Post-CNN Debate: Visions for the World in 2025

On June 27, CNN held a debate between former president Donald Trump and incumbent president Joe Biden. Both men are in the unique position of running against a previous office holder, and the election itself is a rematch of the socially distanced contest held between the same two candidates in 2020.

There is arguably no area of governance where a president has greater freedom and impact than foreign policy. To better understand how the candidates used foreign policy positions on the debate stage, and the limits of their understanding or desired policies, the fellows of the Center for International Policy have assembled to offer some deeper insight. A transcript of the debate can be read here.

Sina Toossi, on the Middle East in the Debate

The presidential debate offered little hope for a more peaceful and just U.S. foreign policy towards the Middle East. The most egregious moment was Trump’s use of “Palestinian” as an insult in an exchange with Biden over their “pro-Israel” stances, a shocking display of racism that has largely escaped mainstream scrutiny.

Trump’s false claims about his Iran policy—asserting Iran was impotent and “broke” by the end of his term—belie the reality of his maximum pressure campaign, which provoked increased aggression from Iran, including unprecedented attacks on U.S. assets and allies, and accelerated nuclear activities.

Biden also faltered, with factual inaccuracies about Iran having intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities and misleading claims about U.S. military members not being killed under his watch in the region. Both candidates failed to present a coherent vision of the realities of U.S. policies towards the region.


Joanna Rozpedowski, on NATO in the Debate

Voters concerned about America’s security and geopolitical strategy face a pivotal choice between two starkly different approaches to international conflicts the new president will inevitably confront.

In the CNN debate, President Biden emphasized the importance of robust alliances and collective security measures, arguing that NATO and allied support are essential for deterring Russian aggression and maintaining global stability.

Former President Trump’s transactional approach prioritized national sovereignty, extreme frugality, and direct negotiation over costly multilateral commitments. His rhetoric indicated skepticism about the economic and tactical burdens the US bears in supporting NATO’s Ukraine approach, which thus far failed to result in the war’s peaceful settlement and risks further escalation onto neighboring European countries.

In November, this strategic divide presents Americans with a critical decision: maintain strong international alliances, an aggressive deterrence posture, and multilateral NATO engagement or attempt to resolve the conflict through diplomatic channels and direct negotiation. The decision rests squarely with the electorate.


Michael Chamberlin, on Mexico in the Debate

Regarding the issue of fentanyl crossing the border, neither candidate focuses on addressing the root causes. They fail to discuss how to collaborate with Mexico to strengthen its justice and anti-corruption institutions or how to stop Mexican criminal groups from obtaining guns in U.S. stores. Nothing was said about gun control in the United States or the movement of guns south through the same border, which arms the cartels that later send fentanyl north. Additionally, they overlook the importance of preventive measures from a health service perspective. Approaching the problem from a prohibition standpoint alone will never stop drug abuse.


Negar Mortazavi, on Iran in the Debate

Neither Trump nor Biden offered a coherent policy on Iran and the broader Middle East. Trump claimed that Iran had no money under his administration which is false. It’s true that he imposed broad sanctions against Iran that hurt the economy. But the impact of sanctions is mainly felt by average Iranian citizens and it does not really influence or change Iran’s foreign policy and regional spending. In fact, during Trump’s term tensions were high between Iran and its network of allies, the Axis of Resistance, and the U.S. and its regional allies.

Trump’s assassination of the top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani brought the two countries to the brink of a dangerous war, with Iran retaliating against the U.S. by shooting missiles from its soil targeting U.S. forces in Iraq. Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy towards Iran was not only dangerous but failed to achieve its stated goal of bringing Iran to the negotiating table for a better deal.

Biden’s policy towards Iran in general has not been very different or successful either. Candidate Biden had promised to prioritize diplomacy with Iran and revive the nuclear deal, but he couldn’t deliver on that promise.


Van Jackson, on China in the Debate

Biden has accepted Trump’s premise about China and economic statecraft. He now thinks reducing the trade deficit with China is a mark of progress. He imagines political economy as a zero-sum terrain where their gain is not just our loss; it’s a threat to us. This is the kind of economic nationalism that ultimately serves defense-industrial interests and reactionary political projects.Trump, for his part, openly accused the sitting American president of treason and corruption–he called him a “Manchurian candidate.” This is actual red-baiting; literally John Birch Society stuff. The notable thing, which is of pattern, is that Trump is using China as the wedge to attack his political opponent. The fascistic, corrupt politician is using the China bogeyman to advance his politics against his democratic opponent. The GOP did much the same in 2020 and 2022.

