America Leads, Not America First: A Look at Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez’s Approach to Foreign Policy

Much to Democrats’ disappointment, the Trump years resulted in a mostly dormant Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). The committee acquiesced to the administration’s America First, unilateral, and inward-looking approach to foreign policy that broke with our traditional allies, holding fewer than ten full committee hearings in 2020. Throughout the Trump presidency and the pandemic, the SFRC’s absence was felt around the world.

In what was one of the original 11 permanent standing committees of the United States Senate created in 1816, the SFRC has included countless statesmen ranging from the longest-serving chairman, Sen. J. William Fulbright (D-AR), known as a multilateralist and supporter of international exchange programs (leading to the Fulbright Program), to Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), who dedicated much of his tenure on the committee to the elimination of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons around the world. It also included one-time presidential candidate and climate change warrior Sen. John Kerry and – last but not least – the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden.

It is expected that, under the renewed chairmanship of Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the committee will return to its intended active oversight role. As was the case during his tenure as chairman during the Obama administration, he will align himself with the current Democratic administration’s foreign policy agenda when there is common ground and will provide constructive criticism — and, at times, be a thorn in Biden’s side – when he disagrees.

What Chairman Menendez will not be is a rubber stamp. He believes that the SFRC’s role is to place national security concerns over partisanship. The chairman currently is leading the effort to address the global threat of Covid-19 in the foreign assistance portion of the current relief package and is expected to introduce comprehensive immigration legislation that, among other things, will create, “a roadmap to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living, working, and contributing to this country.” And he has promised a robust SFRC agenda in which the committee will, once again, assert its role in influencing U.S. foreign policy and reestablish Congress’ role as a separate, co-equal branch of government.

A vociferous defender of human rights, Chairman Menendez will oppose a return to détente with Cuba as long as there isn’t a democratically elected government in Havana and political dissidents languish in Cuban jails. And while he opposed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, he also opposed the Trump administration walking away from the deal with nothing else in place. With Iran’s accelerated path toward a nuclear breakout, Chairman Menendez believes that any negotiations would have to include revisiting the JCPOA given the Iranian regimen’s continued role as a nefarious actor in the region.

Relatedly, as a staunch supporter of Israel, the chairman has come out in support of the historic nature of the Abraham Accords, while continuing to support the ever-elusive two-state solution. His primary reservation with the Accords is that they were coupled with arms sales to the United Arab Emirates, undermining Israel’s qualitative edge over its neighbors. He will continue to be focused on the region while combatting increasing levels of anti-Semitism at home and abroad.

On China, we expect Chairman Menendez to take a continued hardline on a range of issues, including democracy in Hong Kong, religious freedom in Tibet Uyghur concentrations camps, strategic competition for markets and resources, and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. And, similar to the Biden administration under the leadership of Secretary of State Tony Blinken, we also anticipate the chairman will embrace a more confrontational course with Russian President Vladimir Putin. While he supports the extension of New START, Chairman Menendez believes that we must hold Russia accountable —whether for the recent imprisonment of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Ukrainian sovereignty, bounties on U.S. soldiers, or the SolarWinds hack.

As most foreign policy experts agree, Chairman Menendez strongly believes that the world is worse off following Trump’s engagement and exchange of love letters with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and likely will support a return to past tactics that sought to limit the hermit kingdom’s ability to pose a threat to its neighbors and the global community. Finally, Chairman Menendez likely will focus on the deep unrest throughout the African continent and the humanitarian catastrophe playing out closer to home in Venezuela.

For Chairman Menendez, it will not be enough to simply say “America is back.” According to him, America needs to engage; look for early reintroduction of the America Leads Act. Originally introduced by him in the 116th Congress, the bill addresses science and technology development, global infrastructure, U.S. manufacturing, and foreign relations. The chairman also will be engaged in rebuilding capacity at the State Department and will continue his longstanding work to create a Foreign Service that looks like America. 

Chairman Menendez recognizes that this is a “consequential moment for our nation’s role in the world.” And while most democracies around the world have cheered President Biden’s election, there remain reservations as to whether Trump was an aberration. The $64,000 question, in paraphrasing President Ronald Reagan, is whether we have returned to the America that is a “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere” and whether our allies and emerging democracies can depend on the United States as a once-reliable partner. Chairman Menendez will do his part to complement the Biden administration’s effort to do exactly that.

Andrew Kauders is a veteran leadership staffer in the U.S. House and Senate who served as senior adviser for Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and as executive director of the House Democratic Caucus during Menendez’s chairmanship of the Caucus. For Kauders’ complete bio, click here.

David Adams served as Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and was staff director for the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia and professional staff for the Committee on International Relations. For Adams’ complete bio, click here.