Despite presenting his agenda as the antithesis of Donald Trump’s, President Joe Biden, like his predecessor, is managing global affairs as an extension of domestic politics and economic policy. The goal of what the Biden administration calls “foreign policy for the middle class” is to promote the interests of America’s middle-class and working people. Supporters defend this approach as a reorientation away from a post–World War II foreign policy that, in their view, privileged the rich by pushing trade agreements that allowed competition from imports and enforcing a multinational order that allowed global business to flourish at workers’ expense. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s mea culpa earlier this year for his own previous support of open trade described the Biden administration’s approach in these terms: “We will fight for every American job and for the rights, protections, and interests of all American workers … Our trade policies will need to answer very clearly how they will grow the American middle class, create new and better jobs, and benefit all Americans, not only those for whom the economy is already working.”
This rhetoric is less strident than Trump’s “America First” approach, but how is it actually different? Both are based on a faulty industrial-age understanding of the U.S. economy, both are fundamentally mercantilist in their intention to promote more exports and discourage more imports, and both hide behind what they perceive to be an isolationist public attitude rather than shape public understanding. And both fail to recognize that, by establishing security and expanding the rule of law in ways that enable commerce to create jobs and reduce prices for all Americans, traditional postwar foreign policy was already making an enormous contribution to the middle class.
The Trump administration claimed that multilateral trade deals allowed weaker states to gang up on and punish the United States. That was one of Trump’s arguments for pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade bloc negotiated by the Obama administration and 11 other nations to facilitate trade, set business standards, and counter Chinese influence in the world’s most economically dynamic region. To the extent that the Trump administration supported trade negotiations at all, American officials claimed that bilateral arrangements allowed the U.S. to dictate superior outcomes. (Never mind that the trilateral United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement was the only trade deal that Trump closed.)
Presumably because of domestic opposition, the Biden administration has yet to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership—which, as a presidential candidate, Biden vowed to renegotiate. His team echoes the Trump administration’s mistaken assertions that manufacturing jobs fled the United States for cheaper manufacturing abroad, cratering the economy for the American middle class. But 85 percent of job losses in the U.S. from 2000 to 2010—a period during which NAFTA was already in place, and China joined the World Trade Organization—were due to automation by American companies, not trade. This fact sits incongruously with the Biden administration’s enthusiasm for innovation as a major job creator.
Not only is Biden’s understanding of the economy fallacious, but so is his understanding of public attitudes about trade. As the commentator Daniel Drezner has pointed out, even voters who elected Biden president consider trade beneficial; where there is reduced support for trade is among Trump voters. But Biden is holding obdurately to the outdated belief that American domestic politics won’t permit rejoining the trans-Pacific deal or any other broad, standard-setting trade pact.
Instead, some prominent Democratic economic experts, such as the former Treasury official Larry Summers, have advised the Biden team to pursue only sectoral trade deals—that is, narrowly focused agreements that reduce trade barriers in specific industries (such as digital services or agricultural products). The underlying theory is that cutting up a wide range of trade matters into small bites will prevent opposition to any one deal from aggregating. But will it really be easier to get congressional ratification of dozens of small trade deals than of one large one? It’s a testable proposition, but the answer won’t be revealed unless the president makes the effort to get his trade-promotion authority extended by Congress, because it expires on July 1. Moreover, negotiating away trade barriers one economic sector at a time is likely to be as time-consuming as going country by country, as the Trump team was ostensibly doing.
The worst error, though, in Biden’s supposed foreign policy for the middle class is that it misses the opportunity to connect what the U.S. already does in the world to the well-being of Americans. Providing a largely peaceful international order is an enormous benefit to the American middle class, whose children would otherwise be conscripted to fight wars once threats had gathered. Extending security guarantees to a large number of countries prevents arms races and contains regional rivalries, preventing the conditions that lead to wars. Using American leverage to restrain the behavior of U.S. allies discourages them from provoking their regional rivals. Developing international practices beneficial both to Americans and to states that lack the diplomatic and economic muscle to set their own rules builds up multinational support for the global order, reducing the costs to U.S. taxpayers of enforcing it. Actively managing international organizations creates a mechanism for peacefully adjudicating disputes. Maintaining a military second to none discourages violations of globally accepted rules.
These things are crucial to the well-being of the American middle class—much more so than performative gestures of support such as maintaining tariffs enacted by the Trump administration. Biden and his team may think they are conducting policy in an elegant sequence—beginning with toughness to show that they’re protecting American workers, then easing in open trade sector by sector. But the problem with such sequencing is that members of the American middle class aren’t the only people whose opinion matters. Biden also has to persuade allied nations to believe his proud boast that “America is back,” by prioritizing cooperative international action to reclaim America’s role as protector of a global system.
The Biden administration is right that America’s political leaders have often failed to explicitly connect the country’s foreign policy to the immediate needs of average Americans. But the administration is mistaken to imply that the traditional U.S. foreign-policy role wasn’t already benefiting the American middle class. Rather than dress up bad economics and class warfare as a return to a Norman Rockwell–esque Scranton, Pennsylvania, of Biden’s youth, the administration ought to champion the ways American foreign policy creates an advantageous international order, because that genuinely is good for the middle class and the American worker, in addition to being good for others.