It’s true that politicians from both parties try to play the “China card” to their advantage…but it’s false that the “China card” is some value-neutral object that anyone can use for their purposes with equal effectiveness. China-threat rhetoric systematically biases toward reactionary, demagogic political outcomes; it’s unfavorable terrain for democratic politics. That’s why Democrats who tried to out-hawk their opponents on China in 2022 fared poorly in the general election.

Trump is not wrong that Biden’s foreign policy is pushing us toward World War III—we’re still insisting on a strategy of primacy in a world where power realities simply make it impossible. And by pursuing primacy anyway, the national security state naturalizes the necessity of the most dangerous kinds of policies: containment, arms-racing, and economic nationalism. This will not end well for anyone. The falsity in Trump’s rant though is that he is any better. Indeed, Biden’s China policy is Trump’s China policy. Worse, Trump’s implied theory of war prevention appears to be a form of extortion. Cultivating personal relationships with dictators, he insists, is the way to prevent World War III. That means that Trump puts himself in the position of telling the public, “Look, you want me to be friends with Xi and Putin and Kim. That’s how I’m preventing Armageddon.”

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CIP Analysis of New Congressional Ukraine and Israel Aid Proposals

We are hopeful that Congress will finally provide long overdue aid to help the people of Ukraine repel Russia’s illegal invasion. With Ukraine’s financial and critical military resources nearly exhausted, this US assistance is vital to preventing Vladimir Putin from achieving his goal of destroying Ukrainian independence and democracy.

In contrast to Ukraine’s demonstrated need for funds to counter conquest and occupation by an expansionist nuclear power, the effort to provide billions of dollars in new American taxpayer funding for weapons to Israel to use in its devastating campaign in Gaza is not militarily, financially or strategically justified.

While Israel has the right and responsibility to defend its people and take military action in response to Hamas’ horrific October 7, 2023 attack, Israel’s campaign in Gaza is failing to achieve its own stated objectives of rescuing the Israelis taken hostage or “eliminating” Hamas from the territory. Instead, Israel’s disproportionate bombardment and siege of the territory with US weapons has resulted in more than 30,000 deaths – two-thirds of which Israel itself estimates are civilians – nearly half of them children.

Despite calls by American lawmakers for meaningful conditions on US military assistance to prevent Israel’s continued use of US arms in a manner that President Biden himself has twice called “indiscriminate,” the stand-alone Israel aid bill being considered by the House of Representatives not only fails to include any such safeguards, but would reduce already insufficient opportunities for Congressional oversight of weapons sales to Israel under federal law. The White House’s issuance of National Security Memorandum 20 (NSM-20) requiring foreign military aid recipients like Israel to adhere to relevant international humanitarian and US law was a step in the right direction, but not a sufficient replacement for durable, statutorily binding safeguards – especially in light of the Biden administration’s resistance to enforcing either existing law or, thus far, NSM-20 with regard to Israel.

With a per capita GDP greater than that of the UK, Canada and Japan – and more than twelve times that of Ukraine — Israel has not made the case to Congress or American taxpayers that it will be unable to carry out essential, legitimate defense activities without the level of financial assistance specified in the bill. Such extraordinary additional subsidization is especially inappropriate in light of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government continuing to spend Israel’s own funds in connection with accelerating efforts to seize and permanently control territory in the occupied West Bank, including the largest expropriation of Palestinian land in the 30 years since the Oslo Accords. Helping Israel finance missile and air defense systems if it was unable to pay for them itself would be entirely reasonable. But providing ever-increasing amounts to fund the deadly munitions and other weapons Israel is deploying in Gaza is not. While Israel openly rejects US requests to use such arms appropriately, desist from violations of Palestinian rights in the West Bank, and refrain from further escalations with Iran, increasing US financing rewards rather than disincentivizes such Israeli actions that run counter to American interests.

