After four years watching and wondering whether America had permanently vacated its role as a global leader, the rest of the world has witnessed an almost dizzying number of steps taken early on by the Biden administration to restore its international standing.
In the first month of his presidency, Joe Biden has taken the US back into the Paris climate accords and the World Health Organization (WHO), rejoined the United Nations Human Rights Council – albeit with a downgraded status to that of observer until the next election – and ended the travel ban placed on several Muslim-majority countries.
The US is now processing asylum claims and allowing asylum seekers to cross the southern border into the US, while Biden has also pledged $2 billion in support for COVAX, the global plan to ensure equitable distribution of a vaccine, followed by another $2 billion over two years.
President Biden has also worked to dispel the perception of US ambivalence towards its European allies. By firmly declaring the US commitment to article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – the bedrock of the transatlantic partnership – he has restored an article of faith that Donald Trump only belatedly and half-heartedly acknowledged. Four years of ambivalence towards NATO made this a necessary first step in repairing the transatlantic partnership.
Biden’s hardened stance towards Russian transgressions of sovereignty and democracy both at home and abroad should also be reassuring to many Europeans and many Americans. For four years, Trump was seen by many as the outlier, a president who was at odds with a majority in the US, in his party, and in Europe who took a tough line on Russia and wished for the president to do the same.
But already the potential contradiction that underscores the Biden administration foreign policy has become glaringly obvious. The US intends to pursue policies which recognize the two uncomfortable truths underscoring today’s greatest foreign policy dilemmas – that democracy is under assault at home and across the globe and should be at the front of international diplomacy, and that cooperating with autocratic rights-abusing powers is not only important, but essential in agreeing solutions necessary for a peace that is sustainable.
The next four years will be an experiment to see if the US can succeed in cooperating with, for example, China on climate and Russia on arms control, while still calling out their assault on democratic norms. In the case of Russia, early signs are positive, and one of the Biden administration’s first moves was to negotiate an extension of the New START nuclear arms control treaty before the 5 February deadline.
But there is much anticipation the EU, US, and UK may also announce coordinated sanctions designed to target those responsible for the brutal treatment of Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny. If this does proceed, Russia’s response will provide an early glimpse into the challenges of this twin-track strategy.
Meanwhile the next step to restoring America’s broken transatlantic partnership is unfolding in the news the US and Europe may restart talks with Iran. Finding a deal that works is not easy but the fact the Biden administration is signalling its interest in moving forward is another indicator that America’s role in the world, especially its role in Europe, is being restored to its pre-Trumpian place.
More different than the same
But despite this rapid return of the US to the international stage, Europeans remain wary of its staying power and opinion is divided on America’s return. Some in Europe have adjusted to a world without US leadership, others insist Europe should chart its own course independent of US priorities.
Many are also relieved the US is back but fearful it may not last. Some US foreign policy experts believe Donald Trump has changed its foreign policy permanently. For multiple reasons, it is unlikely the recent rapid return to multilateralism and the embrace of democratic values, while welcome, means America is back to where it used to be.
The new administration continues to be constrained by realities at home, especially the pandemic, and restoring regular daily life is not going to be easy within the context of a highly polarized society battling over racial injustice and inequality, and infighting in a Republican Party dominated by a radical wing which continues to celebrate Donald Trump and reject bipartisanship.
The Biden administration is making admirable efforts to tackle these challenges, not least by purchasing 200 million additional vaccine doses and pushing forward plans for a $1.9 trillion relief plan, but Trump continues to exert a powerful influence over the Republican Party despite the Capitol attacks and his failure to manage the pandemic. And the drive to hold him accountable will continue to be a factor in US politics for many months to come.
There is also a new reality of international politics, as America’s relative position in the world economy has declined, China’s has grown and, on multiple dimensions, the world has moved on. America itself has also changed so, although Biden may be able to reinsert America into international diplomacy and heal internal divisions, restoring the country to its previous position will be difficult.
China’s economy now makes up approximately 16 per cent of global GDP having been just nine per cent when Barack Obama became US president in 2008. In that same period the US share has declined by ten per cent to be now around 24 per cent. President Biden faces a different set of constraints, not only a distribution of material power across the globe that is less US friendly, but also a hardening authoritarianism within China.
This change is also manifest in China’s institutional power as China now leads two of Asia’s most important regional institutions – the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) – while Chinese nationals head up four of the 15 United Nations (UN) specialist agencies.
Biden’s hope for a multilateral strategy towards China shows a clear focus on the competition between democracy and authoritarian values. but it is also a China-specific strategy, not an Asian one, because it does not so far seek to promote regional integration in Asia or to integrate America more fully with Asia’s growing economies.
This shows a distinct departure from his democratic presidential predecessors. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was at the centre of Obama’s Asia strategy and America was intended to be fully part of this. Bill Clinton sought to promote regional integration in Asia through America’s participation alongside China and others in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Biden’s world is one where geopolitical competition is a fact but not a strategy and agreeing a multilateral strategy is a challenge.
In his remarks at Chatham House Tony Blinken, now Biden's Secretary of State, said the world faces a division between techno-autocracies and techno-democracies, and this point was reflected in Biden’s speech to the Munich Security Conference when he argued the world is at an ‘inflection point … between those whose argue that … autocracy is the best way forward … and those who understand that democracy is essential’.
By placing democracy and values at the heart of foreign policy, Biden is placing a bet that a twin-track strategy which seeks to cooperate on climate change, global health, and ideally on global vaccine distribution, but to confront on democracy and human rights – one much like he is pursuing with Russia – can deliver results.
As Biden pursues this strategy, the challenge is to choose an intelligent and carefully calibrated strategy which does more good than harm and pursues short-term priorities while recognizing that embedding values globally is a long game.
Looking inwards to restore America’s democracy but also outwards to guard against the encroachment of authoritarian values, Biden wants to offer a vision of a new world, one which is more ideological than the vision President Obama embraced, but requires a healthy dose of pragmatism if it is to work. Squaring this circle will not be easy, but it is essential.