On July 11th, presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden shared his foreign policy plans at New York’s CUNY Graduate Center. During the 45-minute speech, Biden spoke about the urgency of restoring American leadership and said diplomacy “must be put back in the hands of genuine professionals” to elevate diplomacy as the main foreign policy tool. Although the speech covered quite extensively how a Biden administration reimagines the role of the United States in a range of topics—most importantly, including the middle class in the advancement of America’s foreign policy vision and the restoration of historic partnerships into the 21st century—Latin America made it through, but barely.
For someone deeply aware of the importance of working with Latin American countries to secure U.S. interests, and with a past of engaging in the region during his time as Vice President, the speech fell short.
To be fair, Vice President Biden did cover a range of topics—from climate change to cyber warfare to national security and mass migration—and how he planned to place the United States back at the forefront of “leading the world in addressing the most urgent global challenges.” In this regard, dedicating a larger portion of time to exclusively address foreign policy challenges particular to the Western Hemisphere might be too much to ask. But by choosing to give his speech in New York—literally the most diverse city in the world—in the face of immigration raids reportedly set to start this Sunday across 10 major cities—one of them being New York—Vice President Biden missed a valuable opportunity to dive deeper on Latin America and outdo his competitors in a topic he clearly dominates.
Biden did, however, seize the opportunity to counter President Donald Trump’s “erratic policies and failure to uphold basic democratic principles surrendering the country’s position in the world.” For Biden—who is currently leading in the Democratic primaries with 22 percent of the vote and 5 points ahead of Senator Elizabeth Warren—foreign policy has to be purposeful and inspiring, based on clear goals and sound strategies—certainly not Twitter tantrums—that advance security, prosperity and democratic values.
The candidate also mentioned the urgent need to enact “forward looking foreign policy as we find it today and anticipate it to be” in light of a crowded, competitive and complicated international landscape where, on the one hand, the speed and intensity of the gravest dangers—climate change, nuclear proliferation, cyberwarfare, and mass migration—means the fate of nations are more intertwined than ever; and on the other, the rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism and illiberal tendencies are causing many people to feel confused and vulnerable, impeding democratic governments to deliver.
How exactly is he planning to address these two identified challenges? Recognizing that voters historically don’t vote on foreign policy, Biden argues that policies at home and abroad are deeply connected. For the former Vice President, the key to reset democracy, regain U.S. leadership across the globe, and prepare for the challenges of the 21st Century is to promote a greater participation of the middle class in the advancement of the American vision into the future.
To achieve that, Biden outlined a roadmap that he’d enact as soon were to step into the Oval Office. The vision can be pretty much be summarized this way: putting the house back in order; equipping people to succeed in the new global economy; and placing America back at the head of the table to mobilize global action on global threats. The “cleaning the house” section is where the few references to Latin America were mostly made, besides other matters of urgent attention such as remaking the education system, reforming the criminal justice system and restoring the Voting Rights Act.
Cleaning the house includes providing a fast solution to the border crisis. The former Vice President affirmed he would “immediately end the horrific practice of separating families at the border and holding immigrant children in for-profit prisons.” At the same time, if elected president, Biden would establish sensible policies that improve screening procedures at legal ports of entry and make smart investments in border technology, in cooperation with Canada and Mexico.
Venezuela—along with Haiti—made a short cameo, in the form of a review of the Temporary Protected Status policy, to target vulnerable populations who cannot find safety in countries ripped apart by violence or disaster. Biden, though, avoided touching on Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarianism or how the United States should cooperate in restoring democracy and handling the humanitarian crisis in the South American country.
For the second component of the foreign policy roadmap, Biden ensured he would pursue a foreign policy for the middle class. Although this seems more like a domestic economic development plan—focused on equipping the middle class with skills that guarantee their prosperity in the 21st century—it does a good job in connecting the dots between domestic and foreign issues. The rationale behind enacting policies that sharpen the U.S.’s innovative edge at home, is certainly smart and thoughtful and if well implemented could bring the United States closer to the ideal scenario of “winning the competition for the future against China or anyone else…and uniting the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices.”
Finally, the candidate still at the head of the polls promised to restore U.S. credibility and influence across the world proposing—among other initiatives—the U.S. military continues to be the strongest in the world, elevating diplomacy and with it rebuild a modern, agile U.S. Department of State. He also hinted at restoring and reimagining historic partnerships, included the re-funding of foreign aid toward Central America and addressing the root causes of migration.
In the end, Vice President Biden did address and immense range of topics, but perhaps too much for a first foreign policy message in one of the nation’s emblematic sanctuary cities. A shorter, and poignant address, even focused on migration issues could have had a greater effect. However, offering an ambitious foreign policy plan that places the middle class at the center of the conversation, makes a fair attempt at answering the “why should we care about what happens abroad” question. Biden has a shot at outdoing his competitors on the topic of Latin America and the restoration and strengthening of U.S. alliances in the region and abroad, he just has to take it.