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Biden’s State of the Union comes as foreign policy consensus fractures

Conflicts abroad will give way to domestic issues in election year

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will give up his leadership post at the end of this Congress, is a staunch internationalist in a party that is focusing more on domestic issues.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will give up his leadership post at the end of this Congress, is a staunch internationalist in a party that is focusing more on domestic issues. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call photo)

President Joe Biden isn’t expected to make foreign policy a major focus of his State of the Union speech on Thursday night despite multiple wars and conflicts around the world that are increasingly beyond his administration’s ability to manage and contain, not least because of the views of his congressional audience.

Democratic and Republican lawmakers who spoke to CQ Roll Call as well as former congressional and executive branch staffers all said they understood why Biden would focus his annual speech on Americans’ domestic concerns such as inflation, the cost of essential goods and services and migration, especially in an election year.

But Biden will also face an audience that lately has shown little willingness to follow his lead on major foreign policy problems. House Republicans so far opted not to provide more military and economic aid that could help Ukraine push Russia out of its territory. And many Democrats say Biden isn’t doing enough to rein in Israel as it continues its attacks on the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Although the Democrats have so far mostly backed aid to Israel, they are unhappy with the heavy cost in civilian Palestinian lives.

The worry that Chinese President Xi Jinping might try to compel Taiwan into acceding to Chinese government rule raises the foreign policy stakes further, making this year’s State of the Union an ideal moment for a president to emphasize how U.S. national security is jeopardized by events overseas and a misstep now could increase the chance that U.S. troops may need to be deployed in the not-too-distant future.

“We are in the middle of a cycle of generational challenges at the same time we have fundamental challenges to our leadership in Europe, in the Middle East and in Asia,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., who leads the Senate Appropriations subcommittee with responsibility for foreign aid and whose foreign policy views are seen as close to the administration’s.

With Nikki Haley, the former ambassador to the United Nations, exiting the Republican presidential nominating contest Wednesday, former President Donald Trump is all but guaranteed the 2024 nomination. Trump’s possible return to the Oval Office alarms many U.S. security experts given his apparent disdain for the regional military alliances the U.S. has built, sponsored and nurtured in the decades since World War II as a means of projecting U.S. influence and strengthening like-minded countries while deterring aggression from hostile countries.

“The world next year will be deeply unstable if we elect, reelect a former president who is not committed to American leadership on the world stage,” Coons said. “Former President Trump dedicated a huge amount of his time and energy to undermining, to shredding our global network of alliances.”

Biden is expected to renew his call for the House to vote on the $95 billion supplemental spending measure passed by the Senate. The legislation includes $60 billion in security and economic assistance for Ukraine, $14 billion in mostly weapons support for Israel, nearly $5 billion to help Taiwan and other friendly Indo-Pacific countries resist potential Chinese aggression and nearly $10 billion in humanitarian aid to help the Palestinians harmed by fighting in the Israel-Hamas war as well as refugees displaced around the world.

“I think he’s got to make the case that you are not supporting our allies without significant humanitarian assistance,” said Senate Foreign Relations member Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn. “You can’t help Ukraine without giving them humanitarian and economic relief. I know he’s going to make a very strong case on Ukraine, but I hope he makes the case that you really aren’t helping Ukraine if all you’re willing to do is give them weapons. They need a lot more than that.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., another member of the panel, also said she wanted Biden to address the Senate supplemental.

“I certainly hope that he will hit on the importance of passing the supplemental security funding for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, the defense-industrial base and humanitarian aid,” she said. “That’s very important to our place in the world and it’s important to our domestic security as well.”

Shaheen co-chairs the U.S. Senate NATO Observer Group with Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who said on Wednesday he wants Biden to “address the needs of continuing to invest in Ukraine.”

Republican internationalists

But Tillis and his internationalist views on U.S. global power are increasingly out of step with the GOP grassroots. With Haley bowing out of the presidential race and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announcing he will step down from Senate leadership after the November elections – both strongly support robust U.S. aid for Ukraine – the “America First” brand of U.S. foreign policy championed by Trump appears ascendant in the party.

Biden will also be addressing that sizable segment of the “Make America Great Again” electorate and may make the case that funding Ukraine’s defense is necessary to forestall the possibility of U.S. troops being called up to go overseas to fight alongside NATO allies should Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to press his luck and invade an alliance member, such as one of the Baltic countries.

“I think the State of the Union would be a great opportunity for President Biden to spell out the stakes in Ukraine,” said Lisa Curtis, a senior official on the National Security Council during the Trump administration and now with the centrist Center for a New American Security. “Yes, this is about the sovereignty of Ukraine, but it is also about the future global order because if Russia is to achieve its imperialist ambitions in Ukraine, that’s only going to inspire adversaries across the globe to try to take actions that further upset the global order.”

But Biden’s problem in part is that the principles the administration has championed for U.S. aid to Ukraine have in some important ways been undermined by the support he has given to Israel in its war against Hamas, said Matt Duss, a former foreign policy adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“I’ve been supportive of the efforts to help Ukraine defend itself,” Duss said. “I think making that case is hard to make given that I think they’ve undermined those principles in Gaza.”

Duss noted a contradiction in the administration condemning Moscow for its many lethal air attacks on Ukrainian civilians as well as Ukraine’s electricity infrastructure but staying mostly quiet when Israel does the same thing to Palestinian civilians trapped in the Gaza Strip.

“Israel uses these exact same tactics … and the U.S. refuses to criticize in anything like the same terms,” he said.

The administration, including Vice President Kamala Harris, has recently begun to use more forceful language to criticize Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government policy of blocking humanitarian aid from entering Gaza — a situation that has caused widespread and severe hunger in the enclave — but progressives like Duss, now the executive vice president of the Center for International Policy, say it is too little, too late.

Biden’s State of the Union situation is further complicated because most Republican lawmakers — isolationist and internationalist alike — are united in wanting the U.S. to continue strong weapons and diplomatic support for Israel as it retaliates for the Hamas terrorist attacks of Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people. 

“A cease-fire to get [Israeli] hostages makes sense but I’d like to hear him articulate that the military destruction of Hamas is non-negotiable,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said of what he’d like to hear Biden say in his speech on Thursday. “I think it would help everybody to know that we’re not going to live in a world where Hamas [survives].”

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