Additionally, as Gaza’s civilian population faces a crisis of starvation and disease, the Israel aid bill unconscionably reinforces the recently legislated prohibition on US contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) – the main provider of lifesaving aid and services in the territory — even as it provides a welcome increase in global humanitarian aid. UNRWA has already fired the 12 low-level staff alleged to have participated in the October 7 attacks and has committed to helping hold them fully accountable if the ongoing investigation confirms the allegations. Lawmakers should work urgently to reverse the funding cutoff as nearly all US partner countries have, rather than continuing to collectively punish millions of Palestinians who rely on UNRWA services, including the hundreds of thousands on the brink of famine in Gaza.

Far from addressing the growing threat to American and regional security that the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza represent, the stand-alone Israel aid bill would cruelly exacerbate it at the very moment further Israeli escalation with Iran risks drawing the United States even deeper into another costly and avoidable quagmire in the Middle East. At this dangerous moment, lawmakers could best keep Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region — including US personnel — safe by pushing for a Gaza ceasefire that allows for massive humanitarian relief and the release of all hostages, while emphasizing the need for de-escalation in tensions with Iran.

To defeat oligarchy, Ukraine needs strong labor protections. The US can help.

Vladyslav Starodubtsev is a Ukrainian social-democratic, human rights, and social activist and historian of Central and Eastern Europe and Ukrainian left-wing movements.

Every Ukrainian government since independence in 1991 has shared the goal of implementing austerity. In pursuit of an economy organized by neo-Thatcherite principles, each successive government has sought to limit the social and labor rights of Ukrainians. From the Russian invasion in 2014, this has meant prioritizing the oligarchy’s sectoral interests and anti-social business practices over promoting social cohesion and national unity.

Ukrainian labor was already under attack before the 2022 invasion. A 2020 report by the US State Department on the state of human rights, including labor rights in Ukraine, mentioned acts of violence against trade unionists as well as pressure against workers who were acting against corruption in their workplace. In addition, State reported discrimination in the workplace; lack of worker safety and undermining the safety regulations; dangerous work conditions; and delays in payment of wages (essentially a “theft” of wages).

Still, only since Russia’s February 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine has the full extent of the consequences of such policies become clear. One can see overworked nurses toiling in hospitals that lack capacities and equipment, facing a huge number of wounded while understaffed and underpaid, for often no more than 130-150 dollars a month – well below the $175 monthly minimum wage (and earning at most a maximum of 300 dollars/month). Construction workers labor without proper safety standards, working under constant threat of rocket and drone strikes. At the same time, the government has implemented tax cuts for businesses, and further benefited employers at the expense of workers by easing the process of firing an employee. All of this came at the moment when stability for most people became non-existent.

Ukraine’s labor standards were already worsening before February 2022, but instead of easing the burdens on workers and capital equally in the face of the war, labor standards have instead been actively degraded by new laws.

Capital Gains

In March 2022 the least balanced labor law in Ukraine since independence, Law 2136, came into effect. It allowed employers to fire workers without the consent of trade unions and during sick leave. It became possible to increase the work week to 60 hours, and the inviolability of the right to pay was abolished. Employers were able to dismiss employees due to disagreements regarding the continuation of work under new working conditions without waiting for 2 months.The biggest imbalance was caused by the procedure for suspending employment contracts, which employers abused, putting employees on the edge of survival with impunity

Law 2136 also canceled holidays during wartime. This could be justified under some circumstances, but in effect, labor bore the brunt of the hardships, while employers were largely unaffected. Before the full-scale invasion, if work could not continue due to objective factors, workers were able to receive compensation while finding a new job, allowing them to find a better job without compromising their dignity by immediately accepting worse employment.

Under the new law, employers could stop employment contracts without firing an employee and without paying them. This meant that people could no longer register as unemployed while finding work and therefore could not get unemployment benefits. This has not always worked out to the employers’ benefit, though it often does. Since Law 2136’s introduction, in some cases courts sided with employees if an employer did not specify a reason for stopping work.

Law 2136 also introduced the possibility of moving workers onto 1-hour working days, with proportional lowering of wages. If employees disagree, they could be fired without any compensation. Employers were only required to provide 2 days of notice before implementing such decisions, thus depriving them of the possibility to save money or find alternative employment.

With Law 2136, Ukraine enabled employers to avoid paying maternity leave, compensation for pregnant workers, and other benefits.

In July 2022, the Law on Simplifying the Regulation of Labor Relations (Law 2434) was adopted. It introduced parts of the Civil Codex into the labor Codex, providing further opportunities to undermine the labor Codex by allowing looser contracts between employees and employers. The main “innovation” of this law was the introduction of the possibility of firing workers easily.

