Biden’s SOTU Job: Connect the Global Dots

Never before have domestic and international issues been so intertwined. The President needs to say so.

By Laleh Ispahani

Next Tuesday, President Joe Biden will deliver his second State of the Union address, and his first to a Republican-led House.

Presidents typically divide their State of the Union speeches into a lengthy section on their domestic accomplishments followed by a much shorter section on foreign policy, except in times of war and crisis. Last year, since he was speaking just five days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden began his remarks talking about the war.

But things are different now. On nearly every crisis Americans face—from COVID to climate change, inflation to the war in Ukraine—the traditional distinctions between domestic and foreign policy no longer exist.

Framing the problems, as well as the solutions, in a more connected way would tell a more compelling story and underscore why engagement and diplomacy are central to the daily lives of Americans. Doing so would recognize the experiences of people across the country whose lives, families, and interests already extend across borders.

And framing the issues as intertwined and putting them in the context of our daily experience would help build political support for critical, but less popular, foreign policy programs and help the White House drive a foreign policy agenda that is explicitly linked to American needs.

Last year, Biden began his speech offering a rousing defense of Ukraine. He could take the same approach this time, but rather than making a quick transition to domestic issues, he could directly link Russia’s war to the rising costs of fuel and food.

Most Americans support the Biden Administration’s bipartisan efforts to provide Ukraine with billions of dollars’ worth of U.S. military assistance, which has protected millions of lives and helped Ukraine’s military defend the country’s self-determination and sovereignty.

Russia has responded to its embarrassing losses and setbacks by weaponizing food and energy production. The goal was to drive a wedge between the United States and its European allies, who had imposed stiff sanctions on the Russian government and Vladimir Putin’s friends. The sharp spike in food and gas prices hurts everyone and is the most prominent example of how foreign policy matters in our daily lives.

Three other fundamental issues roiling our society can similarly be better understood and more honestly debated when framed as transnational issues.

First, as the Biden Administration looks to shore up democracy abroad, through its Summits for Democracy and other measures, the United States cannot advance these efforts without bolstering our own democratic institutions by reversing overly restrictive voting laws and implementing much-needed political reforms. It is difficult for the United States to model democracy around the world when it is weak—and not prioritized—at home.

Here at home, the Inflation Reduction Act will direct billions of dollars toward clean energy programs and includes subsidies aimed at luring companies to invest in green technologies. This has caused concerns from some European allies about trade fairness for their green industries. But, even if one accepts those concerns, they are marginal relative to the urgency and long-term benefits of creating strong competition for green technology over time.

Third, social media companies operate globally. The disinformation and hate they carry, coupled with election denialism, know no boundaries. The same forces are prevalent in the United States, Brazil, Ethiopia, and Myanmar, to name but a few—and what happens online in one place is easily being replicated around the globe. Yet, Congress has been unable or unwilling to act meaningfully to regulate U.S. tech companies.

At the same time, the European Union has passed the Digital Services Act and General Data Protection Legislation, which will better protect users’ data and privacy. Not taking action in the United States means Americans can be more easily spied upon and attacked, and elections and public opinion more easily manipulated by mis- and disinformation.

The United States is well practiced in addressing domestic challenges from a global perspective. In 1952, when Brown v. Board of Education was argued before the Supreme Court, much of the federal government’s amicus brief was devoted to how segregation harmed our country’s ability to “conduct its foreign relations” and confront the Soviet Union. Closer to home, states have banded together to solve regional problems such as invasive species in the Great Lakes and acid rain in the Northeast.

President Biden can use the State of the Union to disrupt the tired thinking that domestic and foreign policy issues are somehow distinct. He can abandon the tradition of talking about the issues as two separate kinds of policies and show Americans that foreign policy matters at home as well as abroad.

It’s not just that the state of the union must be strong. The union’s relationships with other regions and nations must also be strong. If they’re not, it will be much more difficult to address today’s problems—whether China or Ukraine or climate or technology. Biden can use his State of the Union speech to show his fellow Americans and the world that the domestic is transnational and that our fates are connected.

Laleh Ispahani is the co-Director of Open Society-US.

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