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.