In August 2022, the Ukrainian government introduced Law 2421, one of the worst-regulated laws on zero-hour contracts in the world. Precarious work, which elsewhere increasingly trends towards greater regulation, is instead becoming even more precarious in Ukraine. Law 2421 establishes zero-hour contracts without any additional security for workers agreeing to such a precarious arrangement. Employers can enter into collective labor agreements with no obligation to provide employees with work, but can offer it as they need. Payment is made only for completed work. After receiving an offer from an employer, an employee must accept it within the terms established by the contract and start work; in case of refusal, they may face disciplinary action. If the duration of work is less than 32 hours per month, the monthly salary is paid for 32 working hours. In effect, the law practically cancels the requirements for a minimum wage.

The new law introduces the possibility of calling an employee at any time and forcing disciplinary action if an employee doesn’t respond. It introduces the possibility of paying less than a minimum wage for work, as well as the possibility of overtime work without compensation. This law undermines the right to private life and poses severe threats to the mental health and well-being of employees.

In its latest statement, the second biggest trade union of Ukraine directly calls the new labor Codex (planned to be accepted in 2024) that the government is now working on, “enslavement.” The statement reads; “Enslavement of employees is foreseen, and employers are given the right to apply overtime hours almost without restrictions (at their discretion).”

Labor Struggles

Even after this attack on labor rights, Ukrainian labor security formally could be seen as at least comparatively average. But in reality, this could not be further from the truth, as the law has power to protect workers only when it is enforced. Undermining workers’ rights illegally is now an incredibly widespread and normalized practice, one aided by the government’s introduction of a moratorium on labor inspections.

The International Labor Organization has concluded, drawing on the examples of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, that any moratorium on labor inspections “would substantially undermine the inherent functioning of the labor inspection system” and that to adhere to the norms of labor regulations, “the Government [should] take prompt measures to ensure that labor inspectors are empowered to make visits to workplaces liable to inspection without previous notice and to undertake labor inspections as often and as thoroughly as is necessary to ensure the effective application of the legal provisions.” 

In 2023 labor inspections were reintroduced under the pressure of the EU, but with severe limitations that effectively undermine inspections.

These new labor standards were not in any way communicated with the population, and did not receive adequate debate or discussion before adoption. Most people are not well educated on labor law, and the country lacks a strong pool of labor lawyers who can educate and empower workers to find weaknesses in the law and defend their rights.

While it has become somewhat difficult to criticize Ukraine’s government during wartime, the same criticisms have long been made by Ukrainian trade unions, preceding the war: the country is in dire need of a good system of inspections and labor security to enforce standards of labor law.

Furthermore, there has been a constant effort to nationalize trade union property, pursuing the legal argument that trade union property in the USSR was the property of the state and thus, after more than 30 years of independence, it should be inherited by the Ukrainian state, which is viewed as the successor to the Ukrainian SSR, not by trade unions. This argument is used as both an instrument of intimidation to achieve trade union loyalty and as a tool to undermine trade unions’ means for realizing their role in civil society.

In 2022, the government introduced a number of reforms that severely and disproportionately weakened Ukrainian labor rights. Meanwhile, capital has seen its privileges expand, damaging the social contract between workers and businesses by fully siding with business. Tripartism between the state, capital, and labor is practically no more.

None of these reforms helped the economy. They also weakened the human potential, well-being, and physical and mental state of employees, as well as artificially creating highly precarious conditions.

The lack of jobs and extremely low, and usually not-enforceable, minimum wage, which sometimes was ignored outright – even some state enterprises have jobs with less than the $175 monthly minimum wage, with some employees earning only $150 – worsens the situation on the labor market, since fewer qualified workers want to work in Ukraine at a time when the Ukrainian labor market faces serious shortages.

New labor laws have weakened trade unions, thus limiting the voice of civil society and weakening social dialogue between different social groups. This lack of communication also has an economic effect, since cooperation between labor and capital is weak, as is motivation. This lowers productivity and flexibility.

A huge number of workers are working in the shadows. Tax police ignore the problem, and the government tries to normalize this state of affairs. These anti-labor reforms also strengthen the shadow sector, as official employment no longer provides sufficient guarantees. Meanwhile, the government does little to force business out of “the shadow economy.”

