In the hours and days after American news networks declared him the victor on November 7, President-elect Joe Biden received congratulatory tweets and statements from American allies around the world. Even Fox News sounded excited by the list of well-wishers, who, the channel noted, included “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin, and Spanish President Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón.” Biden himself made a point, on November 9, of calling the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and Great Britain to thank them in return. A few days later, he spoke with the leaders of Australia, Japan, and South Korea too.
Had it not been for the intervening four years, the tweeted congratulations would have seemed entirely unremarkable, nothing more than the predictable pleasantries so common to global diplomacy in the era before Donald Trump. Readouts published by Biden’s transition team noted, for example, that “the President-elect underscored that the United States and Australia share both values and history”—boilerplate cliché, unless you remember that President Trump’s first call with the then–Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, ended in a nutty argument about refugees. According to the readout of a call with South Korea’s leader, Moon Jae-in, America’s president-elect “thanked President Moon for his congratulations, expressing his desire to strengthen the [two countries’] alliance as the linchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” This was also pretty boring, unless you remember that Trump publicly mused about withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea—a move that would have left the country vulnerable to invasion from the North.
No doubt various world leaders felt relieved to speak once again with a coherent and knowledgeable American leader. Even though members of the Biden team are locked out of the State Department—in a normal transition, the departing administration would be helping set up postelection courtesy calls on secure lines—it was probably nice for them to have ordinary conversations with foreigners again too.
And yet there was something misleading about all of these statements and compliments, for after the Trump era, there can be no return to normal. None of America’s relationships, with either our friends or our enemies, is the same as it was four years ago. None of the major diplomatic institutions, international or domestic, is the same either. Some on the Biden team, veterans of the Obama administration, will be tempted to restart relationships and reboot old plans as if nothing has happened. That would be a mistake.
Since 2016, America’s international reputation has been transformed. No longer the world’s most admired democracy, our political system is more often perceived as uniquely dysfunctional, and our leaders as notably dangerous. Poll after poll shows that respect for America is not just plummeting, but also turning into something very different. Some 70 percent of South Koreans and more than 60 percent of Japanese—two nations whose friendship America needs in order to push back against Chinese influence in Asia—view the U.S. as a “major threat.” In Germany, our key ally in Europe, far more people fear Trump than fear Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
And no wonder: We live in a world where all news is accessible to everyone. Nothing that has happened over the past four years is a secret—not Trump’s ceaseless dishonesty; not his displays of ignorance; not his self-dealing and his nepotism; not his inject-disinfectants-to-knock-out-the-coronavirus moment, a story that appeared in hundreds of languages all over the world; not the grotesque spectacle of his refusal to acknowledge the election result. “Trump supporters head to the streets as he pushes false election claims,” declared a headline in the Gulf Times, a newspaper based in Qatar. The China Daily , the Chinese Communist Party’s main English-language publication, solemnly reported that Republican senators are calling for Biden to get security briefings. The president of Poland—a nationalist who flew to Washington, D.C., to be photographed with Trump during his own campaign—appears genuinely confused about who has won, and keeps telling people that the U.S. election is not over yet.
After Trump has provided the world with this theatrical coup-that-is-not-a-coup, it is naive to imagine that the U.S. can promote democracy or the rule of law with the confidence that it did in the past. For four years, our president has openly defied many of the values we used to put at the center of our foreign-policy rhetoric. And yes, everybody has noticed. Americans may have found the spectacle of Trump trying to blackmail the Ukrainian president into launching a fake political investigation of his opponents exotic. Ukrainians found it … familiar. The next time a senior American official comes to town and tells the Ukrainian government that its International Monetary Fund loan depends on enforcing laws against corruption, why shouldn’t the Ukrainians laugh?
The second important change, related to the first, is that other countries have finally begun to take account of what American withdrawal from global leadership really means, and they are recalculating balances of power accordingly. This, of course, is a trend that began during the Obama administration, though at the time no one could quite accept it.. In 2012, I organized a meeting in London that included some Syrian activists. They asked me why Barack Obama would not enforce a no-fly zone in their country; when I told them that Americans no longer wanted to fight Middle Eastern wars and no longer felt confident about winning them, they didn’t believe me. They proposed various conspiracy theories instead—imagining, for example, that particular people in Washington didn’t like Syrians—and said they would wait for some spectacular intervention.
But that spectacular intervention never arrived. In the eight years since then, everyone in Syria, like everyone everywhere else, has adjusted to a world in which U.S. influence is declining. In Libya, where America has washed its hands of a long-running civil war, the important players are Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. In Africa, Russian and Chinese influence continues to grow as America retreats. The recent spectacle of Russia and Turkey jointly helping redraw borders in the Caucasus, following a short war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, was a reminder of what that means in practice. Once upon a time, and not that long ago either, the U.S. had an ambitious agenda in the Caucasus, involving pipelines, politics, and more. Now nobody in the region is especially interested in what Americans think, even if they bother to ask.
