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Biden signals that US will refocus on diplomacy abroad

In his first visit to the State Department as president, Biden called for a return to the "grounding wire of our global power.”

WASHINGTON — Asserting a broad reset of American foreign policy, President Joe Biden said Thursday that he would halt the withdrawal of U.S. troops stationed in Germany, end support for Saudi Arabia's military offensive in Yemen and make support for LGBTQ rights a cornerstone of diplomacy.

In his first visit to the State Department as president, Biden called for a return to the "grounding wire of our global power.” He sought to buck up the diplomatic corps, many of whom were discouraged by the policies and tone of former President Donald Trump.

“America is back. Diplomacy is back,” Biden said in brief remarks to the State Department staff. "You are the center of all that I intend to do. You are the heart of it. We’re going to rebuild our alliances”

With Biden's most public diplomatic effort of his young presidency, White House officials said he was hoping to send an unambiguous signal to the world that the United States is ready to resume its role as a global leader after four years in which Trump pressed an “America First” agenda.

Trump last year, despite congressional resistance, announced plans to redeploy about 9,500 of the roughly 34,500 U.S. troops stationed in Germany, which hosts key American military facilities like the Ramstein Air Base and the headquarters for U.S. European Command and U.S. Africa Command.

Trump announced the pullback after repeatedly accusing Germany of not paying enough for its own defense, calling the longtime NATO ally “delinquent" for failing to spend 2% of its GDP on defense, the alliance benchmark.

No reductions or changes have been made to U.S. troop levels since Trump's announcement. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hinted at a likely reconsideration of the order in a conversation with his German counterpart last week, chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

Hours before Biden's State Department visit, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan announced Biden would also issue a presidential memorandum that will address protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer individuals worldwide. As a candidate, Biden pledged to prioritize LGBTQ rights on the international stage, promising to use “America’s full range of diplomatic tools” to promote equality.

During Thursday's visit to the State Department, officials said, Biden also plans to announce that he will increase the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the United States to more than eight times the level at which the Trump administration left it.

Trump drastically reduced the cap to only 15,000. Biden’s plan would raise it to 125,000, surpassing the ceiling set by President Barack Obama before he left office by 15,000.

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The timing of Biden's visit so early in his term is deliberate, as much symbolic as it is a nod to his interest in foreign policy and his years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he represented Delaware.

Trump had waited more than a year to visit the department, making his first appearance only for the swearing-in of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2018, and repeatedly assailed it as part of a “deep state” out to undermine his administration. Trump denigrated and dismissed its employees and unsuccessfully tried over multiple years to slash its budget by up to 35%.

Biden, by contrast, chose longtime confidant Antony Blinken to be his secretary of state, aiming to reinvigorate an American diplomatic corps that had been depleted and demoralized under four years of the Trump administration.

He was greeted by employees eager to hear that diplomacy has returned to the top of the presidential agenda and that the expertise of long-serving foreign service officers will be valued.

“I promise I will have your back,” Biden told the department staff. “And I expect you to have the back of the American people."

Although Biden’s first nominations and appointments to senior positions at State have trended heavily toward political appointees, the president and Blinken have pledged to promote career staffers.

To that end, the Biden administration is set to name a longtime U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Tim Lenderking, as its special envoy in Yemen. The move comes as Biden is searching for a diplomatic end to the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign that has deepened humanitarian suffering in the Arabian peninsula’s poorest country. A person familiar with the matter confirmed the selection, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the announcement.

Lenderking, a career foreign service member, has served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Credit: AP
President Joe Biden meets with Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of N.Y., and other Democratic lawmakers to discuss a coronavirus relief package, in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The State Department visit comes after Biden moved on Wednesday to extend the last remaining treaty limiting Russian and American stockpiles of nuclear weapons, acting just two days before the pact was set to expire. It also follows days after a coup in Myanmar that has emerged as an early proving ground of Biden's approach to multilateralism.

Biden made no mention in his brief remarks to staff of the crisis in Myanmar or in Russia, where large protests have broken out after the arrest of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He is scheduled to deliver a long foreign policy address during his State Department visit.

A Moscow court on Tuesday ordered Navalny to prison for more than two and a half years, finding that he violated the terms of his probation while recuperating in Germany from nerve-agent poisoning that he says was orchestrated by Vladimir Putin's regime. The Biden administration had called for Navalny's release.

“Unlike the previous administration, we will be taking steps to hold Russia accountable for the range of malign activities that it has undertaken,” Sullivan said before Biden's visit to the State Department.

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