Washington (Brussels Morning). The coming to office of President Joe Biden was hailed as a return to normality. In his tour of Europe, Biden tried to convey the message that “America is back,” perhaps as a leader, but mostly as a reliable partner. Multilateralism is now part of the American vocabulary. And while Washington’s message prioritises the restoration of Transatlantic ties, European officials are not convinced that they can any longer rely on the US as a security provider of last resort. America seems more willing to be part of a concert than the leader of an alliance.
“America is back” should be taken with a pinch of salt. First of all, someone like Trump could re-emerge, as it is clear that he articulated an ideological current that is very much present. Secondly, as the United States is no longer the sole superpower, there are voices calling for a fundamental rethink of America’s role in the world. There are Democrats that now want to heed the appeal of the “America First” slogan and the need that lies beneath it, addressing the causes of its appeal. In positive terms, one would say that the United States must outperform rather than “beat” its global competitors.
For many in Brussels, the conclusion is that the EU is being forced to develop a geopolitical narrative that is not strictly dependent on the other side of the Atlantic, keeping its options open when dealing with China and Russia. While the New Atlantic Charter affirms the principle that Allies need to maintain a rules-based and democratic international order, America is not back in a Clinton or Bush sort of way, as the sole guarantor of this regime.
We discuss this with one of the most significant Democratic advocates of a “home affairs first” shift in American politics, spelling out what Europeans already suspect. Charles A. Kupchan is a Professor of International Affairs at Georgetown University and Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From 2014 to 2017, Kupchan served as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs in the Obama White House. His most recent book is “Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself from the World (2020).”
Ambassador Tedo Japaridze (TJ): You have recently argued for “continuity isolationism” irrespective of who is in the White House, echoing Thomas Jefferson. Let’s reflect a bit on President Obama’s legacy and the 2015 Paris Agreement: can America sit back and become a rule-taker, while Europe and China set the regulatory standards for a post-fossil fuel economy?
Professor Charles Kupchan (CK): It is important to distinguish between isolationist and unilateralist traditions in U.S. statecraft. The isolationist tradition encourages the United States to mind its own business and avoid strategic entanglements beyond America’s own neighbourhood. The unilateralist tradition encourages the United States to go it alone and avoid pacts and other kinds of agreements that could compromise the nation’s autonomy. Both traditions have had a big impact on U.S. foreign policy across the arc of the nation’s history. But both were pushed to the political margins during World War II and the Cold War; beginning with the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the United States embraced an internationalist and multilateralist foreign policy that lasted into the 21st century.
Both isolationism and unilateralism made distinct comebacks during the Trump presidency. Trump demonstrated neo-isolationist inclinations, expressing his disregard for alliances and questioning longstanding U.S. military commitments in Europe and East Asia. He began to wind down the nation’s “forever wars” in the Middle East and pulled back from Africa. He was also an avowed unilateralist, pulling out of the Paris agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, and calling for an end to globalism and a return to nationalism.
Biden has reversed these trends – especially Trump’s unilateralism. He has rejoined the Paris agreement, is working to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, and has returned the United States to being a team player and a defender of a rules-based international order. He has also rejected Trump’s disdain for allies, and is recommitting the United States to its main defence obligations in Europe and Asia. At the same time, Biden is continuing to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the broader Middle East. Indeed, he made the difficult (and correct, in my mind) decision to withdraw from Afghanistan despite the continuing Taliban advances in the country. Biden is also pursuing what he calls “a foreign policy for the middle class” in order to help rebuild the domestic foundations of U.S. internationalism and multilateralism. The Trump era made clear that bipartisan support for internationalism and multilateralism had eroded. Biden understands the importance of rebuilding the enthusiasm of the American electorate for a liberal brand of international engagement – in no small part by investing heavily in the domestic economy and improving the quality of life and economic outlook for working Americans.
Foreign policy starts at home. To be strong abroad, the United States needs to be strong at home. Isolationism and unilateralism have deep roots in American history and the nation’s identity. They can best be tamed by rebuilding the nation’s prosperity and ensuring that prosperity is widely shared among Americans of all walks of life. A “foreign policy for the middle class” means not just pursuing foreign policies that enjoy broad political support. It also means reviving that political support from the bottom up by investing in the American people and rebuilding the nation’s political centre and sense of common purpose.