The country that has benefited most from these two changes, the diminishing of American democracy and the reality of American withdrawal, is of course China. It is true that, after a long flirtation with Xi, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ratcheted up their anti-China rhetoric, in part to distract Americans from their own failure to fight the coronavirus. But Beijing must at least feel ambivalent about the end of their administration. A second Trump term would have consolidated Chinese influence inside the United Nations system, reduced the power of human-rights advocacy, and undermined the alliance of Western and Asian democracies even further. During a week that Trump spent tweeting election conspiracy theories, 15 Asia-Pacific countries signed on to a regional trade deal spearheaded by China. Not so very long ago, the Obama administration proposed the creation of a U.S.-led transpacific trade partnership that would have bound the region to a different vision. When Trump trashed that agreement, the door was left open for Beijing.
None of these changes can be easily reversed by the Biden administration, especially by old veterans who imagine that their task now is one of restoration. On the contrary, whoever joins the next administration, whether as secretary of state or chargé d’affaires in Luxembourg, now faces a much different task. The recitation of human rights as a mantra will not by itself make human rights important again. America’s return to UN institutions that Trump has left or said he would leave—most notably the World Health Organization and the UN Human Rights Council—will not rid them of Chinese influence or make them more functional. The task is to come up with absolutely new ways of conducting diplomacy, of expanding U.S. influence, of reinforcing respect for human rights, and, above all, of leveraging alliances. In a prescient commentary published last month, the Lowy Institute fellow Thomas Wright observed that the real question is not whether Biden will be different from Trump. “That much is obvious,” noted Wright (who is also an Atlantic contributing writer). Instead, the question is whether Biden will differ from Obama. And that is not yet obvious at all.
The new Biden team has signaled some real ambition. The incoming administration has already said that it will quickly convene a new conversation with America’s major allies. Biden is likely to focus on four or five big issues, including COVID-19, climate change, and the question of how to defend democracies against the authoritarian agendas of Russia and China. Rather than launching simultaneous trade wars in Europe and Asia, as Trump did, the Biden team wants to ensure that the U.S. and its European and Asian friends are all working in concert.
But a consultation will not, by itself, create any changes, and the revival of multilateralism carries its own risks. The most important one is that it leads senior officials to focus on process rather than outcome. Diplomats are always enticed by the prospect of talks about talks; reaching an agreement about the working group that will design the policy sometimes can come to seem more important than the policy itself: Oh, look, we’ve gotten London, Paris, and Brussels to sign a meaningless statement. Now we can all pat ourselves on the back. Biden’s team must not fall into the same trap as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who valiantly tried to create a new international institution, the Community of Democracies, only to watch it slowly die. At its first meetings, the group got bogged down in the question of who qualified for membership; later, its members fell to arguing about what the organization should do. Although it still exists, it has failed to counter the rise of authoritarian influence inside the UN and elsewhere, and it commands neither serious resources nor serious attention.
One solution might be for the United States to shun international organizations altogether. Instead of creating a bureaucracy with a secretariat and offices, why not work with ad hoc coalitions of allies, issue by issue? This is the formula recently proposed by Macron, no fan of the modern UN, who recently said that “we need to reinvent useful forms of cooperation—coalitions of projects and players,” citing as an example a meeting he organized among European governments, American companies, and American states after Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement. Another example is the European-led COVAX project, which includes both governments and NGOs and aims to deliver coronavirus vaccines all over the world. But there could be others—maybe even many others. The alliance needed to counter Russian influence in Europe, including Russia’s overt and covert support of far-right political parties and media, may differ in nature, for example, from the alliance needed to counter Chinese influence around the world, which often takes the form of infrastructure spending and trade deals.
Biden’s team could also escape from bad old habits by giving high priority to issues that aren’t traditionally thought of as part of foreign policy at all. In almost every democracy, anger is rising at tax evasion, international money laundering, and the dark-money operations used by Russia and China as well as domestic actors to manipulate all of our political systems; these are problems that Europe, America, and democratic Asia can only fight together. In almost every democracy, it has also become clear that the structure of modern online media is creating deeper social division. Maybe it’s time to ask whether the current governance of internet platforms is working in all of our interests, and whether some combination of coordinated, international changes to antitrust, privacy, and transparency regulations might not make the online information space more conducive to constructive dialogue than bitter polarization. Climate change by definition requires both international efforts and a high level of creativity, but other problems do too. How can the democratic world make its voice heard more loudly in places such as Belarus, where police are now beating and murdering protesters? How can democratic nations redefine security to include not only tanks and missiles but also defenses against disinformation and cyber warfare?
Americans might need to change our own outdated institutions, especially our State Department, badly demoralized by Pompeo and his predecessor Rex Tillerson. We might also need to change our attitudes. After four years of hearing about the evils of globalization and the glories of nationalism, Americans need a White House team that can explain the symbiotic relationship between foreign and domestic policy. Climate change is an international issue that affects people living near burning forests in California. International money laundering is an international issue that affects prosecutors trying to track down fraudsters in New York. The vaccines that are going to bring the coronavirus to an end have all been produced by international cooperation and partnerships, including a German company run by a German Turkish couple working with an American multinational, and an American company headed by a French CEO.
We need a different kind of rhetoric about foreign policy, language that doesn’t worship multilateralism for its own sake, but that doesn’t shut Americans into an impossible and unrealistic isolation either. Integration into the world isn’t a choice; it’s a reality we have to learn to live with. The question is what kind of integration this will be. Who will write the rules? Who will decide what matters? Above all, the Biden administration should tell Americans the truth: We are at a breaking point, a hinge moment, after which we will either revive the influence of the democratic world or witness its precipitous decline.
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