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.


Again, this is a reminder that together America and its European and Asian democratic allies have tremendous power. Despite all their challenges, they still offer a far more attractive model than the Chinese/authoritarian one. America’s incoming president intuitively understands this. During the presidential campaign, Biden said if elected he would convene a summit of democracies. The ostensible purpose was to declare common principles and address issues ranging from climate change to the economic dislocations of COVID-19. Such a summit should aim at restoring confidence and trust among the democracies. It should also provide the embryo of a mechanism for enhancing our collective ability to compete with China, Russia, and others.

In this connection, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has become an advocate for turning the G-7 into a new grouping of the ten leading democracies, by adding Australia, South Korea, and India to it. In Johnson’s eyes, the grouping, the D-10, would be a platform to coordinate on COVID-19 and on telecom policy, especially given concerns about the security issues related to Huawei’s potential dominance of 5G technology. Ash Jain and Matthew Kroenig, in writing about the concept in 2019, envisioned a much broader agenda, stating that the D-10 would “serve as the primary platform for Democratic states to discuss and develop common strategies and policies to deal with global challenges.” In their words, whether coordinating on China, Russia or Iran, it could be a venue “to formulate collective responses” to current and future political or security crises.


Jain and Koenig understood such a mechanism would be unwieldy without a permanent secretariat. It will need more than that; it will need working groups divided into different issue areas. It will need ministerial meetings and summits in which the agenda is worked out in advance with critical decisions readied for the leaders to make. Its initial meeting should issue a declaration of principles and aims that those assembled embrace. In essence, the D-10 would constitute our collective commitment to democratic principles and a new practical mechanism for coordination among the world’s leading democracies.

The D-10 could certainly ease the concerns of our allies in Europe and Asia who have seen America’s retrenchment and reorientation and wondered whether we could be counted on. Our commitment to making the D-10 a serious new forum for coordination among the world’s leading democracies should be reassuring about our role in the world, our willingness to listen, and our readiness to compete with the Chinese et al. Of course, in parallel, we need to be working in a coordinated fashion with the G-20. After all, the Chinese and Russians, and other significant countries like Brazil, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia, are part of it. And, they must play a role in dealing with COVID, its economic implications, and also climate change.

The D-10 is not a substitute for what the United States must do bilaterally and multilaterally with China and Russia—or with key regional players in the Middle East who see their security affected by what and how we intend to deal with Iran. As noted above, we have an interest in cooperating with China and Russia on a range of fundamental challenges: COVID, future pandemics, climate change, terrorism, the proliferation of non-conventional weapons, arms control, etc. The more daunting the challenge, the more their cooperation is necessary and the less there is any hope of real progress without them.

But at the same time, we need to arrest the image of America in decline and unable to lead in a more chaotic world of diffuse power. Retrenching now will feed that perception and make our reduced relevance a self-fulfilling prophecy. We cannot dominate the world, but we are not powerless to affect it. While recognizing our limits, no one else is as capable of mobilizing international responses to global challenges. Domestic critics of our over-reach (on the left and the right) are not wrong that our posture has to change. They are wrong in their prescription; we can lead the democracies in a way that makes the world safer and is more sustainable. Like it or not, Trump has made it far easier to say to our treaty allies and regional partners that they have to bear a greater part of the burden for their security and take more account of our needs on trade if we are to sustain a leadership role. And, the reality is, they all recognize they are less safe in a world where the US does not play a leading role, shaping, organizing, mobilizing, and acting in responses to threats.

One last word on security threats and intervention. The statement that the use of force must be a last resort and diplomacy must be the first is a truism. It is a slogan. The use of force has never been a first resort for any administration. In different presidencies, we can say diplomacy has not been effectively conducted or that there was too much faith in the ability to use force to affect political outcomes. Even if in Bush 43 there was too much hubris and too little questioning about the implications of the use of force and the consequences of leaving a vacuum with regime change, it is wrong to say that diplomacy always took a backseat.

I am afraid that the slogan on making diplomacy a first resort is used as a justification to never intervene militarily. It should be a given that we cannot and must not use force without thinking through all the consequences, both intended and unintended. But diplomacy not backed by force or the credible threat of it is often doomed to fail. John Kerry worked out several understandings with the Russians on Syria, none of which they upheld because they knew his hands were tied and his threats were merely rhetorical. By contrast, Richard Holbrooke used our bombing campaign against Serbian forces very effectively to get Slobodan Milosevic to lift the siege of Sarajevo and to bring the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table after denying he could do either.

Clearly, the use of force and interventions depend on the stakes, the conflict, the definition of objectives, the potential costs and prospects for success, and the necessity of having credible local partners. They also must not be thought of in binary terms: either we intervene with a hundred thousand boots on the ground or we do nothing. There are many gradations in-between, and as our support for the SDF in Syria shows, our costs can be kept low.

Why raise interventions? Because in statecraft all the tools in our toolkit must be available. Moreover, 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.

Ambassador Dennis Ross is counselor and William Davidson Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization. Ambassador Ross’s distinguished diplomatic career includes service as special assistant to President Barack Obama and National Security Council senior director for the Central Region, special advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Middle East Envoy to President Bill Clinton, and Director of Policy Planning for President George H.W. Bush.

Image: Reuters.