Biden’s Foreign Policy Starts at Home

For the administration, strengthening the middle class is essential to national security.

President Joe Biden and a globe
Drew Angerer / Getty

Soon after President Donald Trump took office, Jake Sullivan and Ben Rhodes were in Myanmar helping an NGO prepare for peace talks between the government and ethnic armed groups. Sullivan had been a senior adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and had played a key role in Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Rhodes had served as deputy national security adviser in the Obama White House. The two men were still reeling from Trump’s victory, and spent time commiserating over what had gone wrong. By his own admission, Rhodes was “wrecked, angry—and I hadn’t even been on that campaign.” Sullivan was more clinical, Rhodes told me, dissecting a Democratic playbook that had made a reality-TV star seem like the superior choice. They talked about their party losing touch with Americans living in the upper Midwest, states that proved Clinton’s undoing. What Sullivan grasped, Rhodes said, was that “the consensus of the Democratic Party on foreign and domestic policy had in some way become untethered from those people. Not in a trite, ‘Hey, let’s go to a diner and talk to white working-class people’ way, but, ‘Hey, what is the goal of our trade and industrial policy?’”

Trump’s unexpected rise set in motion a rethinking of American foreign policy’s basic purpose in the post–Cold War era. Among Democrats, that inquiry would culminate in the Biden administration’s effort to cinch foreign and domestic policy more tightly than in any period since Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency. Underlying the approach is an idea that Sullivan and Rhodes explored in Myanmar: that foreign policy has grown ever more detached from the interests of working- and middle-class Americans. Biden’s aim is to orient foreign policy so that it serves those who have lived through a succession of trade deals and overseas wars and wonder what, exactly, was in it for them. Antony Blinken distilled the idea in his first major speech as secretary of state, which was all the more remarkable given that the department’s arena is the world outside America’s borders. “More than at any other time in my career—maybe in my lifetime—distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away,” he said. “Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely entwined, and how we work will reflect that reality.”

For skeptics, this shift is more about branding and rhetoric than substance. What guidance does it offer, they ask, when North Korea expands its nuclear capabilities or Russia mounts a cyberattack? Richard Goldberg, a former National Security Council official under Trump, told me that tying foreign policy to middle-class interests is “a nice phrase, but I don’t really know what it means. The middle class doesn’t want a terrorist attack on U.S. soil. The middle class will be harmed if there’s a crisis that increases energy prices.”

If you wanted to find an original text for the Biden administration’s foreign policy, it would be an 83-page report by a Washington think tank released in the thick of the 2020 presidential race. In 2018, midway through Trump’s term, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace set out to reimagine U.S. foreign policy. The institution assembled about a dozen specialists in economics and international affairs who’d worked in Democratic and Republican administrations. Among them was Sullivan, a senior fellow. He made a point to talk with labor leaders. “The fact that he was reaching out to me when I was at AFL-CIO was a sign that he was trying to expand his horizons,” Thea Lee, who was then deputy chief of staff at the labor federation and is now president of the Economic Policy Institute, told me.

In a 2019 Atlantic article, Sullivan laid out some of the principles that would inform the Carnegie report, employing language that Blinken would echo in his foundational speech. America’s standing in the world, Sullivan wrote, “requires domestic renewal above all, with energetic responses at home to the rise of tribalism and the hollowing-out of the middle class.” He went on: “The American people want their leaders … to focus on how strength abroad can contribute to a strong economic foundation at home, and not just vice versa. And they’re right. The country’s entire national-security strategy—the resources it allocates, the threats and opportunities it prioritizes, the events and circumstances it tries to shape, the relationships it cultivates—should more explicitly be geared toward reviving America’s middle class.”

The Carnegie report flowed from interviews with hundreds of people and an examination of economies in three heartland states—Colorado, Nebraska, and Ohio. Its conclusion could not have been more stark: “After three decades of U.S. primacy on the world stage, America’s middle class finds itself in a precarious state. The economic challenges presented by globalization, technological change, financial imbalances, and fiscal strains have gone largely unmet.” For the country to play a leading role in the world, it needed to “redress democratic deficits and social, racial, and economic injustice at home while seeking to reclaim the moral high ground abroad. The United States must get its own house in order.” (Soon after the report’s release, William Burns, the president of Carnegie, wrote an article for The Atlantic describing its findings.)

Word spread throughout Biden’s postelection transition team that everyone had to keep the needs of America’s working and middle class front and center. Crossover between domestic- and foreign-policy shops is rare. The people holding these jobs tend to stick to their turf, and happily so. Biden wanted that to change. This much was evident in one of his most prominent hires. Susan Rice spent decades working on foreign policy, holding jobs as national security adviser and ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration. She’s back in the White House—this time as director of the Domestic Policy Council. “The message came down on high in very clear terms that we have to do things in a new way,” a Biden-administration official told me, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk more freely about the transition. “We heard time and time again that we needed to know our domestic counterparts. We needed to have joint meetings. We needed to review each other’s papers. That’s not how we normally operate.”

