‘Diplomacy Is Back,’ Biden Tells Beleaguered Foreign Service Workers

In two speeches, President Joe Biden signaled a sharp departure from the foreign policy of his predecessor, saying restoration of alliances, a greater emphasis on diplomacy and a focus on democracy and human rights will return America to a position of moral authority on global issues. 

President Joe Biden delivers remarks to State Department staff, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(CN) — In his first major foreign policy speech as president, Joe Biden signaled a complete departure from the policies of his predecessor and said he will use diplomatic channels to restore alliances, champion human rights and stand up to authoritarian leaders while buttressing the spread of democracy. 

“Diplomacy is back,” Biden said, echoing what he had said just hours earlier in a brief speech to foreign service workers. “Defending freedom. Championing opportunity. Upholding universal rights. Respecting the rule of law. Treating every person with dignity.”

As he frequently did on the campaign trail, Biden lashed out at President Donald Trump. Biden said Trump’s “America First” agenda and transactional approach to foreign policy degraded the country’s relationship with its allies while reducing the power of America’s moral leadership on a gamut of issues. 

Biden also said Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the recent election will not weaken America’s standing but will make the American people more resolved to defend democracy at home and abroad. 

“The American people will emerge from this stronger, more determined, and better equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy — because we have fought for it ourselves,” he said. 

Biden promised to mend frayed relationships with allies and restore America to a central role in global policymaking. 

“America’s alliances are among our greatest assets,” he said, mentioning conversations with officials from Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Aside from the rhetorical broad strokes, Biden used the speech to mark a new American era in foreign policy. He delved into specifics, condemning the recent coup in Myanmar — referring to the country by its former name, Burma — vowing to withdraw American support from the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, demanding Russia release the recently jailed dissident Alexy Navalny and criticizing China for its “economic abuses.”

“The days of the United States rolling over as Russia attacks the integrity of our elections are over,” Biden said. “We will not hesitate to raise the cost to Russia to protect our vital interests and our people.”

He called for Navalny to be released immediately. 

“He is entitled to his rights under the Russian constitution,” Biden said. 

He also criticized China for its human rights abuses and for undermining international intellectual property rights, but also pledged to work with his counterparts in Beijing. 

He condemned the military coup in Myanmar, calling on the military to release the country’s top officials including its prime minister, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. 

“Force should never override the will of the people,” Biden said. 

The president further indicated his administration would cease selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and withdraw America’s support for Saudi-led incursions into Yemen.

“It’s been a strategic and humanitarian catastrophe,” he said, calling for the resuscitation of long-dormant peace talks. Yet in a signal of how delicate the balance of American interests in the region is, he also pledged to help defend Saudi Arabia’s “territorial integrity” against incursions by Iran. 

Biden’s approach to Yemen was the first of two moves that fall in line with the administration’s diplomacy-first initiative. For the second, the Biden administration said it will freeze a withdrawal of American troops from Germany.

White House National Security adviser Jake Sullivan announced the pair of plans at a press conference earlier in the day, saying both moves are indicative of the direction the president wants to take the country. 

“He wants to send a clear message that our national security strategy will lead with diplomacy,” Sullivan told reporters.

Biden plans to use diplomacy to resolve the military conflict in Yemen. Under Trump, the U.S. supported a Saudi-led military offensive in Yemen, the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country, which has caused hunger and suffering among its people for the last five years. The support meant American-made bombs have been used to kill numerous civilians during Saudi-led air campaigns.

The civil war in Yemen has evolved into a proxy fight between Saudi Arabia and Iran and has resulted in the deaths of about 230,000 people since it began in 2014. Approximately 84,000 children have starved to death since fighting started, according to the global humanitarian charity Save the Children. 

The Associated Press reported that sources familiar with the matter say Biden plans to appoint Timothy Lenderking, who previously served as a deputy assistant secretary for the Department of State’s Middle East section, as a special envoy to Yemen. He could make the appointment as early as Thursday afternoon. 

Sullivan also said Biden plans to nix Trump’s 2020 decision to cut roughly 9,500 of more than 34,000 U.S. troops from Germany, home to the headquarters for the U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command. Trump said the move was meant to economically punish Germany for spending too little on defense at the time.

Biden decried the transactional approach that predominated foreign policy during the Trump years. 

“We are reclaiming our credibility and our moral authority, much of which we have lost,” Biden said. 

The president also castigated his predecessor for politicizing the State Department, attacking diplomats and routinely circumventing the institutional approach to the nation’s diplomatic efforts. 

In a speech to newly minted foreign service officers that preceded his major foreign policy speech, Biden sought to reassure the numerous employees at Foggy Bottom that he, unlike Trump, will defer to their expertise.

The State Department experienced a flight of diplomats and a demoralization of career employees during the Trump administration. Trump routinely circumvented embassies, preferring a direct approach with foreign leaders. He visited the State Department just once during his presidency. 

After the phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump pressured his counterpart to investigate his political enemies — sparking his first impeachment — Trump demonized many of the diplomats who were responsible for bringing the affair to light. 

Biden said those days are over. 

“I believe in you,” he told the diplomats. “We need you badly. I trust you. And I’m going to have your back, that I promise you, just like you’re going to have the backs of the American people.”

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