Mobilization efforts are hampered by inequality and the refusal of the government to make capital to pay their fair, equal share, together with labor. New labor laws, while rhetorically trying to “move away” from the Soviet legacy, have retained the mindset towards labor inherited from the USSR: a denial of the value and dignity of employees.

Solidarity and the US

How can the US help Ukrainians to limit the harms of oligarchy and regressive reforms, while providing social security for workers ?

In light of such reforms, which are made only for pursuing very narrow sectoral interests instead of the common good, one should understand Ukrainian society and group interests as diverse and complex. We still, unfortunately, retain the strong influence of the old Soviet elite, which became the Ukrainian oligarchy, and we suffer from Thatcherite-like reforms that created a new group of powerful and unchecked influences on politics and the economy. At the same time, Ukraine has a robust civil society, the largest part of which is made up of trade-unions. There are a great number of problems that need to be tackled to ensure basic fairness and justice, which is even more important in the context of full-scale war. Society should feel connected, united, strong, and not undermined and divided by social, political and economic conditions.

Biden’s foreign policy towards Ukraine can be understood in a number of ways. Despite modest beginnings, there have been steady improvements. I expect that this tendency will continue if Biden wins another term. This is the case especially with labor rights, where we hope to see the US taking a greater role in protecting Ukrainian labor.

In 2022, the American Federation of Teachers sent a letter to Secretary Blinken, asking him to look into the Ukrainians government’s actions to undermine the Ukrainian trade union movement and limit worker’s rights. The letter states: “Overall, these new laws, if signed by President Zelensky, will eliminate most collective bargaining rights, reduce worker protections, and allow the state to confiscate property owned by unions and currently used to shelter war refugees.”

The letter was made after a call for solidarity by Ukrainian trade unions against attacks on workers’ rights when they couldn’t be defended, as people were fully concentrated on winning the war.

The AFL-CIO also provided strong backing for Ukrainian trade unions and made sure that Ukrainian trade union voices were heard. It raised awareness in the US government and motivated the adoption of policies to act on Ukrainian society’s demands.

In 2023, Julie Su, the US acting Secretary of Labor, organized a meeting with Ukrainian medical workers to highlight the issues that they are facing, during which Ukrainians discussed the horrible labor conditions in the country.

Some US grants came with conditions that targeted the strengthening of labor, and USAID actively finances trade union events and organizations focused on the promotion of labor rights, such as Labor Initiatives.

The US constantly provides support for the Ukrainian government’s social spending. To make sure that this money would be spent beneficially to the majority of Ukrainians, the US set limitations to the categories on which money could be spent. This is despite the Ukrainian government’s Ministry of Social Policies (which also deals with labor related questions) policy to introduce as many social cuts as possible. This policy was described explicitly: “destroy all social.” The mentioned motivation was to promote the “self-sufficiency” of internally displaced people and others facing extreme pressure so they wouldn’t “get used” to government help. This plan was extensively criticized by Ukrainian social policy researchers.

Active sabotage by some officials and downplaying of the role of the trade unions undermines the majority of Ukrainian society, which in turn produces corruption, unchecked power, lack of stability, and poverty for the majority of Ukrainians. The question of winning the war thus becomes a question of organizing an equal share of responsibility, feeling of community, and common solidarity, which is incompatible with the pursuit of the sectoral economic interests of a powerful few at the cost of the rest of Ukrainian society.

What should be done?

While US policymakers have made efforts to help Ukrainian labor, these efforts are often undermined. For example, medical workers had praised a US grant of $1.25 billion for wages to state-employed workers, but voiced concern with real allocations, especially after Ukraine’s cabinet authorized wage cuts for these same workers. This is just one example where US help has been allocated to help labor, but is subsequently misspent by government schemes or solely allocated for higher management, which already enjoys relatively high wages by Ukrainian standards.

To answer that problem, the US needs to change its priority from securing Ukrainian labor through the help of the government to a multiplicity approach that recognizes the conflicting interests of different parts of Ukrainian society. This might mean helping the national government in one regard while helping the trade unions and local government in others, sometimes, even at the expense of national government interests.

