The Biden administration is committed to providing Americans with a “foreign policy for the middle class,” but is there a disconnect between Biden’s vision and what Americans actually want? Biden’s platform frames this new foreign policy as necessary to win a high-stakes competition for the future against China — yet, what exactly this is a competition for and what will mark its end remains unclear. The platform outlines a few key steps to get the US closer to winning the competition (if, indeed, winning in this context is possible), but the main flaw in the strategy lies in the assertion of a vague competition. A true “foreign policy for the middle class” should, first of all, be called something else, because a foreign policy for all Americans should not be phrased as exclusive. More importantly, it should actively cater to the visions for the future Americans are expressing every day, something the Biden administration is failing to accomplish.
A report published earlier this year by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace attempted to decipher the phrase “foreign policy for the middle class”, which, taken at face value, sounds rather vague. It found that the opinions of average Americans do not necessarily align with the foreign policy agenda of officials in Washington. For instance, the majority of people interviewed did not care strongly about liberal internationalism or the Trump administration’s vision of America First. So, what do Americans want?
The report’s most interesting insight breaks down the barrier between foreign and domestic issues for everyday Americans, who generally desire a values-based foreign policy, which at the same time does not impose its value system on the rest of the world. They also want defense spending to maintain the security of the US and its allies, but they do not appreciate a transactional approach that uses foreign aid to extract concessions from other countries. Clearly stated policies, such as Biden’s Buy American plan, that insulate America’s supply chain and empower American industry remain consistently popular among voters. Most importantly, Americans identify long-standing issues at home surrounding “racial, social, and economic injustice” as significant barriers to an effective foreign policy, making it undeniable that goals abroad must be linked to pressing issues at home.
If Biden wants to sell his foreign policy to the American people, he must do so on their terms. An ideological war between democracy and authoritarianism will not suffice. Neither will framing competition with China as a clash of civilizations. The Biden administration should avoid treating their electoral win as a blank check to pursue an exhaustive list of foreign policy goals about which most voters do not care. Instead, the administration should adhere to the promises they made on the campaign trail: a new foreign policy approach that encourages Americans to be as invested in global issues as they are in domestic ones.
The Biden administration does not need to come up with an entirely new set of foreign policy priorities. It is simply a matter of marketing its existing priorities to voters in a clear and concise manner, and then implementing those priorities.
To start, don’t center the middle class. Daniel Drezner, a Washington Post journalist, has noted that more people believe they are in the middle class than there are actually people in the middle class. This is potentially problematic because “middle” class seems to mean different things to different people. Moreover, while the logic behind centering public opinion in foreign policymaking is clear, the logic behind specifying that the foreign policy only applies to a fraction of Americans is less so.
Next, do not over-promise and under-deliver. Biden campaigned on the idea that his foreign policy would address the issues that matter most to voters, but currently, his administration’s stated goals are constrained by their capabilities. For example, humanitarian crises in Myanmar and Ethiopia have placed the Biden administration in the position of calling on those nations to respect democracy, the rule of law, and basic human rights. However, if the voting public’s opinions on humanitarian crises, like the Syrian Civil War, are any indication, the American people find it difficult to link their self-interest to regions that lack clear strategic import. As a potential implication of this, Americans may be wary of overseas endeavors, especially those that threaten to shift focus from domestic efforts to Build Back Better”. A comprehensive re-evaluation of American commitments around the world is needed, and the onus is on the Biden administration to explain how these commitments do or do not serve the interests of everyday Americans.
Lastly, speak to voters in their own terms. Instead of pitching competition with China as a battle with authoritarianism, link foreign policy priorities in the Asia-Pacific region to securing America’s supply chains and deepening relationships with long-standing US allies. Commit to large-scale public investment at home to effectively compete with China in areas that matter instead of relying on vague phrasing like “the pivot to Asia”.
Importantly, this might not all be as easy as it sounds. A recent piece in The Atlantic explained that a foreign policy “for Americans” is often too difficult to put into practice because it requires Americans to associate the consequences of actions abroad with their personal interests. Take the example of Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s decision to withdraw troops was a perfect illustration of how to be responsive to the wants of the American people, but the operation generated much criticism from the same Americans who were calling on Biden to go through with his promise to withdraw in the first place. To address this dilemma, Biden should frame both the execution and the consequences of his foreign policy in terms that consistently emphasize the interests of the American people. Although his speech following the withdrawal acknowledged a lack of American interest in remaining entrenched in Afghanistan, the withdrawal and the sacrifices it necessitated were inevitably set against the backdrop of competition with China and a list of other global threats with tenuous links to the everyday American,
There is no such thing as a successful foreign policy without any missteps along the way. When policies are marketed as directly benefiting everyday Americans, this only makes the situation more complicated for government officials when things go awry. And the answer is not to double down on failure, either. Presidents should be honest with the American people about the nature of foreign policy: sometimes things go wrong, but the intention should always be to serve the interests of Americans. A good-faith effort to uphold these interests will be rewarded as long as Americans can understand what is at stake in their daily lives when the US acts abroad.
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