A key pillar of both Biden’s election campaign and his time in office thus far has been the commitment to re-engage with traditional allies and prioritise a multilateral approach to tackling the greatest global challenges of today, including protecting democracy and promoting universal human rights. While Biden’s rhetoric on the subject has been strong, the wider international community has been increasingly pressuring the administration to demonstrate what such a commitment will look like in practice. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken important strides towards addressing this pressure in recent weeks. At a visit to NATO headquarters and a virtual visit to the UN at the end of March, Secretary Blinken presented a more clear vision for what these commitments will look like under the Biden administration, including protecting human rights, which as Blinken has said, is always in America’s national interest.
The US on key allies and institutions
The durability and longevity of many of the US’ oldest partnerships came into question under the Trump administration. During his time in office, Donald Trump withdrew from numerous international alliances or agreements, and threatened withdrawal from even more. One such alliance includes the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which was heavily criticised by the Trump administration. Most of Trump’s criticism focused on burden-sharing, arguing that the US could no longer be relied on to make up for the short-comings of other partners.
The Biden administration is making a concerted effort to differentiate their approach to foreign policy from that of the previous administration. A major component of that is taking a more cooperative and conciliatory approach to alliances like NATO. In his remarks at NATO Headquarters on 24 March, Blinken spoke to the need to ‘modernise’ its alliances. Such a commitment sets an important tone for the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy; not one of passive engagement, but actively working to build alliances that best serve the international community as well as American citizens. The first step is to improve military capabilities and readiness. Additionally, Blinken stressed the importance of improving on the ability to counter technological and digital threats, as modern attacks are increasingly executed outside of the traditional battlefield. Building the capacity of America’s allies, Blinken stressed, is not a threat. Rather, the US is strengthened when their allies are strengthened.
In addition, Blinken spoke to the need to create alliances amongst alliances. The US, and the international community as a whole, cannot continue to work with partners in siloes. Instead, ‘we must weave together broader coalitions of allies and partners.’ This includes greater collaboration and inclusion of the private sector, civil societies, philanthropies, and related sectors.
During his virtual trip to the UN, Blinken met with Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, their third meeting since Blinken was named Secretary of State, President of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) Volkan Bozkir, the staff at the US Mission to the UN, and finally, he spoke at a United Nations Security Council session. In his meeting with the Secretary-General Blinken made the US’ position on the UN clear, saying that ‘the United Nations is the anchor of the multilateral system. And that multilateral system is of vital importance to the United States.’ Further, Blinken acknowledged that the US has a ‘profound stake’ in the success of the UN as the Organization is essential for the international community’s ability to tackle global challenges together.
In their meeting, UNGA President Bozkir expressed that he was pleased to see the US re-engaging with the UN and was looking forward to working together. Mr. Bozkir noted that climate change was at the top of the agenda at the General Assembly, and was pleased to see that President Biden will be convening the Leaders’ Summit on Climate next month. Blinken emphasised that the Biden administration understands that multilateral cooperation is ‘particularly important in this moment in history’, and the US will do its part to make ‘regional and international institutions even more effective as venues for promoting cooperation and also resolving disputes.’
Can America lead on democracy?
The Biden administration’s continued promise to re-engage with allies and promote democracy abroad has been met with some skepticism from the beginning. Many have questioned whether the US is truly in the position to be a leader on democratic values at this point in their history. The Biden administration has taken that criticism head on, taking a more humble approach to foreign policy by recognising that there is still much work to be done domestically.
In acknowledgement of this argument, Blinken noted that the US has their ‘own challenges to deal with’ including, ‘addressing profound inequalities, including systemic racism.’ A theme that has come to define the Biden administration’s foreign policy is to ‘lead by the power of our example.’ Blinken admitted that such an example will be defined by how the US is able to address challenges at home.
Secretary Blinken also called attention to this challenge during his remarks at NATO headquarters. Virtually every democracy in the world, including the US, he noted, is facing challenges. In addition to the deep inequalities and systemic racism, Blinken also called attention to the political polarization that makes ‘democracy less resilient.’ The issue according to Blinken, however, is not that democracy is flawed, it always has been. The threat lies in citizens losing faith in the ability of democracies to fix those flaws. Blinken called for alliances to ‘confront the democratic recession around the world.’ A strength of democracy, as Blinken emphasized, is that democracies deal with shortcomings out in the open, through ‘transparency and accountability.’
Greater protection for human rights – especially SRHR
Another key component of the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy is placing human rights at the center. On 30 March, the US State Department released the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In his remarks regarding the release of the reports, Secretary Blinken was firm in saying that the US would speak out against human rights abuses in all situations and countries, not just those of adversaries or situations that directly advance US national interest.
The Trump administration took repeated action to undermine the protection and promotion of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) domestically and abroad. In speaking about the 2020 country reports, Blinken referenced a promise he made during his confirmation hearing: that the Biden-Harris administration would repudiate the unbalanced, hierarchical views of human rights espoused by the previous administration, including those presented by a recently disbanded State Department advisory committee. Today, he said ‘we do so decisively.’ Under the Biden administration, ‘human rights are co-equal; there is no hierarchy that makes some rights more important than others.’
The Trump administration had cut from its State Department reports mentions of human rights issues that ‘disproportionately impact women and girls.’ In a reversal of that position, Blinken announced that there would be an addendum added to Section 6 of the country reports, “Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons”. The addendum ‘will cover maternal health issues such as maternal mortality, government policy adversely affecting access to contraception, access to skilled healthcare during pregnancy and childbirth, access to emergency healthcare, and discrimination against women in accessing sexual and reproductive health care, including for sexually transmitted infections.’
Moving forward, the administration will continue to include those rights in their reporting, representing a true commitment towards ensuring that human rights truly will be at the center of foreign policy, and more specifically, that ‘women’s rights – including sexual and reproductive rights – are human rights.’
Is America really back?
For four years, the Trump administration took steps antithetical to traditional US foreign policy. The Biden administration is now working to swing the pendulum once again, repeatedly affirming that America is back. But is America really back? And if so, for how long? The Biden administration has to prove to the international community that it is true to its word today, and that in another four years all of the progress won’t simply be undone by a new administration.
Blinken tackled that question at NATO headquarters. His answer: the US is back so long as allies and partners continue to share America’s vision for a democratic values and rules-based international order. Alliances are not a burden to the US, says Blinken, but a way to move closer to a world that reflects America’s interests and values.
A position that the Biden administration has shared with the previous one is that alliances and multilateral institutions could benefit from improvement. Blinken has made clear that there needs to be a more holistic view of burden-sharing across the board and all partners in any given alliance, while respecting that strengths among allies may vary, should always be working to reach their targets and commitments. But the difference lies in how the Biden administration plans to handle these improvements. Rather than abandoning partners and organizations which the Trump administration deemed did not well enough serve the US or were too flawed, the US will work with partners to see such improvements come to fruition. According to Blinken the US will engage with flawed but crucial institutions, citing the UN Human Rights Council as an example, ‘because we can do much more to move them in the right direction when we have a seat at the table instead of staying outside of the room.’ Furthermore, Blinken argued that in the absence of the US ‘autocratic governments use these institutions to undercut human rights.’ The Biden administration has held strong so far on their commitment to multilateralism, democracy, and human rights. As we are still only a few months into Biden’s tenure in office, however, the true test still lies ahead.
Secretary Anthony J. Blinken holds a virtual press briefing through the New York Foreign Press Center, from the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 29, 2021. [State Department photo by Freddie Everett/ Public Domain]
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