WASHINGTON—President Biden on Thursday issued sharp warnings over developments in Russia and Myanmar and said he would end U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and emphasize multilateral agreements and human rights.
In his first foreign policy speech as president, Mr. Biden declared a shift in several policy priorities overseas, including a halt to U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, an increase in the number of refugee admissions, and a freeze on troop withdrawals from Germany.
He delivered his remarks from the State Department, where he also sought to boost morale following years of internal turmoil, telling employees, “This administration is going to empower you to do your jobs, not target or politicize you.”
Mr. Biden has already faced early foreign policy challenges that include a military takeover in Myanmar, also known as Burma, and the detention of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny, which has sparked mass protests across Russia and clashes with police.
Mr. Biden called on military leaders in Myanmar to relinquish power, release detainees and lift a telecommunications blackout, and said that he was prepared to “impose consequences on those responsible.” He also demanded that Mr. Navalny, who was detained in Moscow last month and sentenced to more than two years in prison, “be released immediately and without condition.”
“I made it very 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 Russian aggressive actions, interfering with our elections, cyberattacks, poisoning its citizens, are over,” Mr. Biden said, referring to a phone call with the Russian leader.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and “reiterated President Biden’s resolve to protect American citizens and act firmly in defense of U.S. interests,” a State Department spokesman said.
Some Republicans were critical of Mr. Biden’s decision to allow more refugees into the country. “Increasing the refugee admissions cap to its highest point in three decades will put American jobs and safety at risk during a pandemic,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R., Ark.).
The Biden administration faces a limited toolkit for addressing the coup in Myanmar, since targeted U.S. sanctions on military leaders may not shift their behavior in a region that is economically dominated by China. Broad economic sanctions also could hurt attitudes toward the West in future democratic elections.
With Russia, the U.S. has imposed a series of sanctions since the Russia-backed conflict in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, although the U.S. could target more of Mr. Putin’s aides and supporters or turn to broader punitive economic measures. Russia’s economy is more integrated with Europe’s, and officials in the new administration say they are already working on a range of issues with European allies.
Mr. Biden’s remarks signaled a shift from former President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach by setting out to strengthen ties with countries where U.S. relations soured under the previous administration, such as Germany, and other allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Still, Mr. Biden acknowledged the need to realign foreign policy in a way that benefits the American middle class, arguing that strength overseas was linked to domestic prosperity.
Mr. Trump often was critical of Washington’s post-World War II alliances, seeing NATO members as economic competitors who should pay significantly more for their own defense. He strongly backed Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and vetoed congressional attempts to curb weapon sales to Riyadh.
Mr. Biden reaffirmed Saudi Arabia as a key partner, but announced an end to U.S. support for Saudi-led military operations in Yemen. Although the announcement was short on specifics, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters earlier Thursday that the action includes the administration’s recent decision to halt U.S. arms sales of precision-guided munitions to Riyadh.
Mr. Biden also named veteran diplomat Timothy Lenderking as a special envoy for Yemen in what his administration says is part of a broader effort to bring a diplomatic resolution to a humanitarian crisis in the region that has resulted in mass civilian casualties and widespread hunger.
“This war has to end,” Mr. Biden said. “And to underscore our commitment, we’re ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.”
Mr. Biden said that he would sign an executive order raising the refugee admissions cap for the next fiscal year, set to begin in October, to 125,000, the number he pledged to hit during the campaign. He also said he would raise the cap this year, which Mr. Trump had set at 15,000, though he didn’t specify a number, calling it a “down payment” toward the 125,000 per year goal.
On average, the U.S. has settled about 95,000 refugees per year, though the Trump administration steadily lowered that number, saying refugees posed a potential terrorist threat and settled in communities that didn’t want them. That will make it tougher to quickly scale the program back up, advocates say, because government and nonprofit resources put toward vetting and resettling refugees have been diminished.
Mr. Biden, who was accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris and Mr. Blinken during his visit, also announced a policy of U.S. support for LGBT rights worldwide. He highlighted several other steps taken by his administration to roll back some of Mr. Trump’s actions, including returning the U.S. to the Paris climate accord and retracting the Trump administration’s decision to leave the World Health Organization. And Mr. Biden continued to urge a more-coordinated international response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before his speech, Mr. Biden informally addressed State Department employees, acknowledging disagreements between career staff and political leadership under his predecessor and the departure of experienced diplomats.
“I promise you, I’m going to have your back,” Mr. Biden said.
The president said that he had reached out to allies Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, Australia and NATO to begin “re-forming the habits of cooperation and rebuilding the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years of neglect and, I would argue, abuse.”
Mr. Biden hasn’t yet spoken with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the State Department has signaled that it wants to plan a strategy with allies before deeply engaging with Beijing. China has increasingly drawn complaints from the U.S. and other leading democracies over human rights and its assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region. ‘”We are ready to work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so,” Mr. Biden said.
“America’s alliances are our greatest asset,” Mr. Biden said. “And leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder to shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.”
Write to Sabrina Siddiqui at Sabrina.Siddiqui@wsj.com and William Mauldin at email@example.com