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Colossus Constrained

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U.S. President Joe Biden has ambitious goals both at home and abroad. On the home front, he promises to “build back better” through enormous investments in COVID-19 pandemic recovery, health care, education, infrastructure, and green technology. Beyond U.S. shores, he is scrapping former President Donald Trump’s “America first” approach to statecraft and returning the United States to the global stage: “America” he says, “is back . . . ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”

But Biden cannot have it all, and he would be wise not to overpromise. With the country’s economy and politics in tatters, the new administration must remain laser focused on domestic renewal, a priority that will inevitably come at the expense of the nation’s efforts abroad. The last four years were a near-death experience for American democracy. If Biden is to ensure that Trumpism was little more than a dark detour, his administration must address the economic discontent that spawned Trump’s angry politics of grievance. The nation is suffering on a scale not experienced since the 1930s. A new New Deal is unquestionably in order.

Ensuring that domestic priorities remain front and center will not be easy. Time and again since 1941, the world has drawn the United States into far-flung commitments from which the country has had difficulty extracting itself. Former President Barack Obama and Trump both attempted to end the “forever wars” they inherited, but U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan and Iraq. At the same time, Washington cannot turn its back on the outside world—as it did during the 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt shunned foreign entanglement to focus on his domestic agenda, allowing Nazi Germany and imperial Japan to carve up Europe and Asia. Biden cannot afford to repeat that mistake. In an irretrievably interdependent world buffeted by China’s rise and Russia’s troublemaking, an isolationist retreat is not an option.

Biden must therefore strike a delicate balance. His foreign policy must be sufficiently ambitious to secure U.S. interests abroad but also sufficiently restrained to enjoy popular support and remain in sync with his domestic priorities. But first things first: Biden’s administration must spend time, political capital, and lots of money on domestic renewal. In the long term, this investment at home will strengthen the United States abroad. But in the short term, Biden will face powerful limits on his foreign policy—limits he would be wise to forthrightly acknowledge. America may be back and ready to lead the world, but only insofar as domestic and international constraints will permit. Better for Biden to aim at realistic objectives and deliver than aim high, fall short, and lose the confidence of the American public and U.S. allies alike.

The most formidable constraint on Biden’s foreign policy is domestic politics. Trump may have been a hapless statesman, but he correctly sensed that a sizable portion of the U.S. electorate had grown weary of seemingly unlimited foreign entanglements. Many Americans believe that Washington devotes too many resources to solving the problems of other nations and not enough to solving its own. It has pursued too many wars, too much free trade and immigration, and too many costly alliances and international pacts that, in Trump’s words, “tie us up and bring America down.” Biden needs to remain mindful of the nation’s inward turn if he is to maintain his political strength, keep hold of Congress in the 2022 midterms, and sustain the domestic investments needed to tame the discontent that led to Trump’s rise.

Biden seems to realize as much, asserting in a February 4 speech that “there’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy. Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind. Advancing a foreign policy for the middle class demands urgent focus on our domestic economic renewal.” Still, there will be tough choices in the months ahead.

Although most Americans welcome the return of a president who stands up for human rights and democratic allies, public........

© Foreign Affairs

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