Margaret Seymour (
(FPRI) — The Biden administration has multiple competing priorities: COVID-19 and its economic impacts, long-ignored racial fissures, and a growing tenuous relationship with truth, reality, and trust among the populace, just to name a few. President Joseph Biden also has the challenge of representing the United States on the foreign stage. In that capacity, he is charged with crafting a new foreign policy—one that champions a balance of hard and soft power, tailored for the most efficient use of resources and the most effective results.
He is off to a good start; in his interim national security guidance released in early March, President Biden acknowledges the role of soft power resources in building and maintaining U.S. strength, even if he doesn’t call the concept out by name. He posits,
Achieving these goals rests on a core strategic proposition: The United States must renew its enduring advantages so that we can meet today’s challenges from a position of strength. We will build back better our economic foundations; reclaim our place in international institutions; lift up our values at home and speak out to defend them around the world; modernize our military capabilities, while leading first with diplomacy; and revitalize America’s unmatched network of alliances and partnerships.
Focusing on economic strength, alliances, and institutions and exporting American values and ideals are good starts to restoring American soft power abroad—a critical component of American leadership. In fact, the post-WWII world order, and, more recently, the post-Cold War international system with the United States emerging at the sole superpower, was only possible through U.S. soft power. Historically, the United States has maintained its power and influence abroad, in part, due to its appeal. This appeal must be restored.
This is not a call for a post-Trump 180, the path away from soft power and towards a hard power-dominant foreign policy is decades-long. True reinvigoration is going to require not only a criticism of the past four years, but also deep introspection on President Biden’s own contribution to the trend as a senator and vice president. In other words, building a smart power approach to foreign policy is going to take more than simply rejoining a few international accords or hosting some impressive state dinners. Frankly, it’s going to take more time than this administration has, even with the possibility of a second term. But if we take Biden at his promise to serve as a transitional leader, we can certainly start rebuilding the foundation of a foreign policy approach that will serve generations of Americans and citizens abroad for decades.
This starts with rebuilding relationships. Based on Biden’s picks for high-level positions, it appears that he understands the power of relationships, choosing long-term confidants and establishment experts. Biden values trust and interpersonal history—and this approach must be applied to international relations.
President Biden campaigned on his personal relationships with key international leaders, which is critical, but the administration must also craft relationships with populations and other non-state actors. While the new administration understands the potential threat from non-state actions, it would be well-advised to also consider the potential opportunities in non-state groups and craft a national security strategy that acknowledges the growing power and role of such groups.
For example, this strategy must include a prioritization of immigration and refugee programs, such as the Special Immigration Visa Program. While the Trump administration infamously decreased the levels of immigrants admitted under this program, the United States has arguably never fulfilled its responsibilities to the men and women who have assisted missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Not only should the Biden administration reintroduce the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program, but it also should offer a permanent fix to the Afghan program as well as create a new program to reward our allies in the Syrian conflict. Such programs would establish the United States as a leader in refugee rights and protections.
The success of future conflicts will be heavily reliant on the ability to gain and maintain the trust of civilian populaces. Without interpreters, translators, and other host-nation citizens, the success of U.S. missions abroad would and will continue to be threatened. More than that, failing to uphold promises to allies abroad threatens American legitimacy and standing in the international community.