Joe Biden has followed the path of many American presidents in bringing his own foreign policy brand into office. His “foreign policy for the middle class” is less pithy than Donald Trump’s “America First.” But for a world trying to gauge the US’s new leadership—and an electorate with an uneasy relationship with globalisation and other disruptive economic forces—it may be just as consequential. Biden’s promise to the world is reengagement, whether on issues from which the US has been absent, such as climate change, or in multilateral institutions his predecessor sought to blow up, such as the WHO. But national security adviser Jake Sullivan and other senior aides are also making it clear that doesn’t portend a return to a pre-Trump model. The big idea is that since the end of World War II, Washington has gradually shifted from policies that fostered middle-class prosperity to ones that furthered the interests of multinational corporations and investors. That, of course, is the same economic grievance that Trump harnessed to win the presidency in 2016—the elites sold us out.
The consequences of that perceived betrayal are by now familiar: rising inequality, stagnant median household incomes, and employment shocks caused by the rise of China and technological change. In the wake of Trump’s victory, some graduates of the Obama administration including Sullivan embraced the idea that US policymakers had failed for too long to acknowledge the fallout from globalisation. As Trump unleashed his trade wars, jeopardising long-standing international alliances in the name of the American worker, the Obama graduates were teaming up with centrist Republican policy veterans to devise an alternative. Among the efforts was the establishment of a bipartisan task force under the auspices of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington, DC, think tank where Obama’s former commerce secretary, Penny Pritzker, chairs the board of trustees. The stated goal when it convened in 2018: come up with ideas for a foreign policy that works better for the middle class.