Although President Joe Biden seems to recognize the threats to Americans’ security and prosperity originate more at home than abroad, his speech at the State Department yesterday promised to reengage with the world — “not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but today’s and tomorrow’s.” Such vows may easily placate a Washington establishment weary from four years of President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, but they do little to reassure America’s allies and partners.
Recent polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations found that shockingly many in key European allies, such as the United Kingdom, don’t think they can rely on the United States to defend them and “look to Berlin rather than Washington as the most important partner.” A third of respondents across these 11 European countries believe American voters are likely to serve up another President Donald Trump, two-thirds want the EU to develop its own defense capabilities, and half of them have little faith in President Biden’s ability to juggle the demands of international leadership with the need to mend divisions at home.
What does this mean for the Biden administration’s ambition of restoring America back to its leadership position?
WHAT ARE US ALLIES SO UPSET ABOUT?
To many of America’s allies, President Trump squandered America’s global leadership position with capricious and self-serving international actions. In many cases, they are right: the previous administration needlessly escalated tensions with Iran by trashing the 2015 nuclear deal and abandoned America’s leadership in global efforts to address climate change and COVID-19 by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization.
But their criticisms also extend to the Trump administration’s actions which — although executed less than gracefully — are arguably strategically sound. For example, President Trump’s moves to withdraw troops from Afghanistan elicited howls of disapproval from neoconservative hawks and liberal interventionists alike, along with NATO, as if this was too soon rather than long overdue. Similarly, his reduction of US troop presence in Germany (a move most Germans would actually welcome) was met with accusations from the same, usual suspects that the United States was abandoning its allies.
President Biden faces pressure to simply turn back the clock on US foreign policy and restore an idealized pre-Trump status quo in which the United States served as the lynchpin of a global order of democracy and security. But the truth is that American-led world order, even before President Trump, never lived up to its imagined glory. For example, the overextension of US military might has frequently destabilized regions it claimed to secure and bewildered its partners. As one British diplomat remarked, “One reads about the world’s desire for American leadership only in the United States … Everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism.” Moreover, a return to normalcy would neglect the hard fact that the conditions that enabled Trump’s election still persist. Trumpism — with its contempt for globalization, its disillusionment with endless wars, and its transactional view of alliances — will remain a potent force in American politics as long as the dubious wisdom of Pax Americana remains unquestioned.
SHOWING UP ISN’T ENOUGH
In hearings last week, the newly confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken, proclaimed that “American leadership still matters” and acknowledged that the new administration faces the challenging task of “revitalizing” relations with US partners and allies. But such a formidable challenge requires more than simply, as Blinken put it, “show[ing] up again.” While Team Biden will cast blame for this outcome on their predecessors, America’s partners rightly understand that the decline of American power transcends the Trump era.
President Biden faces pressure to simply turn back the clock on US foreign policy and restore an idealized pre-Trump status quo in which the United States served as the lynchpin of a global order of democracy and security. But the truth is that American-led world order, even before President Trump, never lived up to its imagined glory.
At the Eurasia Group Foundation, we conducted a survey in ten geographically and politically diverse countries and found that advanced democracies, such as Germany and Japan, are the most pessimistic about America’s form of government. Attitudes toward American ideas of democracy have softened in the past year, with the most commonly cited rationale for disliking US democracy being that “ordinary voters don’t actually have power.” While dislike of President Trump was the leading predictor of anti-American sentiment, wishes that “the foreign policy of the US was more restrained” came in a close second.
While more than three-quarters of these foreign publics still prefer the world to be led by the United States rather than China, this preference appears to arise more from transactional interests than fundamental attraction to the US democratic system. Economic partnership and a history of working closely with the United States were more popular rationales for backing US leadership than support for democracy, freedom, and human rights. Survey respondents who prefer Chinese leadership do so because it “values…stability over individual freedoms” and because it “does not interfere” in their country’s politics.
LEADING WITH HUMILITY
Seeing one’s country through the eyes of others is an exercise that takes just the kind of “humility and confidence” Blinken promised during his confirmation hearing. If America is to lead, as President Biden declared, “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example,” it must understand how that example is interpreted abroad.
There are some promising signs. President Biden appears to genuinely appreciate the value of diplomacy in avoiding conflict, and has elevated seasoned diplomats, such as Bill Burns and Jon Finer, to top national security positions. He doubts America’s ability to promote democracy by military force, and this is shared by some in his administration, such as Sasha Baker and Robert Malley. Burns, the incoming CIA director, once presciently warned of the imbroglio which would likely follow the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He recently implored Washington to “act with the discipline that so often alluded the US during its lazy post-Cold War dominance.” Nevertheless, it’s unclear if President Biden can quash the culture of idealistic tough talk which pervades Washington and elevate voices that share his calls for leading while listening and vision for improving the American reputation in the world.
Restoring US leadership requires more than just soothing bromides aimed at weary allies. It will require a long-term redirection of American resources and energy into protecting our own democracy and committing to much-needed nation-building at home rather than overseas. To successfully meet today’s international challenges, America must lend not only a hand but also an ear to its allies and partners, whose hopes and interests sometimes diverge with those of Washington — especially among Europeans, who desire a stable ally but are also beginning to appreciate the need to build up their own defenses. Otherwise, the United States risks finding itself increasingly alone in a fraying world.