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Biden Looks To Move Beyond Trump's 'America First' In 1st Foreign Policy Address

President Biden gave his first foreign policy address as president on Thursday at the State Department, where he focused on international cooperation, Myanmar, Russia, Yemen and refugees.
Saul Loeb
AFP via Getty Images
President Biden gave his first foreign policy address as president on Thursday at the State Department, where he focused on international cooperation, Myanmar, Russia, Yemen and refugees.

Updated at 5 p.m. ET

President Biden said on Thursday that he will work with allies and partners to sanction Myanmar, end the war in Yemen, admit more refugees, and protect the rights of LGBTQ people around the world, signaling his plans to chart a course away from former President Donald Trump's "America First" approach to foreign policy.

Biden did not utter Trump's name in his first foreign policy speech as president, which he delivered at the State Department in Washington, D.C. But he said he has begun to try to repair the damage he said his predecessor did to America's reputation as a leader on democracy and human rights issues.

"Over the past two weeks, I've spoken with the leaders of many of our closest friends — Canada, Mexico, the U.K., Germany, France, NATO, Japan, South Korea and Australia — to begin reforming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscles of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse," Biden said.

The president said the United States' democratic values had "come under intense pressure in recent years" and were "pushed to the brink in the last few weeks" — an allusion to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol as Congress gathered to tally election results, a riot that shocked Americans and the world.

Russia and Myanmar

Biden addressed two new crises that have emerged during his first two weeks in office: the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a military coup in Myanmar.

On Myanmar, Biden said he had been in touch with Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell about a bipartisan response to try to urge the Southeast Asian nation's military to release detained activists and officials, and end the coup.

His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters that the White House is working with international partners on sanctions for individuals and entities controlled by the military. "We believe we have plenty of space to be able to find the types of sanctions targets necessary to sharpen the choice for the Burmese military," Sullivan said. The White House is also considering an executive order on the issue, he said.

On Russia, Biden said he had made clear to President Vladimir Putin "in a manner very different from my predecessor that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia's aggressive actions interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens are over."

War in Yemen

Biden singled out the long-running civil war in Yemen as one area of focus. He said the U.S. would not support "offensive operations" in Yemen — though the details of that were not immediately clear — and would beef up humanitarian aid. Biden also named a special envoy at the State Department to work on ways to end the conflict.

Sullivan told reporters that two arms sales made by the Trump administration — to the United Arab Emirates and to Saudi Arabia — would be halted, but that actions the U.S. takes against AQAP, an extremist group known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, would not be affected by the decision.

Biden said Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will lead a review of where American forces are around the world, and put a hold on a Trump-era decision to move U.S. troops out of Germany during that review.

Focus on refugees

Biden announced a presidential memorandum on protecting the rights of LGBTQ people worldwide, "including by combating criminalization and protecting LGBTQ refugees and asylum-seekers," he said.

Biden also vowed to increase the number of refugees allowed into the United States to 125,000 people during the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, and look for ways to make what he called a "downpayment" on his goal in the meantime. Trump had pushed to reduce refugee admission to 15,000 people, its lowest level in modern times.

"Raising the ceiling will literally be lifesaving for hundreds of thousands [of people] fleeing violence and persecution because of the color of their skin, how they worship or who they love," Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, the chief executive of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said in an interview.

"In the last four years under Trump, the refugee resettlement program hit rock bottom. If you think of the program as a car, not only did the Trump administration slam on the brakes, it tried intentionally to dismantle the engine," she said.

Kevin Appleby, a longtime immigration advocate who works on refugee issues, said it will take time for the Biden administration to lift the cap to reach its goal.

"The Trump administration tried to strangle the program to death, and they nearly succeeded," said Appleby, a board member of the Hope Border Institute.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.