TJ: Going beyond climate change: in a world that does not have a nuclear deal with Iran and Tehran is closer to China, is the United States ready to become a rule-taker in the Middle East?
CK: With Biden having defeated Trump, the liberal international order that the U.S. and its allies erected after World War II is still the anchor of the international system. But it is being challenged from within by an illiberal brand of populism, and from without by China, Russia, and other non-democracies. We are likely headed toward a more pluralistic international order. The community of liberal democracies is poised to hold its own (although it is much more fragile than most analysts thought, as made clear by the Trump era and populist forces in Europe.)
At the same, China’s growing reach and ambition will challenge the dominance of the liberal order. China’s rise will not enable it to overturn or replace the liberal order, but it will mean that visions of the universalisation of the liberal order will not come true any time soon. Multiple orders will coexist alongside each other, often overlapping and intersecting. Only time will tell if these contending orders will coexist peacefully or clash with each other. At least for now, we are seeing rising tensions among these contending orders in the Middle East and other regions.
TJ: Many Afghans feel that the US is not leaving, but abandoning, Afghanistan. What is difference between the circumstances faced by the Biden and Obama administrations?
CK: The main difference between the Obama era and today’s withdrawal is that the clock has run out on American patience. Obama wanted out of Afghanistan. He surged forces into the country with the hope of ending the U.S. military presence there by the end of his presidency. He ultimately decided not to withdraw from Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s strength and the weakness of the Afghan government and military. The rise of the Islamic State further complicated the regional calculus. But after four more years of effort, conditions in Afghanistan did not show a great deal of progress. More time, more troops, more money – it was unclear that further American efforts would make a difference.
By the time Biden took office, roughly three-quarters of the American public wanted U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. Furthermore, Biden made the correct assessment that the threat to the United States and its allies emanating from Afghanistan had been largely neutralised. Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan had been effectively dismantled. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have chosen other locations in which to try to regroup. The coming months will of course be difficult ones for Afghanistan. The United States and its allies should do what they can to provide support for the Afghan government and people. But the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan has run its course. Obama set the stage for getting out, Trump negotiated a deal with the Taliban so that the U.S. troops could head to the exit door, and Biden is now finalising the withdrawal.
TJ: In one of your recent articles, you note President Biden’s statecraft focus on “the clash between democracy and autocracy,” having in mind first of all Russia and China. President Biden called for a global “Summit for Democracy” of like-minded countries. You make the case that Biden needs to focus on the home front rather than draw the line vis-à-vis autocracies. What comes first, a summit or a domestic focus?
CK: If the purpose of a Summit for Democracy is to refurbish and revitalise democratic polities by discussing the pressing issues of the day – such as best democratic practices, the future of work in the digital era, going green, combating disinformation – I am all for it. If the purpose of such a summit is to circle the democratic wagons against China, Russia, and other non-democracies, then I would have strong reservations.
I think that defining the chief challenge of our time as a clash between democracy and autocracy risks fueling new ideological dividing lines, pushes Russia and China together, and fosters discord among democracies. The West needs to take a pragmatic and bespoke approach to navigating a pluralistic world, pushing back against the discrete threats posed by non-democracies, but not lumping them all together. We live in a world that is deeply and irreversibly interdependent and globalised. China will soon have the world’s largest economy. There is no going back to an ideologically divided world of decoupled blocs. The best way for democracies to prevail against illiberalism is to get their own houses in order and ensure that democracy outperforms the alternatives.
That’s why a Summit for Democracy, were it to take place, should focus on revitalising democratic societies and institutions, enhancing the economic competitiveness of democracies, and deepening solidarity among them.
TJ. A final question: President Biden is advancing with a bold massive public investment in infrastructure. Is this simply a Keynesian reaction to the worst economic crisis in several generations or an exercise in “catching up” with global competitors?
CK: When Biden was a presidential candidate, he often said that the 2020 election was a battle for the soul of America. He meant it. The future of American democracy was on the line. Biden’s ambitious domestic agenda is about repairing the United States, addressing the underlying sources of economic uncertainty and social dysfunction that have contributed to polarisation and the erosion of the politics of centrism and moderation.
Biden is investing in the future of American democracy, which is also an investment in the future of global democracy. Much rides on his ability to pass ambitious legislation to invest in infrastructure, green technology, education, healthcare, voting reform, and other measures aimed at repairing American democracy.