Statesmanship and long-term political perspectives are rapidly disappearing qualities in today’s public forums, at all levels. Those qualities are even ridiculed when they’re introduced into public discussion. It’s as if we have become so indifferent and cynical, as well as self-indulgent, that these qualities are now an anathema in public life. It’s a sad commentary on our so-called civilization, and on our current society in general. It is also dangerous to our future survival. Self-indulgent myopia can easily hide catastrophes that can overtake us before we are even aware they exist.
However, all is not lost…..just yet. Once in a while a voice in the wilderness does cry out with some sense, and with characteristics that appear to be statesman-like. U.S. President, Joe Biden, gave just such a speech to a private audience last week.
When he first spoke at the State Department on February 4, 2021, Biden tied foreign policy and domestic policy together, saying: “There’s no longer a division between foreign and domestic policy. Investing in our diplomacy isn’t something we do just because it’s the right thing to do for the world. We do it in order to live in peace, security, and prosperity. We do it because it’s in our own naked self-interest. When we strengthen our alliances, we amplify our power as well as our ability to disrupt threats before they can reach our shores.”
Last week, in a campaign reception at a private home in Freeport, Biden gave a more personal version of that speech. Biden talked again about the world being at an inflection point. He defined an inflection point as an abrupt turn off an established path with the caveat that you can never get back on the original path again. The world is changing, he said, and not because of leaders, but because of fundamental changes like global warming and artificial intelligence. “We’re seeing changes… across the world in fundamental ways. And so, we’d better get going on what we’re going to do about it, both in foreign policy and domestic policy.”
He then turned specifically to foreign affairs. “Does anybody think that the post-war eras still exist; the rules of the road we’ve lived with since the end of World War Two?” he asked. “The Atlantic Charter of August 1941, that defined a post-World War II order, based that world order on territorial integrity, national self-determination, economic growth, and alliances to protect those values. It was the basis for most of the post-war international institutions that have protected a rules-based order ever since, but does that reality exist any more?
In June 2021, Biden and the U.K. signed a “New Atlantic Charter” to update the original. That charter renewed the joint commitment to the old one, then resolved “to defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies,” and to “strengthen the institutions, laws, and norms that sustain international co-operation, to adapt them to meet the new challenges of the 21st century, and guard against those that would undermine them.”
In his Freeport speech, Biden noted that his administration has shored up alliances around the world. It helped to pull Europe together to support Ukraine against Russia’s 2022 invasion, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “is stronger today than it’s ever been in its existence.” He, perhaps, should have added that Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine has actually achieved the exact opposite of what he intended regarding NATO, which shows what international cooperation can achieve.
Biden also noted that the Indo-Pacific world is changing, with new alliances coming together to hold firm on the idea of a rules-based international order. The advent of “The Quad”, which is an India, Japan, Australia, and the United States defense pact, and the nuclear submarine pact between Australia, the U.S. and the U.K., both coming together to stop China from changing that international order. Other countries, he said are taking note, shifting toward support for that order themselves. Did “anybody ever think Japan would increase its military budget over its domestic budget and help a European war on the side of the West?” Biden asked. “That’s what it’s doing. It’s changing the dynamic significantly.”
“The world is changing in a big way,” Biden said. “And we want to promote democracies…. there is so much going on that we can make the world…a lot safer and better and more secure. So…if you think about what’s happening, there is a confluence, if we get this right, both in terms of domestic economic policy and foreign policy, it can make safer and more secure than we’ve been for a long, long time.”
“Who could possibly bring the world together?” Biden asked. “Not me. But the President of the United States of America. Who could do it unless the President of the United States does it? Who? What nation could do it?” His vision was not the triumphalism of recent presidents; it reached back to the 1940s, to the post-war institutions that helped to rebuild Europe and create lasting alliances, and expanded that vision for the twenty-first century.
There’s a whole lot at stake, he said, “And I think we have an opportunity. One of the ways we make life better for us is make life better for the rest of the world. That’s why I pushed so hard for the Build Back Better initiative to build the infrastructure in Africa…and in Latin America and South America.”
In his speech, Biden even recognized that U.S. policies have caused damage in the past, and that the country must fix things it has broken. “We’re the ones who polluted the world,” he said, for example. “We made a lot of money,” and now the bill has come due.
Amazing for a U.S. President to admit, and that statement definitely qualifies as statesmanship.
I have to say, in conclusion, that Biden’s speech shows that experience and longevity does count for a lot in the role of statesmanship. I am reminded of Jimmy Carter, who was a naïve and fumbling president who grew into a world statesman later in life. We need elders, and to discard them just because they are old is a fundamental error. Most successful civilizations, and tribes, have respected and relied on their elders. Just because we think we are modern, and more civilized, doesn’t mean we should ignore human history and wisdom of our elders, at least from those that show some.