The last four American presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump have a lot of political and personal differences, but they have one thing in common. All four campaigned on the promise to reduce America’s involvement in the rest of the world. Almost all presidents, other than during times of war, run on this issue, as it appeals to voters on the left and right who are tired of costly US entanglements in various corners of the globe.
Another thing all four of these presidents have in common is that neither of them kept that promise, although Trump may have come closer than any of his three predecessors.Sometimes this was due to single dramatic event, such as the attacks of September 11th, and other times to the difficulty of extricating the US from long wars, which ironically both Obama and Trump encountered.
Joe Biden is different. Although foreign policy has been discussed even less than usual in this campaign, Biden has indicated that he would like to see the US reengage with the rest of the world. To anybody who has followed Biden’s very long career in Washington, this is no surprise. During his 36 years in the senate and eight years as vice-president to Barack Obama, Biden has been firmly in the mainstream internationalist wing of both the Democratic Party and the American foreign policy establishment more generally.
He is the kind of foreign policy thinker who believes that American leadership is essential and, to borrow a word from Madeline Albright, “indispensable” in solving the world’s problems, whether they be global challenges like climate change or specific conflicts between states or within a region.
Implicit in Biden’s campaign, even going back to the Democratic Primary, was the notion that Biden, as member of good standing of the foreign policy establishment, would restore America, in the wake of the embarrassment and disaster of the Trump era, back to its rightful place as the global leader. This view was always grounded more in patriotic platitudes than a sober assessment of history and politics, but it was not entirely without merit. It was also a powerful message for a primary electorate that was appalled by the conduct of the Trump administration both at home and abroad.
The paradox facing Biden is that if he wins, he will preside over a country whose ability to lead internationally, and whose role in the world, has changed dramatically over the last four years. The combination of Trump’s foreign policy, the terrible damage Covid19 has done to the US, the weakening of American democracy over the last four years and the real possibility of instability here, even if Biden becomes president, means that the US will be in no position to simply reassume the mantle of global leadership.
Additionally, the American people, worn out by all these problems, have become reluctant to become too involved with the rest of the world.
One way to think about this dilemma is that a major source of American power in the years following World War II was the US was both on the winning side of the war and made it through those years with, compared to other major powers, very little damage. The Covid19 crisis was another global event, but it had almost the opposite effect on the US. At first glance it may seem dramatic to compare World War II to Covid19, but with regards to its impact on the US, it is a little different.
One way to think about this is that the US has already lost more people to Covid19 in 2020 that we lost in war related casualties in any year during World War II.
The Covid19 pandemic was a massive public health crisis, not a war, but there is nonetheless little doubt not only that the US handled the crisis poorly, but that the pandemic was much more damaging to the US than to most of its peer countries.
The US ability to lead, either through the soft power of example, modeling and providing expertise and other resources , or through more conventional military and financial means, has been badly compromised by the twin disasters of the pandemic and the Trump presidency.
If Biden is elected, his administration will have to be sufficiently deft to reengage with the rest of the world in a way that reflects the reality of US power and standing in 2021. When Biden became vice-president in 2009, one of the first things President Obama did was embark on a series of speaking engagements that was intended to ensure America’s traditional allies that President Obama was going to repair some of the problems his predecessor, George W. Bush, had created through US policy in Iraq and elsewhere. This was described by some as Obama’s apology tour.
That template will not work in 2021 if Biden is elected because the damage to the US and changes in the world are much more profound. One major indicator of this is that in 2009, China was one of a handful of rising powers in an increasingly multi-polar world.
Today it is a very strong competitor of the US and may soon become the global hegemon. Not only is no other country close, but the European Union faces a much graver, mostly internal, set of threats than it did when in 2009. All of this suggests that creative policy making grounded in the new international realities will be needed from the Biden administration as they attempt to figure out America’s place in the post-Trump and, with some luck, post-pandemic, world.
Biden has spent most of his very long career in government either during the last decades of the Cold War or during a period of American hegemony. If he becomes president, he will find himself navigating America’s role in a different world, one where America’s leadership has failed and where America has bumbled its way to a very different global position. The way to begin recovering from this is not by simply assuming hegemony and leadership. The wiser approach for Biden would be to move forward with traditional allies in a spirit of true partnership.
For a long time, the US has viewed itself as first among equals when working with allies, but the emphasis always on first. That same relationship can still serve the US under a Biden administration, but Biden must place the emphasis on the word equals. That will require Biden to be nimble and to recognize just how much has been fundamentally broken by Trump and Covid.