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Biden vows to rebuild alliances, says "America is back" in foreign policy

Biden: "America is back" in foreign policy
Biden: "America is back" in foreign policy 25:49

Washington — President Biden sought to reassert the United States as a world leader and boost morale among the ranks of the State Department in his inaugural foreign policy speech as president Thursday, vowing "America is back." He also announced his administration would be reversing some plans from the Trump administration.

"I will have your back," Mr. Biden said during his address at the State Department. "This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you. We want a rigorous debate that brings all perspectives, that makes room for dissent. That's how we'll get the best possible policy outcomes. So with your help, the United States will again lead not just by the example of our power, but by the power of our example."

Mr. Biden announced Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is launching a global force posture review, during which there will be a freeze on the planned withdrawal of troops from Germany announced by the Trump administration. He also said there will be an end to American support for offensive operations in Yemen, including arms sales.

Both initiatives were previewed by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan earlier Thursday. 

The president also said he will be issuing a presidential memorandum on protecting the rights of LGBTQ individuals worldwide, as well as an executive order allowing him to raise U.S. refugee admissions to 125,000 people for the first fiscal year of his administration.

The president and Vice President Kamala Harris made the short trip to the State Department's headquarters in Foggy Bottom to speak with department staff and meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who took the reins of the State Department last week, before delivering his remarks. Mr. Biden told State Department employees he supports them and their work, comments that stand in contrast to former President Donald Trump's criticisms.

"We must meet the new moment of accelerating global challenges, from the pandemic to the climate crisis, to nuclear proliferation, challenging the will only to be solved by nations working together and in common," Mr. Biden said. "We can't do it alone. We must start with diplomacy."

Joe Biden
President Biden, with Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks about foreign policy at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2021. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

The president reflected on his conversations with America's closest allies — Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, NATO, Japan, South Korea and Australia — which were about "re-forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and I would argue abuse. American alliances are our greatest asset."

Addressing Russia, Mr. Biden said it's crucial for the U.S. to work with allies and said his administration's approach to dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin will differ from that of his predecessor.

"We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people," he said.

The president spoke with Putin last month and said that during the conversation, "I made it clear to President Putin in a manner very different from my predecessor: the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia's aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyber attacks, poisoning its citizens, are over."

Mr. Biden also raised the importance of a free press, which he said is crucial to a democracy.

"We believe a free press isn't an adversary, rather it's essential," he said. "The free press is essential to the health of a democracy."

In earlier comments to the State Department workforce, some of whom were in attendance while others watched virtually, Mr. Biden conceded "it's been a difficult few years" and heralded staff for exhibiting "great personal courage."

"The main message that I want to communicate to you all is whether you're part of the newest class of foreign service officers or you've worked for decades in the civil service or foreign service, or you're locally employed staff, you're vital, and success to the strength of our nation depends in no small part on you," he said.

Biden addresses State Department staff 07:25

Mr. Biden previewed his later remarks, vowing to "send a clear message to the world: America is back. America is back. Diplomacy is back. You are the center of all that I intend to do. You are the heart of it."

The president asked State Department staff to abide by several core tenets: "Integrity in all you do; transparency and accountability to rebuild trust in America around the world; working in the service of the American people, not self-interest; and promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, accessibility across the board because our diplomats at all levels should reflect the full diversity of this great country."

Mr. Biden was set to visit the State Department earlier this week, but the trip was moved due to a winter storm that blanketed the Washington, D.C., area with snow. White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday that Mr. Biden's visit is "largely focused on his desire to thank the men and women who are us — who are Foreign Service officers, civil servants, who are the heart and soul of that institution and, frankly, our government."

Psaki said the president would "talk broadly" about foreign policy, but cautioned his remarks "will not be a laydown of his vision for every issue and every foreign policy issue."

Mr. Biden has vowed to repair alliances that frayed under the Trump administration and has repeatedly declared "America is back" as a leader on the world stage. In calls with foreign leaders after the election, the president said he reassured U.S. allies that "we're going to be back in the game."

The State Department is emerging from a period in which the institution and at least one of its top diplomats, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, were attacked by Mr. Trump.

A January 2020 report from the State Department's inspector general found the agency's "staffing gaps, frequent turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and undertrained staff frequently contribute to the Department's other management challenges." 

"Workforce management issues are pervasive, affecting programs and operations domestically and overseas and across functional areas and geographic regions," the internal watchdog found.

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