President Joe Biden gave his first foreign policy speech as president on Thursday from the State Department, where he announced that America is pulling back its participation in the war in Yemen and taking steps to aid refugees and members of the LGBTQ community worldwide.
“This war has to end,” Biden said, referring to the conflict in Yemen where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been fighting Saudi-led forces. Biden said the U.S. would be ending support for offensive operations there, “including relevant arms sales,” but would continue to help Saudi Arabia “defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
It was not immediately clear whether the Yemen announcement was much more than a symbolic move, as the U.S. military currently plays an extremely limited role in the conflict. The Trump administration, under Congressional pressure, ended the practice of providing aerial refueling support to the Saudi-led coalition. Currently the U.S. military’s role is limited to conducting training for the coalition on reducing civilian casualties, and sharing some intelligence related to the defense of Saudi Arabia.
Defense officials said they had not yet been given clear guidance by the administration on whether or how these operations will change moving forward. A Pentagon spokesperson declined to comment.
Biden also outlined his goal of burnishing U.S. leadership on the world stage amid challenges ranging from the coronavirus pandemic and Russian aggression to the rise of China and cyberwarfare, reiterating that those challenges “will only be solved by nations working together in common cause.”
“America’s alliances are among our greatest assets,” he said. “And leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once more.”
Additionally, the president announced that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will conduct a review of the U.S. global force posture to ensure that the U.S.’ “military footprint is appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities,” and said that any planned troop withdrawals from Germany — which had been authorized by former President Donald Trump — would be halted pending that review.
Biden’s remarks followed a coup in Myanmar earlier this week and the Russian government’s sentencing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny to more than two years in prison — events that have posed a challenge to one of Biden’s top global priorities: promoting democracy. In his speech, Biden urged the Burmese military to “relinquish power” and reiterated that the U.S. would work with allies to “impose consequences” if democracy was not restored there. And he warned Russia that there will be a “cost” to its malign activities worldwide.
“I made clear to President Putin, in a manner very different from my predecessor, that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions…are over,” Biden said. “We will not hesitate to raise the cost to Russia and defend our vital interests.”
Biden called the U.S.’ democratic values “the grounding wire of our global power” and emphasized his desire to rebuild “the muscles of democratic alliances that have atrophied from four years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse,” a thinly veiled reference to his predecessor.
He noted, however, that there are certain areas, such as in trade and nuclear proliferation, where the U.S. can and should work with its adversaries.
“Leading with diplomacy must also mean engaging our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically where it is in our interest and advances the security of the American people,” he said.
While Biden’s message contrasted with Trump’s “America First” agenda, it wasn’t entirely divorced from it. Biden and his international affairs team, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, have argued that U.S. foreign policy decisions should be made with the needs of ordinary Americans in mind — a domestically linked theme Biden emphasized in his remarks from Foggy Bottom.
“We will compete from a position of strength, by building back better at home, working with our allies and partners, renewing our role in international institutions, and reclaiming our credibility and moral authority,” he said. “That’s why we’ve moved quickly to begin restoring American engagement internationally, to earn back our leadership position, and to catalyze global action on shared challenges.”
Backing away from the Yemen conflict
In his speech, Biden named Tim Lenderking, a veteran career diplomat, as a new U.S. envoy for Yemen, a nod to the need for better diplomacy there. But while he committed to ending support for “offensive operations in Yemen,” few details were given on what exactly that will mean in practice.
The news comes on the heels of former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s last-minute designation of the Iranian-linked Houthi rebel movement as a foreign terrorist organization, and paves the way for Biden to potentially reverse it. Officials from aid groups and the United Nations have condemned the designation, saying it will dramatically worsen conditions for the Yemeni people, who are already suffering in what has been labeled the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
As Biden indicated on Thursday, the new administration has frozen the sale of additional weapons to the Saudi-led coalition, which has bombarded Yemen with U.S.-made precision guided bombs. Lawmakers tried to end the sales under the Trump administration, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed them through using emergency authority.
But while publicly condemning the war is a strong signal to Saudi Arabia that Biden’s administration will not tolerate the atrocities that have marked the conflict, it is not clear that the U.S. military’s involvement will change much. It is likely they will continue training and intelligence sharing, as neither falls under the category of “offensive operations.”
The announcement does not extend to U.S. support of the fight against Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, Sullivan said.
Gerald Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen and the Middle East Institute’s senior vice president, said the impact of the Yemen announcement will be more in what it signals to America’s Gulf partners, rather than actually impeding Saudi capabilities in Yemen.
He also noted that in limiting the move to ending support for “offensive” Saudi actions, Biden is leaving the door open to continuing to help Riyadh on border defense issues, including against Houthi missile and drone attacks.
“The issue will be the extent of the U.S. cut-off,” Feierstein said in an emailed statement. “In my view, the Saudis support an end to the conflict as well as long as the resolution reflects their core security requirements.”
Mick Mulroy, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy under Trump, noted that ending U.S. military support to the Saudi-led coalition will not halt the humanitarian catastrophe in the country, and called for a “comprehensive international plan” to solve the conflict.
A first overture for a human rights foreign policy
Biden in his speech also revealed that he had issued a presidential memorandum to government agencies aimed at protecting the rights of LGBTQ individuals at home and worldwide “to further repair our moral leadership.” And he announced plans for an executive order that will pave the way for the United States to restore its refugees admissions program, and accept as many as 125,000 people during the first full year of the administration.
Trump had pushed the refugee cap down to a record low 15,000 during his tenure, nearly killing the program. Before Trump, the United States typically took in around 70,000 refugees a year.
Biden’s decision to visit the State Department early on in his tenure was also aimed at boosting the morale of U.S. diplomats, who frequently felt mistreated under Trump. The former president once called their institution the “Deep State Department” — a reference to his and many of his aides’ belief that a shadow government existed within the bureaucracy that was trying to thwart his agenda.
“I want the people who work in this building and in our embassies and consulates around the world to know that I value your expertise, and I respect you,” Biden said. “I will have your back. This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you. We want a rigorous debate, that brings in all perspectives, and makes room for dissent. That’s how we’ll get the best possible policy outcomes.”
He offered a similar message to staffers upon arriving at Foggy Bottom with Vice President Kamala Harris, who repeatedly thanked the employees present and those joining virtually for their service to the country. “We as a nation must show both our allies and our adversaries that America will deliver,” she said.
Biden, too, praised the U.S. diplomats and others on the staff as “incredible.” He also thanked the employees’ family members, many of whom, he noted, give up careers to go from post to post with U.S. diplomats.
“America is back, diplomacy is back,” he told the State Department staffers. “You are the center of all that I intend to do.… And in our administration you’re going to be trusted and you’re going to be empowered.”