The national security advisor to the Trump administration, Robert O’Brien, recently ticked off the usual suspects when asked to list the most significant threats facing the United States today: China, Iran, Russia.
Moments later, the national security adviser to President Joe Biden gave a starkly different answer to the same question.
Right now, Jake Sullivan said in a “Passing the Baton” forum hosted by the U.S. Institute of Peace late last month, “The most profound national security challenge facing the United States is getting our own house in order, domestic renewal.”
The response from Sullivan suggests that the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy would understand the appeal of the “America First” agenda of former President Donald Trump, even if they dismiss any parallels.
It’s no mistake if it sounds more like domestic policy than foreign relations, Biden’s advisor sees the two as inextricably connected.
“In our foreign policy and national security, anything we do will be measured by a simple metric: is it going to make working families’ lives richer, safer and easier?” Sullivan said during a White House press conference on Feb. 4.
With a nod to reality, that’s a lofty promise: Washington’s foreign policymakers, particularly the free-trade policies that decimated U.S. manufacturing towns, feel profoundly alienated and sometimes betrayed.
Trump, with his tough talk on China and his promises of a “America First” foreign policy that called for pulling back from “endless conflicts” and other global commitments, tapped into a frustration among voters in several Midwestern states.
“Kenneth Weinstein, a fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute think tank, says, “President Trump had it right on the divorce between American foreign policy elites and ordinary Americans.
Weinstein claims that the Biden administration, which calls its strategy “international policy for the middle class,” is seeking to give Democratic foreign policy values a “populist tinge.”
In reality, of course, Trump’s foreign policy was seen by many analysts as disruptive, noting that he alienated allies and weakened U.S. legitimacy.
At any contrast between Trump and Biden on world affairs, Jen Psaki, Biden’s lead spokeswoman, bristled.
“I can assure you that this president… does not look to the last presidency as the blueprint for his foreign policy,” Psaki said earlier this month when asked to describe the “middle class foreign policy” of the administration.
In a recent Foreign Policy magazine article, Edward Alden, an expert on global trade with the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote that Biden’s approach “embraces Trump’s most important insight-that the aim of U.S. foreign policy is to make life better for Americans-even as it rejects Trump’s divisive nationalism on international trade and U.S. alliances.”
Biden started to undo some of Trump’s more divisive foreign policy actions, rejoining, for instance, the World Health Organization and Paris climate agreements, and pledged to reclaim the role of America as a global leader.