Joe Biden and the Modest Return of Self-Deprecation

February 8, 2021
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President Joe Biden’s foreign policy speech at the State Department began with a joke, as such speeches often do. It was a terrible joke that Biden delivered badly. The new president mused that he was called the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Presidential Politics at Penn because he was as old as Franklin. In the video of the speech, the lack of laughter from whatever sparse audience the strictures of the novel coronavirus allowed in was palpably uncomfortable. After a brief, awkward pause, Biden moved on to the more solemn topic of American diplomacy.

Still, despite that excruciating fail, the joke was arguably the most important part of the speech. In part, it mattered because, as the only unscripted part of the speech, it told us more about Biden than the highly negotiated verbiage that followed. (We don’t know with certainty that Biden ad-libbed this joke, but let’s assume so because if not then the speechwriter should be fired). But more importantly, it mattered because it shows that, after four years in the wilderness, self-deprecation and humility are back in the Oval Office.

Why Self-Deprecation Matters

Coverage of the speech has mostly focused on Biden’s decision to end support for the Yemen war and to stop the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany. Those are certainly important issues, but the pronouncements were frustratingly vague. Former President Donald Trump, for all his many sins, did not force us to parse his words for precise meaning. But a more legalistic administration means that analysts need to pay attention to the nuances. Biden said he would stop American support for offensive operations in Yemen, leaving room to do most anything and describe it as defensive. Similarly, he suspended the troop withdrawals from Germany and initiated a review of the U.S. global posture, which could then conclude that the United States should withdraw forces from Germany. All options, in other words, remain on the table.



By contrast, we know exactly what Biden’s lame joke means. It means he can make fun of himself and do so on the issue on which he is most vulnerable: his age. This is the very essence of self-deprecation. So, as important as the U.S. global military posture and the war in Yemen are, Biden’s joke may tell us more about the man and possibly even the direction of U.S. foreign policy. To understand why, we need to understand the role that self-deprecatory humor plays and how that might translate into U.S. foreign policy.

Self-deprecatory humor reveals a lot about those who use it. It shows that people can admit to their shortcomings, while maintaining their self-confidence. Regardless of whether people actually think a leader is funny, self-deprecating jokes demonstrate a leader’s values and concern for others. Poking fun at yourself is also a way to cross the chasm of status between a president and his constituents and show that he can relate to the common man. It also shows that a leader is self-aware and can judge his own faults. So, it correlates with a tendency to seek out qualified and independent personnel.

Clearly, self-deprecation took an extended vacation during the Trump administration. Trump, to be fair, could certainly be funny, but his humor stylings tended more toward what psychologists refer to as “aggressive humor.” To the layman this just means he used humor mostly to attack people. Trump had a real knack for finding his opponent’s weaknesses and encapsulating it in a pithy nickname. When that failed, he just called his enemies fat or ugly. Trump’s humor was usually mean-spirited and small, but it was often well delivered and sometimes funny.

He did not similarly excel at self-mockery. For this entire presidency, Trump refused to participate in that annual exercise in presidential self-deprecation, the White House Correspondent’s dinner. In 2019, he forbade the entire White House staff from even attending. He did make an effort at the similarly formatted 2018 Gridiron dinner, where he declared that “Nobody does self-deprecating humor better than I do. It’s not even close.” That is funny but not really self-deprecating.

Trump’s foreign policy reflected this lack of introspection. There seemed to be little effort to understand how others, both enemies and adversaries, might see U.S. policies or to recognize the limits of U.S. power. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared his approach to foreign policy as “swagger,” which at best indicates that Pompeo had a remarkable lack of diplomatic self-awareness, at worst that Pompeo is just an ass.

A Self-Deprecating Foreign Policy?

The real question is whether Biden’s personal self-deprecation can translate into a more self-aware U.S. approach to the world. To even ask this question probably demonstrates that I have little insight into what makes U.S. foreign policy. Wiser minds will note that the United States is famous for lack its humility, even under presidents like Ronald Reagan who excelled at self-deprecation. I am ashamed to even mention it.

But both Biden and his new secretary of state, Tony Blinken, have expressed the desire for greater humility in foreign policy. And they will need it. As other nations, particularly China, have risen, U.S. relative power has necessarily declined. After watching the Trump administration’s serial incompetence, its botched response to the coronavirus, and the insurrection at the Capitol, even America’s most stalwart allies worry that the United States has neither the domestic consensus nor the governance capacity to lead itself, much the less the world. At almost the very moment that Biden’s joke fell flat, French President Emmanuel Macron was telling the Atlantic Council that France would not blindly follow America’s China policy.

Under Biden, humility could even end up as an American comparative advantage. It certainly seems in short supply these days among great powers. China has taken to “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” a Chinese term that more idiomatically translates as “act like Pompeo.” The Chinese government have recently had diplomatic hissy fits aimed at countries as diverse and threatening as Sweden, Australia, and the Netherlands. The Indian government just attacked Rihanna for tweeting in favor of a farmer’s protest, and the New Delhi police launched an investigation against teen Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg for threatening Indian unity on the same issue. And of course, Russia, long a champion at demonstrating national insecurity through meaningless aggression, just humiliated visiting E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell by expelling three E.U. diplomats during their bilateral meeting in Moscow.

The world perhaps needs a great power that is secure enough for self-deprecation. Biden took a step in this direction by admitting in the speech that America has to “to acknowledge and address systemic racism and the scourge of white supremacy in our own country.” But that’s all so serious. Humor from the president can help even more, with both foreign leaders and with the American public. It can convey more subtly that America has the self-confidence to recognize its flaws, understand its limitations, and ask for help from its allies. This is a lot to conclude from one lame joke and a seriously inadequate comedian-in-chief. But with a new speechwriter and perhaps a little coaching from Jon Stewart, maybe America can finally have the foreign policy it deserves.



Jeremy Shapiro is the director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. And, not to brag, but he served in the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2013.

Image: White House (Photo by Adam Schultz)

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