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Biden’s inauguration speech: What a worried world needs to hear

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Forty years ago, President Reagan started his 1981 inaugural address by reminding his audience that, “in the eyes of many in the world, this every-four-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.” 

He went on to thank his predecessor, Jimmy Carter: “By your gracious cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other.”

When President-elect Biden delivers the 59th inaugural address in the history of this nation, he may not be able to repeat such a sentiment. It is not just all of America but all of the world that will be listening, anxiously and carefully. 

Unusually, though, this time the world will be even more interested in what he says to his “fellow Americans” than in how he addresses U.S. friends and foes abroad.

Joe Biden has been handed the presidency in one of the most tumultuous moments in recent memory. He faces not one, but three epoch-defining crises: a nation that is not just deeply divided but grievously wounded; a global pandemic that continues to rage; a world order firmly in turmoil right when America’s global moral legitimacy is at its lowest.

The things that President Trump leaves broken or hurting may be part of his legacy, but they are now Biden’s responsibility and burden.

If the country was less ridden with angst and anger than it is, one might have hoped for something like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s soaring 1933 call that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Like every modern U.S. president since 1961, Biden may have wished to emulate the inspirational eloquence on his political idol John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Sadly, the country’s mood now is exactly the opposite. Americans of all ilks want to ask exactly what the country is doing for — and to — them.

Less known and less quoted is the line that immediately followed those iconic words from JFK: “My fellow citizens of the world: Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” This line may give Biden a little more guidance for his speech, but very little. 

Every president in his inaugural address, at least in the past 100 years, has felt obliged to make an assertion of America’s global leadership. President Trump, in fact, spoke directly to the “people of the world” in 2017 as he proclaimed his mandate to “make America great again.” 

Biden should not feel compelled to do any such thing, at least not at length. In these times of great turmoil and grave uncertainties, the world seeks stability more than leadership from the United States. From Pyongyang to Paris to Phnom Penh to Prague, world leaders will be listening for the same thing that the citizens in Peoria, Ill., will: that he understands the gravity of America’s domestic divisions and is ready, willing and able to address them.

What Biden does say to the world will be mostly welcomed with relief, even sympathy, but do not expect wild enthusiasm. U.S. partners in Europe will be relieved to hear the language of partnerships instead of admonishments. Environmentalists will welcome America’s return to the Paris climate agreement. And a tip of the hat to the United Nations in general, and the World Health Organization in particular, would calm many international nerves. 

However, the fact is that the U.S. was not a leader, not even a cheerleader, of multilateralism before Trump. The U.S. dragged its feet on climate under President Obama, both Presidents Bush, and even President Clinton. The best the world can expect is that it will again do so within the international agreements, rather than by staying out. The tides also have turned in Europe and at the U.N., where Biden will find that China’s shadow looms much larger than when he was vice president. 

Just as Biden won the 2020 election by being “not Trump,” he is destined to change the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in the same way. It is a sign of just how deeply Trump has tarnished America’s image and moral legitimacy abroad that, for once, and after a very long time, the world will be more concerned about the healing needed within America than about its footprints abroad.

The most important international message Biden can deliver is one of domestic healing. If international confidence in America is to be rebuilt, it will come most urgently from actions within America — and that is what Biden should focus on in his speech.

He will have to dig far deeper into U.S. history than most recent presidents have. Clearly, Biden would find resonance in Abraham Lincoln’s clarion call for unity in divided times, delivered in his second inaugural address, in 1865, while a Civil War still raged: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

But, maybe, the inauguration on his mind is of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, in 1801. The viciously bitter 1800 election left the country as fractured politically as it is today; the Electoral College was deadlocked; fellow Founding Father and his then opponent, outgoing President John Adams, chose to skip the inauguration — and many in revolution-ravaged Europe, especially in Britain, were predicting that the newborn United States would dissolve into violence.

The tension on that Inauguration Day must have been as high as it will be this time. Jefferson’s call was for unity: “Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind, let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things.” He clearly understood how difficult the task ahead was, as he sought “guidance and support, which may enable us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.”  

A divided country and a troubled world it is again.

Adil Najam is a professor of international relations and the founding Dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter @AdilNajam.

Tags Biden inaugural Donald Trump Jimmy Carter Joe Biden political divisions United States presidential inauguration US foreign policy

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