I call that approach poly-archic: recognizing different groups, their positions and roles in society, and the goals that they can achieve. In that sense, the Ukrainian government has a strong pro-oligarchic bias but has a talent for organization of military production and guiding construction efforts. It should be supported in achieving those goals, and trade unions and labor should be supported for the goals of fighting poverty, better social cohesion, tripartism and, importantly, for the effort to battle corruption and oligarchic influence in the political sense: limiting possibilities for unchecked government actions, promotion of group interests; and rigorously controlling government actions towards labor.

Diversifying funds and other means of help towards different agents in Ukrainian society could be a great benefit. Such diversification will strengthen democracy and human rights, promote deliberation, stabilize Ukrainian society, make it more resilient, and indirectly strengthen the Ukrainian war effort. All of this while making the Ukrainian government more transparent and effective.

This is important not only in Ukraine but also in the US. It can create dialogue and cooperation between US trade unions and the US government, combining the skills and knowledge of both to provide strong common support for Ukrainian labor.

With that said, Ukrainian labor will need  substantial international support  to help contain trade union inefficiencies and corruption where those exist. This is a cheap investment, from a financial standpoint, that can boost anti-corruption, democratic, and anti-poverty efforts dramatically.

Conditions for financial aid in terms of labor security could also be stronger. Together with empowering trade unions, it could be enough to help Ukrainians pressure their government when it engages in wrongdoings. Minimum demands would need to include a fair minimum wage, security from firing, promoting social-oriented practices of business, and the introduction of pro-active labor inspection.

Implementing new, even modest, measures towards empowering labor and civil society as a whole will improve democracy and political participation, social cohesion and Ukraine’s economic growth. Ukraine’s victory will be that much closer if Ukrainian labor has a strong voice.

CIP Response to the 2024 State of the Union

Matt Duss is the Executive Vice President of the Center for International Policy

On foreign policy, President Biden’s State of the Union last night didn’t give us too much to work with. He did come right out of the gate strong, talking about Ukraine. I can’t remember the last time a president opened the State of the Union talking about foreign policy, but it really served to underline the urgency of the need to pass the Ukraine aid package which has been stalled in Congress for months.

The section on the Gaza war was unfortunately as expected. Yesterday’s announcement of the building of a Gaza port to facilitate humanitarian aid shouldn’t be dismissed  – more aid for Palestinians on the brink of starvation is obviously good. But as with the airdropping of aid it just reveals the incoherence of U.S. policy right now, in which we’re trying to ease Palestinian suffering while continuing to unconditionally arm and support the government that is intentionally inflicting that suffering.

The president seems to recognize that ultimately this conflict will require a political solution, but is still unwilling to bring the full weight of America’s considerable leverage to that goal. Biden’s potted history of the conflict didn’t help. Hamas’ atrocities on October 7 were obviously the precipitating event, but this war did not begin on October 7. It has been waged against the Palestinians every day for years in the form of a violent and humiliating military occupation. Any effort to bring this conflict to a just resolution will need to confront that reality, and Biden seems unprepared to do that.

On the bright side, Biden took what I think is exactly the right approach on his administration’s biggest foreign policy priority: China. He basically told everybody to chill out about it, he’s got this. This isn’t dismissing the challenge, he hasn’t done that, but I think taking a less hysterical approach is something that will lead to a more rational discussion and better, more effective policy.

On immigration, a key goal must be tackling root causes, such as corruption and violence, in US-Latin America policy. The president unfortunately allowed himself to be drawn into a back and forth with Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green over the murder of Laken Riley, a 22 year old Georgia nursing student who was murdered by an undocumented migrant who had been released into the country after being detained. Biden’s statement that Riley had been “killed by an illegal” was a misstep that plays right into the right’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, which is unfortunately in keeping with his general approach to immigration lately, where he’s been willing to tack right and offer some pretty dangerous concessions to try and save the Ukraine aid package. But many of the principles and values at stake at our border are the same ones at stake in Ukraine: human safety and dignity, a commitment to international law. It’s wrong to think we can promote one while selling out the other.

But the bottom line is there just wasn’t much foreign policy in it at all. A few paragraphs in a nearly 90 minute speech. And that reflects his administration’s approach: they would like to talk about foreign policy as little as possible. President Biden has a strong case to make in terms of his administration’s domestic accomplishments. They’ve been able to get important things done that are showing huge benefits to the American people. He has a similar opportunity to advance a foreign policy agenda that improves the lives of Americans and global populations alike. Given that foreign policy is clearly going to be a much bigger issue in this election than anyone expected, I think it was a missed opportunity to stake out a bolder vision.


