WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden on Thursday recommitted the United States to global alliances and a role in the world that projects democratic principles, using his first major foreign policy address to promise that he will counter “advancing authoritarianism” and to announce an end to U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen that are blamed for thousands of civilian deaths.
Biden also said he would increase the number of refugees admitted to the United States and freeze troop redeployments from Germany, reversing Trump administration policies that the new president sees as out of step with American values.
“We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s,” Biden said during an address at the State Department that attempted to turn the page on isolationism and restore diplomacy as the tool of choice.
“America is back. Diplomacy is back,” Biden said, vowing that the United States will rebound from the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last month “stronger, more determined and better-equipped to unite the world in fighting to defend democracy because we have fought for it ourselves.”
Biden sketched his traditional foreign policy views with a broad brush, pledging to confront human rights abuses, tyranny and intolerance in China, Russia, Myanmar and elsewhere while seeking cooperation with competitors where possible. He promised American diplomats demoralized by the Trump years, “I’ll have your back.”
As part of the effort to project American values abroad, Biden announced a policy of support for LGBT rights worldwide.
On Russia, Biden drew a stark contrast with former president Donald Trump, who was frequently deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I made it 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, interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens, are over,” Biden said.
“We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests,” he said, while working alongside Russia on some international problems.
Biden said Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny should be released from detention immediately and unconditionally.
Calling China “our most serious competitor,” Biden promised a similar approach balancing confrontation and cooperation.
“We’ll confront China’s economic abuses, counter its aggressive, coercive action, to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property and global governance,” Biden said. “But we’re ready to work with Beijing, when it’s in America’s interest to do so.”
There were no specifics about trade talks with China, which were suspended last year without reaching the grand bargain Trump had promised, nor about the U.S. response to Chinese human rights abuses or military aggression in the South China Sea.
Biden did not mention Iran and the obsession of the Trump administration with undoing the international nuclear agreement reached under President Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president. Biden faces a crossroads on Iran, probably within a few weeks or months, in which he must decide whether or how to rejoin that 2015 agreement.
Throughout his administration, Trump was hostile to many allies, often claiming they took advantage of U.S. military might and accusing them of unfair trade practices.
Trump’s plan to move some U.S. forces in Europe had been seen as punitive. He routinely criticized Germany and its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, for what he called a cheapskate approach to defense.
Biden announced steps to “course-correct” with a review of where U.S. forces are positioned around the world.
He noted that Merkel is among the leaders he has spoken to since taking office Jan. 20. The conversations with allies are part of an effort to “begin re-forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscles of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement that the global posture review “will inform my advice to the Commander-in-Chief about how we best allocate military forces in pursuit of national interests.”
“We will consult our allies and partners as we conduct this review,” he added.
The Yemen announcement ends remaining U.S. support that began under the Obama administration for a military effort led by Saudi Arabia against Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.
“That is a promise that he made in the campaign,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during a briefing with reporters at the White House.
Biden also named veteran diplomat Tim Lenderking as a new special envoy for Yemen.
It was not clear how significant a change the announcement represents in U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition, most of which has already been scaled back. In 2018, the Trump administration halted aerial refueling of Saudi jets conducting operations against the Houthis.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment about military support.
The policy change comes just weeks after the State Department, in the final days before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo left office, named the Houthi rebel movement, formally known as Ansar Allah, as a foreign terrorist organization and designated it under several related terrorism authorities. Officials from aid groups and the United Nations had warned that such a move, which marked an 11th-hour salvo in the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Iran, would dramatically worsen conditions in Yemen, already considered the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis.
Several days after taking office, the Biden administration temporarily lifted some of the sanctions associated with those designations, providing time for officials to review the matter.
Nearly a quarter-million people have died in Yemen’s war, a majority of those deaths caused by insufficient food, medical care and other indirect causes. The Houthis control broad swaths of Yemen, particularly in the north, where aid agencies coordinate with the rebels to deliver badly needed humanitarian assistance.
According to Mick Mulroy, who served as a top Pentagon official on the Middle East during the Trump administration, the only military support that remained was U.S. coaching of Saudi officials, a program intended to reduce civilian casualties, and intelligence-sharing focused on Houthi threats against the Persian Gulf kingdom.
The Biden administration has already announced a hold on at least some arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has been criticized for repeatedly striking Yemeni civilians, including a proposed precision munitions deal worth nearly $500 million. On Thursday, Biden said that arms sales associated with offensive operations in Yemen would be halted.
U.S. weaponry sold to Saudi Arabia has had devastating effects. A Washington Post reporter, during several trips into Yemen since the war began in 2015, found remnants of U.S. bombs in the capital, Sanaa, and in other parts of northern Yemen, including internationally banned cluster bombs.
“For far too long, the United States has enabled the Saudi-led bombing campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, leading to horrific human suffering and devastation,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
On Thursday, a Houthi spokesman told The Post that the United States has an obligation to do more than merely stop its support for offensive operations. The Biden administration has to be strongly engaged on ending the conflict, he said, though he remained skeptical of U.S. intentions.
“If the U.S. is sincere in its claims, the war on Yemen will stop,” said Mohammed Albukhaiti, spokesman for the rebels’ political bureau. “However, if the war continues, this means that the U.S. supports the continuation of the war and the purpose of the announcement would be to disclaim its responsibility for the people’s suffering. This would also confirm that the aggression is an American aggression.”
“We are waiting to see the results,” he added.
Biden’s address comes after what many U.S. diplomats have described as a wrenching four years under the Trump administration marked by attacks on their loyalty and efforts to gut their budget and benefits.
The last several weeks in particular have rattled a generation of Foreign Service officers who have spent years criticizing anti-democratic developments in other countries, only to see an American president vilify the U.S. electoral system for the world to see.
Current U.S. officials have said the Biden team can do much to renew the trust between career diplomats and the political leadership by appointing Foreign Service officers to senior positions in the department.
“We hope that the new administration will return to historical norms in terms of the percentage of political appointees named to senior positions, and will ensure that all nominees are fully qualified,” said Eric Rubin, a career diplomat and president of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats. “That unfortunately has not been the case in recent years.”
Thus far, the Biden administration has committed to naming current career diplomats to a “significant” number of Senate-confirmed posts.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s nominee for U.N. ambassador, and Victoria Nuland, the nominee for undersecretary of state for political affairs, are both career diplomats who had retired. Some State Department employees are seeking a bigger focus on those currently in government.
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The Washington Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan in Cairo contributed to this report.