Updated: March 7, 2021
What started off as a conversation about whether President Biden would accept an immigration reform bill from Congress if it didn’t include a pathway to citizenship, drifted into a cultural and strategic sermon on the Chinese state and the moral imperative of America’s. It was his only foreign policy reference during the entire hour of the town hall devoted mainly to vaccine rollout, school re-openings, police and criminal justice reform, and the economy.
Although Biden was ultimately dismissive of his own digression, his words do offer an insight into how he views fundamental questions about America’s role in the world and his approach to China.
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When talking about accepting refugees, Biden said: “Come with me into Sierra Leone, come with me into parts of Lebanon, come with me around the world to see people piled up in camps, kids dying – no way out, refugees fleeing from persecution. We the United States used to do our part; we were a part of that. ’Send me your huddled masses’– Come on.”
To anyone who remembers a line or two from U.S. history class or has scrolled through Twitter in the past four years, the words he quotes are instantly recognizable: those etched onto the Statue of Liberty, or more precisely, Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”.
Walter Hunter, an associate world-literature professor, writes in The Atlantic that politicians and public figures, from Speaker Pelosi to James Comey, have used Lazarus’s words to communicate that diversity is what makes America great or that “diversity is both the existing strength of America and its source of revitalization”. Although these exhortations are meant to refute Trump’s nationalist definition of greatness, they in effect “capitulate to Trump’s [American] exceptionalism.”
Worse, “they ignore the poem’s own radical imagination of hospitality”. At first, Biden’s words can appear to fall into a similar trap. He invokes images of suffering in far-away lands, then uses those hallowed words as a reproach, as if Americans hadn’t heard them on loop such that they now ring hollow. In this telling, the words we – Americans– use, like the “liberal ideals” we espouse of diversity and inclusion, are just that – words and espousals. Moreover, that those are our words, and the ideals and actions they describe are America’s alone.
Though “come with me” is different then to passively “look at”. To “come with” implies participation and a sense of togetherness. For Americans to do “our part,” suggests that the U.S. is part of a collective effort. Put another way, the American ideal of hospitality is not unique. “Send me your huddled masses,” however, is a unique manifestation of this collective ideal, and is therefore innately American.
This analysis is important because it gives the listener or reader a better sense of why Biden is saying what he’s saying and the intended rhetorical effect. Biden is reminding Americans of their place in the world, what they share with others, and what is unique to them. In his mind, it’s so basically an American endeavor, in other words it goes without saying, that America and Americans would be welcoming and assisting people in need. But if it need be said, as Biden determined, say it with a kick – hence the accent.
That the actual poem is “Give me your…” only reinforces the point.
If invoking Americans’ shared duty and reminding them of what makes them American didn’t suffice, Biden went the route of some of his peers:
“One of the reasons why we have been able to compete with the world so well is because most of our major competitors [read China] are xenophobic,” he said.
This can be read as the narrow appeal to the economic advantages of having an open immigration system; only instead of looking inward, Biden looked outwards.
He cited the ending of China’s One-child policy – he said he had predicted it would end as vice president – as evidence of China’s xenophobic behavior. His statement, “the central principle of Xi Jinping is that there must be a united, tightly controlled China,” in the context of its treatment of the Uighur and assimilation of other minority populations, can also be taken to support his claim.
Students of history may note the irony of using Lazarus’s words moments before drawing this distinction between China and the U.S. Lazarus wrote her poem in 1883. The previous year, President Chester A. Arthur had signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, prohibiting Chinese immigration to the U.S.
One could find a host of material that would contradict Biden’s claim and damage his and American credibility. Indeed, from the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 to Trump’s “Muslim bans” and attempts to ban asylum- seekers during the pandemic – although important to put each in its context – American history is littered with evidence of xenophobia.
In comparing the U.S. to China, making references about what it means to be American, and talking of differences in “cultural norms” between countries,” Biden touched on fundamental foreign policy questions of the times. The first set of questions concern American credibility: “Does the U.S. have the credibility or right to stand up to China on human rights, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s killing or four years of Trump’s nativism?” and even, “Does the U.S. have any credibility left to enact its foreign policy?”
Bill Burns, a career foreign service officer tapped to be Biden’s CIA Director, writes in his book The Back Channel that whenever there is a major U.S. foreign policy failure – see 2003 invasion of Iraq, American reticence in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, or the last four years for some – the questioning of American credibility by the “foreign policy establishment” resurfaces.
Using Foreign Affairs magazine as representative of said establishment, his point is well made: a quick search on the magazine’s website yields the titles: “Can America Restore its Credibility in Asia?,” “After Credibility,” and “Biden Has a Narrow Window to Restore America’s Credibility”.
