For years, Washington foreign policy makers had forgotten the key principle that “what is good for the gross national product is not necessarily good for the average citizen.” Widening gulfs between the so-called Washington foreign policy elite and my Midwest-born-and-raised parents and grandparents have fueled, for many on both sides of the aisle, the desire to pull away from the world to fix our own problems first.
President Joe Biden’s cornerstone foreign policy agenda, called “foreign policy for the middle class,” showcases how America’s foreign policy engagements are not contrary but intimately tied to domestic economic renewal. For the first time, ending America’s wars, facilitating trade, and undertaking diplomacy can be reimagined in service to middle-class jobs and livelihoods — not just to line the pockets of the ultra–rich and powerful.
Foreign policy for the middle class represents Washington’s realization that its priorities haven’t always aligned with middle America’s. Yet, this policy framework doesn’t go far enough — because the problems plaguing the so-called middle class are hitting America’s lower-income classes even harder. A middle class foreign policy leaves out those on the underside of the American dream. It’s time for a foreign policy that reaches the middle and working class.
A TIDE THAT RAISES ALL SHIPS
In academic and policy circles, the phrase “middle class” can mean many different things, based on whether a household makes certain levels of income, achieves a certain lifestyle, or experiences economic stability in life’s basic needs. All of these definitions, however, are united by the basic fact that when we think of middle-class Americans, we think of people who have made it to a stable and comfortable life. So, on the flip side, the working class includes those who, definitionally, struggle for stability and comfort.
Unfortunately, the last few decades have not been kind to either group. Since the 1970s, the American middle class has been losing economic ground to the ultra wealthy, and middle-class Americans increasingly have more in common, structurally, with their working class fellows. Not only are middle-class Americans today more likely to fall out of the middle class, but they are also more likely to become trapped in poverty when they do. Biden’s middle class foreign policy hopes to assuage middle class fears of falling into the working class. This strategy requires there to be a struggling working class, distinct from the comfortable middle class — when in reality, addressing working class struggles would lift middle class Americans too. Instead of a foreign policy to lift middle class Americans, foreign policy can be a tool to ensure that, for either group, taking an economic hit doesn’t mean a struggle to survive.
A middle class foreign policy leaves out those on the underside of the American dream. It’s time for a foreign policy that reaches the middle and working class.
In fact, both middle and working classes are impacted by the same domestic structural concerns, including growing housing unaffordability, skyrocketing costs of medical care, and stagnant wages for those at the bottom. Huge racial wealth gaps persist, and middle class Black Americans have to make more money than their white counterparts to reach the same quality-of-life markers. To many Americans, a good middle class life looks increasingly like a pipe dream — either unattainable in the first place or too easy to lose.
In practical terms, these statistics mean real hardships — including barriers to affording life’s basic necessities from healthcare to housing to groceries. In 2018, almost 40% of Americans reported they would be unable to quickly cover a $400 emergency cost (like a car repair). The pandemic only accelerated these trends: In 2020, almost 600,000 Americans were unhoused on any given night, and over 20% reported little or no confidence in paying next month’s rent.
Biden’s goal to keep middle class Americans floating is a step forward — given their increased chances of taking a serious economic hit. The real problem, however, is the dire situations Americans face when they do take a hit. America’s foreign policy needs to reach the working class who are already facing the very problems a “middle class foreign policy” seeks to prevent.
A FOREIGN POLICY FOR WORKING AMERICANS
Most of the conversations around middle class foreign policy issues focus on global macroeconomic trends to create and protect middle class jobs — dealing in large numbers of job gains and losses. (And it’s even true that these foreign policy issues are more directly relevant to the middle and working classes than traditional diplomacy and security alliances.) Yet, a working class foreign policy needs to go further than macroeconomic studies of trade relationships.
A few policies are low-hanging fruit. Especially in light of the Pandora Papers, which revealed that many US states function as tax havens for the globe’s illicit moneymakers, Biden should prioritize cracking down on the financial corruption that allows the wealthy to siphon money overseas. This would help to promote housing transparency, support small businesses, and safeguard public health and democracy — especially important for the working class, which suffers the most from wage theft. And in addition to the inherently international nature of financial corruption, there is another clear foreign policy tie — cutting off illicit finance would have spillover effects in slowing terrorism and protecting the lives of Americans and global civilians alike.
Other policies are more controversial. For one, Biden should pursue reparations for Black Americans. At face value, this may seem like a domestic policy, but it actually draws on international experiences of transitional justice, like in South Africa and Brazil. Reparations would minimize the racial wealth gap and foster more economic stability for many Black American households, which experience disproportionate levels of economic precariousness. Further, an international summit on best practices of reparations — not just abstract theories like democracy — would show many working class Americans that foreign policy can benefit their lives, even though it would likely be politically fraught at home.
Furthermore, as Biden looks to end wars and emphasize diplomacy, he has a chance to shift funding and offer concrete and material support for workers. Rather than focusing on macro job creation, his administration could actually provide foreign policy jobs. Funding for early-age recruitment into the military could shift toward early recruitment into foreign service careers, which offer comparable opportunities for income stability, good benefits, and career growth — but without putting the nation’s poorest on the front lines of battle. There are limits to this proposal, but if adequately funded, these careers could replace military careers in offering working class kids a safer opportunity for achieving economic stability.
Biden’s largely rhetorical middle class foreign policy needs to give way to a practical foreign policy that addresses working class concerns. Furthermore, foreign policy for America’s workers doesn’t only have to mean finding the right trade policy. It can mean using foreign policy tools to address America’s worker’s challenges. It can mean funding diplomacy over defense, cracking down on corruption, and leveraging international experiences to help every American build the wealth buffer to weather life’s unexpected turns.
For now, Biden’s middle-class foreign policy aims to bridge a deep divide between the so-called Washington foreign policy elite and the everyday American. But America’s workers experience economic difficulties to a much higher degree than the middle class — and with much higher stakes. Instead of focusing on the theory of a middle class foreign policy, Biden’s administration should build a foreign policy for the working class that actually transforms the lives of the people it first set out to reach.
Haley Clasen is an associate editor at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. All views are her own and are evolving as she learns.