WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden visited the State Department on Thursday, aiming to restore a broader approach to U.S. foreign policy while striking a tough tone with Russian President Vladimir Putin as he called for the immediate release of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
During his first visit to the State Department as president, Biden issued his strongest condemnation of Putin as large protests have broken out throughout Russia following the jailing of Navalny. Thousands of protesters have been arrested.
The new American president was also seeking to make clear to the world that he's making a dramatic turn away from Putin following the presidency of Republican Donald Trump, who avoided direct confrontation and often sought to downplay the Russian leader's malign actions.
Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner and Putin’s most determined political foe, was arrested Jan. 17 upon returning from a five-month convalescence in Germany from a nerve agent poisoning, which he has blamed on the Kremlin. A Moscow court on this week 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.
"I made it clear to President 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 election, cyber attacks, poisoning its citizens— are over," said Biden, who last week spoke to Putin in what White House officials called a tense first exchange. "We will not hesitate to raise the cost on Russia and defend our vital interests and our people."
Biden's comments on Russia came as he looked to assert a broad reset of American foreign policy, including reversing Trump's order to withdraw U.S. troops stationed in Germany, ending support for Saudi Arabia's military offensive in Yemen and promising to to prioritize LBTGQ rights abroad.
President Joe Biden speaks as Vice President Kamala Harris looks on during an event on economic crisis in the State Dining Room of the White House January 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. President Biden spoke on his administration’s response to the econo
Joined by Vice President Kamala Harris, Biden spoke with department staff in his first visit to the State Department as president and met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was confirmed for the position last week by the Senate.
Biden called for a return to the "grounding wire of our global power." He sought to reinvigorate the diplomatic corps, many of whom were discouraged by Trump’s foreign policies and tone.
"America is back. Diplomacy is back," Biden told State Department staff before delivering his foreign policy speech. "You are the center of all that I intend to do. You are the heart of it. We’re going to rebuild our alliances"
White House officials said he was hoping to send an unambiguous signal to the world that the U.S. 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.
Biden said he 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.
Biden also announced plans to 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.
Just two weeks into his presidency, the timing of Biden's visit so early in his term was deliberate. The new president has already faced major challenges domestically, including the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the economy, racial equity and immigration.
But Thursday's visit to the State Department served as a nod to his interest in foreign policy and his years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he represented Delaware.
"We are a country that does big things. American diplomacy is what makes it happen," Biden said during the longer address after meeting with staff.
Trump 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.
Biden, by contrast, chose longtime confidant Blinken to be his secretary of state and aimed to encourage the American diplomatic corps. 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.
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.
"I promise I will have your back," Biden told the department staff. "And I expect you to have the back of the American people."
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.
During his presidency, Trump insisted that he’s not against multilateralism, only global institutions that are ineffective. He pulled the U.S. out of more than half a dozen international agreements, withdrew from multiple U.N. groups and trash talked allies and partners.
Biden, on the other hand, has said global alliances need to be rebuilt to combat climate change, address the pandemic and prepare for future epidemics, as well as confront the growing threat posed by China.
Biden also announced an end to U.S. support that flourished under Trump for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. U.S. aid has been condemned by the international community and has helped contribute to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Biden sees the United States "playing a more active and engaged role" to end the war through diplomacy, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said at a White House briefing prior to Biden’s address.
Thursday's move, which fulfills a campaign pledge, would not affect any U.S. operations against the Yemen-based al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, group, Sullivan said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. It was reported from Cincinnati.