WASHINGTON—President Biden, faced with a range of early foreign policy challenges, outlined his vision for an expansion of multilateral engagement with the world and an emphasis on human rights during a State Department visit Thursday.
In his first foreign policy speech as president, Mr. Biden said he had reached out to traditional American allies—Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Australia—to begin “re-forming 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.”
He continued, “America’s alliances are our greatest asset. And leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.”
The president’s remarks represented a shift from the Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine, which Mr. Biden has said undermined U.S. influence overseas.
Prior to his speech, Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and addressed State Department employees in the president’s first visit to a cabinet agency since taking office. Mr. Biden’s remarks sought to boost morale following disagreements between career staff and political leadership and the departure of experienced diplomats under his predecessor.
“In our administration, you’re going to be trusted and you’re going to be empowered,” Mr. Biden said. “I promise you I’m going to have your back.”
Former President Donald Trump was largely skeptical of Washington’s post-World War II alliances, seeing NATO members as economic competitors who should pay significantly more for their own defense. He strongly backed Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and vetoed congressional attempts to curb weapon sales to Riyadh.
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Other actions, such as deals that led Arab countries to recognize Israel, were welcomed by Democrats and Republicans. Mr. Blinken has said Mr. Trump’s overall tough approach to China, which the previous administration targeted for unfair trade practices and what Mr. Trump said was a lack of transparency around the origins of coronavirus, is the right one, even if the Biden administration disagrees about how the policy was implemented.
Still, lawmakers in both parties have expressed eagerness to strengthen ties with countries where U.S. relations soured under Mr. Trump, such as Germany and other allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Already, Mr. Biden has taken several steps to roll back some of Mr. Trump’s actions, including returning the U.S. to the Paris climate accord and retracting the Trump administration’s decision to leave the World Health Organization. Mr. Biden has also urged a more-coordinated international response to addressing the Covid-19 pandemic and recently signed on to global efforts aimed at making coronavirus vaccines available around the world.
The pandemic and an economic recession are poised to dominate the initial stages of Mr. Biden’s presidency. The president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, recently said that the nation’s grip on domestic issues was inextricably linked to its success overseas.
“We have to put ourselves in a position of strength to be able to deal with the challenges we face around the world,” Mr. Sullivan said at a virtual event last week. “Right now, the most profound pressing national security challenge for the United States is getting our own house in order.”
Yet even as the Biden administration has sought to focus on domestic crises, including the pandemic, the economy and calls for racial justice, his national security team faces pressing problems around the world.
On Monday, military leaders took over in Myanmar, also known as Burma, a setback for U.S. officials who have long sought to promote democracy in the Southeast Asian country, which has grown closer to China. U.S. officials are looking at targeted sanctions on military leaders and stepped-up diplomacy involving democracies in the region as part of an effort to see the return of the country’s elected government.
The limited leverage in Myanmar illustrates rising U.S. competition and confrontation with China, which days into the Biden administration flew military planes near Taiwan and U.S. warships.
After the Chinese flights, the Biden administration redoubled its commitment to working with Taiwan, a democracy that China considers a renegade province. Mr. Blinken also has said he agrees with the Trump administration’s finding that China is committing genocide in the largely Muslim Xinjiang region.
The biggest near-term diplomatic challenge is Mr. Biden’s effort to re-enter the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with world powers, a move that would involve Tehran coming back into compliance with the pact and the U.S. lifting sanctions imposed after Mr. Trump jettisoned the deal.
Beyond those hot spots, the Biden administration has also inherited challenging relationships with some partner countries, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as adversaries, including Russia and North Korea.
Turkey, a NATO member that has acquired an advanced Russian air defense system, has come under fire in the U.S. for military interventions in several regions. Turkey is “not acting as an ally should,” Mr. Blinken said in his confirmation hearing. “This is a very, very significant challenge for us, and we’re very clear-eyed about it.”
A focus on human rights could lead to sanctions that may hurt business ties and is also likely to conflict at times with the Biden administration’s efforts to strengthen relations with partner countries. In the case of Saudi Arabia, a longtime Persian Gulf partner, U.S. officials have criticized the country’s human rights record, including the fallout from its conflict in neighboring Yemen and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident.
In an interview with NBC News earlier this week, Mr. Blinken said Riyadh remains a key partner to Washington but noted the president has called for a review of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
“Saudi Arabia has been an important partner for us in counterterrorism in trying to advance regional stability and deal with regional aggression,” Mr. Blinken said. “But we also have to make sure that that partnership is being conducted in a way that’s consistent with our interests and also with our values.”
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