What we’d love to hear President Biden say on Foreign Policy in his State of the Union address

In February 2021, in his first major foreign policy address as president, Biden declared the US must engage with the world “with diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.”

Since then, the President has made some significant progress: restoring alliances, leading a strong and calibrated response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ending the US war in Afghanistan, attacking the corruption and violence in Latin America fueling the migration crisis. But he must finish the job.

In his State of the Union address tonight, here are five (of many) opportunities for what President Joe Biden could say if he wants to show Congress, the American people and the world that he is serious about advancing true US interests and global human security:


  1. There must be a ceasefire, return of all Israeli hostages and massive emergency humanitarian aid effort in Gaza. Furthermore, this administration can and must fully enforce relevant US and international law to ensure protection of civilians from indiscriminate bombardment, starvation and disease.
  2. The US response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine offers a positive case study for US engagement with the world in a way that honors our principles and advances security – but universality and consistency are necessary to safeguard the benefits. President Biden will be right to call on right-wing extremists in Congress to end their obstruction of aid to Ukraine – desperately needed aid, replete with the transparency and accountability mechanisms necessary to ensure the American public and the world can scrutinize its rightful use. Consistent adherence to international law will only strengthen his case.
  3. China and our allies in Asia alike must know that Americans’ highest aspirations for the Pacific are that the world’s most populous region be one of peace, prosperity and unlimited potential. The US-China relationship is not zero-sum. Tensions are inevitable, but escalation and war are a choice. While we will never shy away from defending the democratic and human rights of all in the region, our priority is to coexist and cooperate on our many areas of shared interest.
  4. The man-made climate crisis is here. The only reasonable discussion to have is how to minimize and mitigate it effectively and fairly – that means we and international partners must commitment to aggressive multilateral carbon reduction goals, massive public investment in a just and sustainable transition away from fossil fuels – including breaking the harmful feedback loop between militarism and climate change – and the equitable sharing of burdens of climate and other ecological change impacts.
  5. We must make clear that the survival of not only democracy around the globe, but the American experiment itself depends on whether we succeed in countering rising ultranationalism, autocracy, kleptocracy, oligarchy and corruption – as well as the inherent inequality, discrimination, repression and economic precarity that comes with them.

The President has an opportunity tonight to demonstrate that he is the leader that the people of this and other nations want and deserve – the leader that earned him praise and support in years past. To do that, we must stop repeating the failures of the past, especially when it comes to foreign policy.

Biden’s different rules for Ukraine and Israel

Biden’s divergent handling of Ukraine’s war against Russia and Israel’s war in Gaza define the bounds of the administration’s foreign policy, a staggering juxtaposition in effect. Biden’s team persuasively rallied international support to the side of an invaded Ukraine, under a vision of universal application of international law and solidarity between those victimized by aggressors. In Israel, Biden stood by the country following the horrific attack by Hamas on October 7, 2023, and continues to largely stand by the country months into Israel’s war of retaliation waged against the people of Gaza.

Matt Duss, executive vice president of the Center for International Policy, outlined this tension in a December piece for The New Republic:

The reality is that Russia is occupying Ukraine to end Ukrainian self-determination, and Israel is doing the same to Palestine. “They’re not a real people and the land is really ours by right” is the position of both the Russian and Israeli governments regarding Ukrainians and Palestinians.

When it came to America’s role in aiding Ukraine beset by an invading power, the Biden administration rallied diplomatic efforts and military aid, ensuring that the smaller country could not be bullied out of existence by its more numerous, nuclear-armed neighbor. The Russian invasion, at a large scale and aim, built on previous aggression, which had seen Ukraine in an intense but smaller-scale conflict since 2014.

While the spark of Israel’s assault on Gaza is retaliation for an attack on civilians, the conflict itself builds from decades of occupation and specific tensions, history well outlined by Duss. That the Biden administration’s response to Israel’s war was diplomatic and material backing, instead of urging its ally to address the enduring and destabilizing harms of occupation, was a profound missed opportunity.

Duss continues:

The United States has put a great deal of effort in appealing to the global south/nonaligned world on a range of issues, including support for Ukraine. That effort was mortally wounded when the whole global south saw the West’s blatant double standard. (“For my friends, everything; for my enemies, the International Criminal Court.”)

Read the rest of the piece at The New Republic.