Besides George Floyd’s death shedding light on racism in America to the rest of the world and the Trump administration’s immigration policies, foreign policy commenters have also worried about the deleterious impacts of Trump’s other foreign and domestic policies and his rhetoric on the U.S.’ ability to rebuild its international standing and to lead. This list is not exhaustive nor does it come directly from the magazine but includes:
The threatening to impose sanctions or withdraw military support for allies in Europe and Asia including Germany, Japan and South Korea, unilaterally pulling out of the Iran nuclear-deal (JCPOA), labeling Haiti and Africa as “shithole countries,” strong-arming Ukraine (see Trump’s first impeachment) and Sudan, his “America first” pandemic response and vaccine rollout, and most recently the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Of course there are plenty of people, such as James F. Jeffrey, who argue Trump made the right moves, for example in his article, “Biden Doesn’t Need a New Middle East Policy,” but the malaise of the establishment still stands. The idea of credibility isn’t reflective of a particular policy but rather the feeling of legitimacy and of America’s genuine ability to shape events and influence a range of foreign policy developments.
The second set of questions concern the rise of “Great-power rivalry,” particularly in regards to the U.S. and China. This is the idea that the U.S. and China are headed – or are already in – a cold war akin to that between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Without getting too much into the details of what has been said regarding this question or what the Biden administration’s policy towards China actually is, it’s important to understand what a great-power rivalry or “Great-power competition” entails.
Very briefly, it has been argued that American diplomat George Kennan’s “policy of containment” provided the intellectual framework that defined U.S.-U.S.S.R. relations throughout the Cold War (see Rise to Globalism by Stephen A. Ambrose). A U.S. strategy to prevent direct conflict with the Soviets induced a strategic, economic, and ideological competition between the “East and West” or “blocks”. Biden, in his call with President Xi Jinping, has already talked of “protecting the American people’s way of life”.
That aside, Daniel H. Nexon of Georgetown University, explains in Foreign Affairs that great-power competition is not itself “a coherent framework for U.S. foreign policy,” in part because it can be used “to justify almost anything [read any policy]”. He writes that “elevating competition itself to the guiding paradigm of U.S. foreign policy” risks pursing competition for the sake of competition and doing so at the expense of cooperation – either of which a country can decide to pursue. He also makes clear that whatever Trump or Biden’s approach to China is, “competition between great powers cannot return because it never really went away,” meaning great power rivalry or competition has always existed.
Tied to this idea of “Great-power competition” is the idea of American “declinism,” that America’s power and influence is in decline. This can be relative: other countries have caught up or surpassed the U.S. in economic, technological, or diplomatic spheres, or it can be absolute: America itself is no longer what it once was economically or politically. Again, to be brief without the intent of misrepresenting, the “once” generally refers to the time period following the Cold War, also considered the U.S.’ “unipolar” moment when it was the sole or dominant world power.
One could spend countless hours – and paper – analyzing each of these ideas, their merits, and their relationship to one another. And the analysis is useful as it can build perspective and aid in decision-making. But ultimately, as Biden alluded to at the end of his town hall Tuesday, the person with the most power in U.S. foreign policy and the last “man” to make policy decisions is the President himself. That is why it is so important to understand what Biden is saying, and also why it’s crucial for journalists and spokespersons to be able to communicate this, and for policymakers, academics, and others to be able to influence one man’s thinking and decisions. But I digress.
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked President Biden whether there would be “repercussions for China” regarding human rights abuses beyond the two leaders simply discussing its behavior in Hong Kong or Xinjiang province, he responded:
“There will be repercussions for China – and he [President Xi] knows that. What I’m doing is making clear that we in fact are going to continue to assert our role as spokespersons for human rights at the UN and other agencies that have an impact on their attitude”.
There are two notable takeaways of this statement. The first is plainly in the text: President Biden is committed to holding China accountable for what he (and potentially allies) considers human rights abuses and he will advocate for human rights at the multi-lateral level. The second has to do with the implications of what he said. In this context, he isn’t concerned about American credibility or hypocrisy, a comprehensive great power strategy, American decline, or its ability, real or perceived, to effect change. As with his belief in America’s role in assisting refugees or people fleeing persecution, President Biden sees his and America’s role as human rights advocates around the globe.
“No American president can be sustained as president if he doesn’t reflect the values of the United States,” he said. The president, according to Biden, must embody those values if he is to serve the American people.
This, however, should all be taken with a grain of salt. Whether President Biden is to be taken at his word or be understood as to his beliefs is only part of the equation. Standing on a stage and addressing the American people somewhat informally is not the same as sitting in the Oval Office or the White House situation room. Nor is it addressing and hammering out policy in the U.S. Congress. Beliefs, values, intentions, and words – though in some instances they can be – are not in themselves policy actions, responses, or outcomes. Remember, too, that according to Biden, American historians are calling this the most difficult period a U.S. president has faced since Lincoln – worse than Roosevelt’s. The point is that as important or powerful a man as Biden is, the problems he faces are incredibly challenging and complex, and he therefore cannot be expected to understand or resolve all these problems himself. As he pointed out, “the [American] system only works with consensus”.
Perhaps, we, as individuals and as a collective, must also do our part.