How Biden Can Restore America’s Role Abroad

How Biden Can Restore America’s Role Abroad

In a world that combines both the balance of power and liberal norms, America must have soft and hard power. Should a Biden administration produce the right mix of both, and create new mechanisms with our democratic allies, it will be able to restore America’s guiding role internationally.

Domestic Priorities and Their Connection to Our Role Internationally

Domestically, the new president must shore up the foundation of our power; that, alone, will send an important message internationally. His first priority will necessarily be to show his administration is implementing his plan for containing COVID-19 by producing systematic testing and tracing; isolating hot-spots and vulnerable populations to permit the safe re-opening of schools and work-places, and ensuring the efficient distribution and widespread availability of both therapeutic treatments and the vaccines when they are ready.

Similarly, he will need to work quickly with the Congressional leadership to work out a stimulus, recovery package for the economy; he led the effort in 2009 to deal with the “great recession” so he is experienced here. He must also work quickly to change the toxic political climate on a number of issues. Fortunately, he can do what comes naturally to him: be a convener and a conciliator. He has already said he will convene law enforcement and judicial officials, police chiefs, African-American leaders, and community activists at the White House to first discuss and then develop a serious and practical approach for addressing the issues of systemic racism and necessary reforms in policing. He should do much the same on immigration as well as on the broad but important issue of innovation and ensuring American competitiveness.  

The latter is necessary to compete with China which, with its national strategic plan of “Made in China 2025,” seeks to become the world leader in high tech areas, including quantum computing, robotics, and biotech. This is both a domestic and national security issue—and it is here where a President Biden must try to restore bipartisanship in foreign policy. On China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, he should bring in the Congressional leadership and the chairs and ranking members of the Foreign Relations and Arms Services Committees to discuss our objectives toward each of them. He will find little disagreement on objectives, and he can pledge to consult with them as the administration develops its policies and takes its initial steps. His Secretary of State will need to follow up and the Secretary and the national security team must reflect Biden’s readiness to reach across party lines. (It will surely help if the Secretary is someone who has a track record of doing that. I watched how effectively Jim Baker worked with Democrats on the highly charged issue of Central America at the outset of the George H.W. Bush administration. As someone who was a political appointee for Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, and Obama, I know that much can be done if there is the will to do it.)

This won’t make disagreements disappear but bringing the Congress in and demonstrating a commitment to bipartisanship is surely necessary for beginning to restore a consensus domestically on our role in the world. But the president must also use his bully pulpit to explain what we are going to do. Leadership requires explanation and repetition of the message on all issues, including foreign policy. Such an early speech should follow the consultations with the Congress in order explain our broad goals, the desire to restore bipartisanship in foreign policy, build public support for the administration’s approach, and raise the costs to those on the Hill of opposing a president seeking to restore unity.

Building an Alliance of Democracies

Showing domestic leadership in this fashion will resonate at home and abroad. If combined with rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate and the World Health Organization, the Biden administration will signal to everyone that the US is again a good global citizen. These signals should be reinforced by an early emphasis on our commitment to our alliances and our readiness to discuss rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trade issues, however, will be more complicated, especially in a world reeling from the ongoing economic effects of COVID-19 and all countries intent on protecting critical sectors of their economies. Starting on those issues on which there is much more consensus with our allies like climate change, combating COVID-19, and putting in place the infrastructure for dealing with future pandemics will re-establish baselines of cooperation and create more of a context for dealing with more contentious issues like trade.

Iran and the JCPOA fit in the broader category of rejoining multilateral agreements. While we cannot simply return to it so long as Iran is not in compliance, and the administration will rightly have other concerns about Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional behavior, this is an issue where the administration should work out a common position with the British, the French and the Germans. Once it has done so, it can then go to the Russians and Chinese and only then engage the Iranians—whose message is almost certain to be “you owe us—you must first give us sanctions relief.” While the Russians and Chinese are likely to be supportive of the Iranian argument, they continue to share the goals of Iran not acquiring nuclear weapons and reducing the risk of a war in the Middle East. (And, Iran’s effort to put precision guidance on rockets it provides to Hezbollah and brings into Syria clearly risks a war with Israel that could escalate vertically and horizontally.) Here is a reminder that although a competitive relationship with the Russians and Chinese is inevitable, there are areas where cooperation is possible and in our mutual interests.

We will have to be able to compete in a way that also increases the Russian and Chinese incentive to widen the areas of cooperation. China represents the more potent challenge, with its belief that it is time for its geopolitical influence and weight to reflect its growing economic might. This is not a passive position of the Chinese; they are acting to make it a reality. Apart from building its military dominance and denial capabilities in the Asia-Pacific, China is using its economic muscle to build dependencies largely through its Belt and Road initiative (BRI): an initiative that has China building infrastructure throughout South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and even parts of Europe. BRI extends China’s reach, creates new trading relationships, and pushes countries in which China is building transportation infrastructure deeply into debt to Beijing. While seeking to gain leadership positions in different UN agencies, the Chinese are also creating alternative financial institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to existing regional development banks.

All this reflects not just China’s aim to build dependent relationships and alternatives to the US and its allies; it is presenting an alternative model based on its economic development and authoritarian political system. China is offering the prospect of economic progress without political liberalization and the provision of political rights. Now, they are also able to contrast their control of COVID with the Trump administration’s botched and incompetent response to it. Along with the Russians, who also reject liberal values, and the emergence of Right-wing populist leaderships in Hungary and Poland, there is a fundamental challenge to what we and our democratic allies represent.

But the United States and our allies have the means to counter the efforts of the Chinese and other illiberal actors, provided we work together. To begin with, the US and its democratic allies in Europe and Asia represent 75 percent of the world’s economy. China’s economy may be growing, but it is still smaller than America’s, and it is dwarfed by the combined economic might of the US and our democratic partners. Moreover, Beijing’s provocative behaviors toward its neighbors are also producing the potential for even stronger alignments against it.

Mobilizing such opposition may feed China’s sense that we are determined to prevent its rise rather than manage it. To be sure, President Xi and others in the leadership should understand that continuing aggressive behaviors in the region or efforts to punish those like Australia who criticize China or to gain unilateral advantage over us will produce strong counter-reactions. But our aim should be to cooperate where we can and compete where we must.

On issues of trade, the Trump administration was right to challenge unfair and coercive Chinese practices. Aside from focusing too narrowly on the trade imbalance, President Trump’s real mistake was not recognizing that China engaged in all the same practices against our European and Asian allies. They have just as much of a stake in changing Chinese trade behavior as we do. We should be forming a common front to negotiate trade accords with the Chinese; that would provide far greater leverage and put China at a disadvantage.

In addition, one of the fundamental mistakes of the Trump administration was to undervalue political isolation as a form of leverage. With Iran, it succeeded in putting enormous economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, but by going it alone, it politically isolated the US and not the Iranians. A collective negotiating posture toward China on trade is not just smart economically, it sends the message to China that it is isolating itself. For sure, the Chinese will try to divide any common front, but this is where a skillful, extremely active diplomatic effort is required. Alliance and coalition management require constant attention, being alert to potential problems, making sure there are no misunderstandings, identifying who within the coalition can be most helpful in addressing issues that arise, and adjusting postures when necessary.