Two features of President Joe Biden’s latest State of the Union Address (February 7) should be worrisome to foreign audiences. One was the surprising lack of attention paid to international affairs generally – an aspect that drew adverse comments from multiple sources. In a speech of more than 7,600 words, fewer than 10% were devoted to foreign policy.
Yet, the president’s primary role under the US Constitution is to protect the American people from external threats and to manage the republic’s diplomatic and economic relations with other nations. A second troublesome feature of the speech is that the vast majority of the meager attention paid to foreign affairs focused on relations with just two countries, China and Russia, and adopted a confrontational tone toward both Moscow and Beijing.
The sparsity of attention to foreign affairs in the State of the Union Address continues an unhealthy trend in U.S. politics over the past several years. A similar lack of interest was evident during the 2020 presidential election campaign. Very little attention was paid to foreign policy in the televised debates among the aspiring candidates for the Democratic Party’s nomination. The neglect reached its peak during the debate held just days before Nevada’s presidential caucuses, in February 2020, when the five moderators, including NBC Television heavyweights Chuck Todd and Lester Holt, failed to ask the presidential aspirants even one question on that topic. Daniel Larison, at the time a senior editor at the American Conservative, noted that “it is common for presidential debates to skimp on covering these issues, but it has been a long while since there have been no questions about it.”
It didn’t get much better during the general election campaign. Debate organizers spurned the efforts of Donald Trump’s campaign to have the final debate focus on foreign policy. As a result, that debate was largely a rehash of exchanges on domestic policy issues, such as health care, crime, and social tensions, which had dominated the first debate.
Perhaps more worrisome than the apparent growing indifference of U.S. policymakers and the general public to most developments in the international arena is the confrontational, militarized perspective on the small set of issues that is receiving attention. The brief section in Biden’s latest State of the Union address dealing with Russia was devoted almost entirely to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. While that conflict is understandably a matter of great concern, there are other issues in the bilateral relationship that require attention. The unraveling of the bilateral arms control regime, with the demise of both the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Open Skies agreement, is an obvious, alarming situation that must be addressed. Cooperation on arms control was evaporating long before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.
The tone of the president’s comments on relations with Moscow was shrill and utterly uncompromising. “I spoke from this chamber one year ago, just days after Vladimir Putin unleashed his brutal war against Ukraine. A murderous assault, evoking images of the death and destruction Europe suffered in World War II. Putin’s invasion has been a test for the ages. A test for America. A test for the world.” Describing matters in such apocalyptic terms offers little hope for meaningful negotiations to end that terrible war, much less to restore something resembling normal US ties with Russia once the war is over. Instead, such rhetoric contemplates a second Cold War—if not something even worse.
The sections on China exhibited a similar narrow, hostile focus. Writing in Responsible Statecraft, analyst Kelley Vlahos commented: “As for China, Biden – clearly lumping it in with the “autocracies” without saying so explicitly – afforded 268 words and a bit of a threat. But again, with no fresh rhetorical approach, even just a few days after his government shot down a Chinese spy balloon and his administration postponed a key meeting between his Secretary of State and his PRC counterpart.” Implicitly referring to the balloon episode, Biden stated that “I am committed to work with China where it can advance American interests and benefit the world. But make no mistake: as we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.”
Policies that the Biden administration has adopted suggest that the United States already is waging economic warfare against the PRC. Biden’s own comments on several occasions that Washington has an “obligation” to defend Taiwan are the latest and strongest signs that US leaders also are pursuing a military containment policy directed against China.
Unfortunately, the increasingly confrontational US stance toward Russia and China is not just a manifestation of the Biden administration’s policies. Indeed, both examples have had strong bipartisan support. Such support is misplaced, since the current approach may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, making both countries outright enemies of the United States when such a tragic outcome could have been avoided. Worse, the clumsy conduct of America’s foreign policy elite appears to be driving Russia and China together in an effort to fend off overbearing US hegemony in their respective regions.
The excessive emphasis on confronting Washington’s great power rivals makes US foreign policy increasingly one-dimensional and sterile. It was stunning to witness the president’s State of the Union Address ignore entire regions of the world, notably Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Even democratic Europe seemed to be relevant to the White House only in terms of how it can support the effort to aid Ukraine in that country’s armed struggle against Russia. Yet that concern should be only one component of a complex, interdependent relationship between the United States and its European partners.
US leaders are in danger of becoming so concerned about domestic issues (and divisions) that they fail to address a multitude of important developments in the outside world. In terms of foreign policy, their focus on confronting Russia and China has become an obsession that risks transforming those countries from great power competitors into outright adversaries.
Increasingly, the Biden administration’s approach confirms the adage about when the only tool someone has is a hammer, everything eventually begins to look like a nail. The United States needs to pay more attention to the growing array of important economic, diplomatic, and cultural changes taking place throughout the world that have only modest (if any) connections to Russia or China. Currently, the Biden administration and the American foreign policy elite are failing that test.