, due to its appeal. This appeal must be restored.
This is not a call for a post-Trump 180, the path away from soft power and towards a hard power-dominant foreign policy is decades-long. True reinvigoration is going to require not only a criticism of the past four years, but also deep introspection on President Biden’s own contribution to the trend as a senator and vice president. In other words, building a smart power approach to foreign policy is going to take more than simply rejoining a few international accords or hosting some impressive state dinners. Frankly, it’s going to take more time than this administration has, even with the possibility of a second term. But if we take Biden at his promise to serve as a transitional leader, we can certainly start rebuilding the foundation of a foreign policy approach that will serve generations of Americans and citizens abroad for decades.
This starts with rebuilding relationships. Based on Biden’s picks for high-level positions, it appears that he understands the power of relationships, choosing long-term confidants and establishment experts. Biden values trust and interpersonal history—and this approach must be applied to international relations.
President Biden campaigned on his personal relationships with key international leaders, which is critical, but the administration must also craft relationships with populations and other non-state actors. While the new administration understands the potential threat from non-state actions, it would be well-advised to also consider the potential opportunities in non-state groups and craft a national security strategy that acknowledges the growing power and role of such groups. For example, this strategy must include a prioritization of immigration and refugee programs, such as the Special Immigration Visa Program. While the Trump administration infamously decreased the levels of immigrants admitted under this program, the United States has arguably never fulfilled its responsibilities to the men and women who have assisted missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not only should the Biden administration reintroduce the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program, but it also should offer a permanent fix to the Afghan program as well as create a new program to reward our allies in the Syrian conflict. Such programs would establish the United States as a leader in refugee rights and protections. The success of future conflicts will be heavily reliant on the ability to gain and maintain the trust of civilian populaces. Without interpreters, translators, and other host-nation citizens, the success of U.S. missions abroad would and will continue to be threatened. More than that, failing to uphold promises to allies abroad threatens American legitimacy and standing in the international community.
In the new world order described by the administration, these wicked international problems “respect no borders or walls, and must be met with collective action.” While the COVID-19 pandemic has made the increasingly global nature of the international order abundantly clear, biological disease isn’t the first challenge to transcend borders. Counterterrorism, the threat of nuclear war, economic structures, and climate change all present challenges not to a single state or region, but to an entire international structure. These problems can only be addressed with global solutions.
Unfortunately, relationships are more easily broken than repaired, and the United States has been breaking relationships with allies aboard for decades. Take, for example, the spying controversies of the Obama and Bush administrations and repeated criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by President Trump. The Biden administration can—and must—repair these relationships with verbal commitments, and it must back up these promises with action. Moreover, President Biden must be careful that these relationships are built between world leaders and the United States, not just with the Biden administration. Nations do not want to build relations with a four-year president or a two-year Congress. Foreign partners want lasting relationships with the American nation. This will require Biden to return to his political home: Congress. He must work with Congress to pass legislation that cannot be overturned with executive orders by future administrations. In this sense, it not only matters what Biden does, but also how he does it. While the executive branch has sweeping powers when it comes to foreign policy, unilateral executive action will not be enough to rebuild U.S. international power and influence. It’s one thing to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, but it’s another to live up to a global commitment to combatting climate change.
President Biden must also rebuild the primary institutions which govern (or should govern) American foreign policy: the Intelligence Community and the Department of State. The Intelligence Community, among other reforms, must be remade. It must evolve, or rather be revolutionized from a hierarchy centered on collection and technology into a flattened community driven by analysis. This community must be flexible, adaptable, and empowered to adjust to the information age, to include the robust inclusion, or even prioritization, of open source intelligence. For too long, the United States has thrown money and advanced technology at the Intelligence Community, under the premise that more information makes for better intelligence. Unfortunately, “more” information is not always necessary nor sufficient for better intelligence, and the overreliance on such goals has led to an Intelligence Community deficient in quality analysis and timely assessments.
If this administration stands any chance of successfully utilizing soft power in its strategy, President Biden must also reinstate the Department of State as the leader of U.S. foreign policy, reversing the trend of favoring the Department of Defense as the “tip of the spear” (Retiring the militarized language used to describe foreign policy might also contribute to these efforts). In order to successfully do this, however, President Biden must prioritize the funding and resource allocation to the department. One recent report recommends prioritizing technology innovation and diversity among the highest levels throughout the department.
In parallel with creating a State Department ready to meet the challenges of the 21st century international order, President Biden will need to create a foreign policy that meets the understanding and needs of the American people. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken vowed to make foreign policy work, not just for the citizens of foreign nations, but for those of this nation as well. This means the ability to sell foreign policy decisions to some of President Biden’s harshest critics. President Biden will not only need to make the tough calls, but also take the time to explain the complexities of national security decision-making to the American taxpayer—no simple feat in a hyper-partisan world of memes and misinformation. He acknowledges this added challenge in his interim guidance, highlighting in the opening paragraph that the administration must demonstrate to the American people that foreign policy is how we safeguard life at home.
President Biden must address long-standing domestic fissures. Soft power resources, like culture and values, are susceptible to depletion just as readily as hard power resources. Of course, with soft power, it is a decline of appeal rather than a reduction or outpacing of defense assets. As he stated in his inauguration address, the United States must “lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” This means addressing the centuries of systematic and systemic racism baked into the fabric of the nation as well as the recent trends of our “flawed democracy” and “declining freedom.” Last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, re-ignited by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer, were not confined to American borders, but spread to a global movement. The world has always watched the United States, but with each day, the lenses through which we are viewed increase in quantity, clarity, and timeliness. Policymakers must abandon the fanciful notions of a divide between domestic and foreign policy and understand that if the United States wants to remain a global superpower, then Washington must uphold the ideals that helped it achieve that status in the first place. Not only does addressing racial inequality bolster U.S. credibility in the international space, but it also has the dual benefit of inoculating against mis/disinformation attacks from threat nations. Russia, most notably, has a long-standing tradition of exacerbating and profiting from America’s race wars. Likewise, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quoted Tupac Shakur last year in a tweet responding to the killing of George Floyd. Outside of racial issues, the Biden administration must address the growing threat in the information domain and the role of tech companies in combating the narratives propagated by both white nationalist and conspiracy groups, narratives that directly led to the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol on January 6.
Politics, especially in the international space, is almost always a game of competing priorities. With concise strategic foci and holistic approaches, however, it does not need to be a zero-sum game. If done correctly, rebuilding the State Department and Intelligence Community can have a high return on investment in national security—even in current times of economic peril. Likewise, addressing domestic issues can have far-reaching effects on the international stage. While there are no quick fixes to restoring America’s standing in the currently contested world order, there are immediate and tangible steps that this administration can and should take in order to course-correct American foreign policy. These changes can help empower this nation to create a safer, more just international community. By rebuilding foreign alliances with state and non-state actors, such as immigrants, refugees, and U.S. military partners, and doing so with binding and enduring legislation, President Biden can re-establish trust and confidence in the United States as a global leader. By empowering the Department of State to be the leading element for U.S. foreign policy, President Biden can signal that going forward, Washington will lead with state diplomacy rather than military destruction. By starting the long process of addressing the historic racial injustices and the more contemporary challenges at the intersection of mis/disinformation and technology, the United States can reflect its foreign policy objectives at home, which both protects the American people from threat operations and builds credibility abroad. None of these challenges can be fully addressed during Biden’s tenure, but the path to their solutions is open now, and this administration must possess the forethought, commitment, and political will to take it.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.