People are policy. Contributors to the Carnegie report are now in charge of Biden’s foreign-policy apparatus. Sullivan is Biden’s national security adviser; Burns is his CIA director. Last month, the White House hired another contributor, Jennifer Harris, to focus on international economics and labor. Salman Ahmed, a co-editor, is director of policy planning under Blinken.

That many of the same people executing Biden’s foreign policy are the ones who conceived it strengthens the odds that it will take hold. When I spoke with Sullivan recently, he made a point of explaining how he was rethinking the role of national security adviser: “I believe passionately in integrating the National Security Council with the other components of the White House—with the National Economic Council, with the Domestic Policy Council, with the Office of Science and Technology Policy. I put a lot of my effort here into making sure that we have an integrated approach. Increasingly, foreign and domestic policy are intertwined, and whether it’s on issues related to domestic investment, or supply chains, or pandemics, or climate, our work is just tied up in the work of other senior leaders in this building. I intend to be a national security adviser almost unlike any predecessor in the intensity with which I will pursue and engage with them.”

When the White House issued a national-security memorandum in February, one of the directives included “Implementing a Foreign Policy for the Middle Class,” phrasing that mirrors the title of the Carnegie report (“Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class”). The memo calls upon various agencies to send a memorandum to Sullivan by the first week in May spelling out “specific actions” that further a “foreign policy agenda focused on benefiting the American middle class.”

The middle class isn’t the only audience Biden wants to impress. Equally important is America’s chief foreign competitor and adversary: China. Biden has framed this period in history as a mortal struggle between democracy and autocracy. “A strong economy and strong social cohesion at home set an example for the effectiveness of our system in the eyes of other nations,” Robert Hormats, an undersecretary of state during Barack Obama’s first term who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations, told me. “The Chinese are making a case for the strength and qualities of their system. We have to demonstrate that ours is effective in meeting our major domestic objectives.”

For the Biden administration, passage of the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill was an important step toward that goal. The COVID-19 package, Sullivan told me, “will have a profound domestic-policy impact, but it will have a foreign-policy impact as well. Because it will show the world that the United States is capable of doing big things and Joe Biden as president is capable of delivering on his agenda. That will give him further capacity and credibility on the world stage, particularly with allies and partners who will be buoyed by his ability to accomplish things.”

Next up is Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure bill, his sweeping plan to rebuild aging roads, bridges, and ports and propel the nation toward renewable energy. The administration believes that the two bills will lift the economy—the relief package over the next year, the infrastructure bill over the long term. This, the White House argues, will strengthen its position in trade negotiations with the Chinese.

Linking foreign and domestic policy is not a novel concept. In his 1946 “Long Telegram” assessing the Soviet threat, the diplomat George Kennan wrote, “Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society … is a diplomatic victory over Moscow.” One of President Eisenhower’s selling points for creating the interstate highway system was that it would improve the nation’s security, allowing troops to move quickly in the event of an attack. “Whether they know it or not, the Biden people are walking a path that was laid out by their noble predecessors,” Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland, told me. “It’s a retooling of a strategy that worked for America and was long forgotten by [Bill] Clinton, and Obama as well. They tinkered with it, but Biden is much more committed to this.”

Every presidency is in some ways a reaction to the last. Trump came to office promising a retrenchment after nearly two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said he’d bring soldiers home and rewrite unpopular trade deals. Distracted by crises, many of his own making, Trump couldn’t deliver. “Trump didn’t really get beyond the top note of ‘You’ve been screwed. Trade policy stinks,’ and then slapping some tariffs here and there at random because someone gave him the stink eye,” Thea Lee told me. “That’s not what we’re talking about.”

Biden knows that Trump’s diagnosis appealed to many Americans. His ambition is to succeed where his predecessor failed: pursue a foreign policy that provides tangible benefits for middle-class Americans. It might also have the side benefit of winning back the white working-class voters who had gravitated to Trump.

It isn’t hard to imagine that Biden’s grand plan could also collapse. Overseas crises have a way of hijacking a president’s agenda. At one point, overhauling public education seemed likely to be George W. Bush’s defining legacy. Then came September 11 and his ill-fated decision to invade Iraq. “It’s clear that Biden’s focus—and I don’t disagree with it politically—is domestic,” John Bolton, a former national security adviser to Trump, told me. “That will change. Because it always does.”