THE UNITED States is in deep trouble at home and abroad. But the problems are not simply President Donald Trump’s fault: both his Democratic and Republican predecessors also bear considerable responsibility. Trump was elected in 2016 because many Americans were profoundly unhappy with the state of the union. Not only did he run the table in the Republican primaries against a host of opponents with solid establishment credentials, but he also managed to polish off Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Bernie Sanders—a self-declared socialist—gave Clinton a run for her money in the Democratic primaries.
Trump has made a bad situation worse, however, which means that President-elect Joe Biden faces a Herculean task in trying to right the ship of state.
The biggest and most serious problems are on the homefront. They include a poisonous polarization of the body politic, badly damaged institutions, a raging pandemic, and a host of longstanding economic problems. Biden is not well-positioned to deal with these problems for a variety of reasons. The Republicans are likely to control the Senate, which will give them the power to thwart his appointments and policy initiatives. More generally, the Republicans will try to delegitimize Biden’s presidency, just as Democrats worked to delegitimize Trump’s. For many Republicans—and certainly Trump himself—it will be payback time.
Furthermore, Biden did not win a sweeping mandate. He eked out a victory and a considerable number of people voted for him with little enthusiasm—largely because the party he leads is badly split between its centrist and progressive wings.
Still, Biden and his lieutenants have some room to maneuver. The new president can and should use executive orders to reverse numerous Trump policies dealing with the environment, the financial sector, and immigration. Moreover, the United States should quickly rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization and put an end to the so-called Muslim Travel Ban. These steps are all relatively easy to do.
The most important short-term domestic goal should be dealing with the coronavirus, which is likely to be spreading like wildfire when Biden moves into the White House. The foremost challenge will be to get the pandemic under control without seriously damaging the economy and without exacerbating the existing polarization. After all, each side of the divide differs on how serious the problem is and what measures should be taken to deal with it. Special attention should be paid to developing a safe vaccine and having plans in place to inoculate all Americans as rapidly as possible.
Biden’s most important long-term goal at home should be to foster a powerful sense of American nationalism. The United States is not simply a liberal state, it is a liberal nation-state. Over the past three decades, the ruling elites in both political parties have lost sight of the fact that we are ultimately a nation—what Benedict Anderson famously called an “imagined community”—not just a collection of individuals pursuing their own selfish interests.
We will always have our differences—and sometimes they will be profound—but we are still part of a larger community that must also recognize that we have shared values and responsibilities toward each other. The job of a president is to make it crystal clear through both rhetoric and policies that we are a single nation, that public officials are committed to protecting that nation, and that the interests of that nation will always take precedence over the interests of every other nation on the planet.
Trump understood the importance of American nationalism, which helped him get elected in 2016. But he failed to deliver once in office, simply because he acted not as a unifier, but as the great divider. He helped sunder the nation further, although his predecessors had already seriously damaged it. Biden should work overtime to remedy this problem and make America once-again a formidable liberal nation-state.
Turning to foreign policy, the dominating issue is how to contain a rising China. Despite the fact that Biden and his fellow Democrats foolishly helped turn China into a potential peer competitor, they appear to be firmly committed to rectifying that error by preventing China from dominating Asia. Toward that end, the Biden administration should work assiduously to improve relations with America’s Asian allies and create an effective alliance that can keep Beijing at bay.
Relatedly, it would be especially wise for Biden to abandon his misguided Russophobia and work to bring Moscow into the balancing coalition against China. It is Beijing, not Moscow, that poses the main threat to U.S. interests today, and Russia could be a valuable ally in addressing that threat.
The new president should not start new unnecessary wars and bring the U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria to a close. Given the proclivities of the foreign policy establishment, Biden will come under pressure to pursue regime change abroad, sometimes with military force. Iran will be the most likely target, as Israel and lobbying groups like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies will surely push him to topple the existing regime and supposedly end its nuclear ambitions. This idea is delusional, as is the belief that striking Iran’s nuclear facilities can prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Biden should not start a war against Iran even if it is on a path to acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration should go to great lengths to discourage proliferation, while recognizing that there are limits to what it can do to achieve that goal. For example, it is time to recognize that North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear weapons. The new president should also recognize that one way the United States can prevent proliferation in countries like Iran is to stop threatening them with military attack and deal with the problem diplomatically instead. The JCPOA was a smart step in this direction, and Biden’s team should explore ways to revive U.S. participation in that deal and then extend it. It is impossible to eliminate Iran’s ability to get a nuclear weapon if it wants one, but a less confrontational American posture may make it less likely Tehran chooses that option.
In sum, Biden faces a daunting list of domestic and international problems while his ability to address those problems is severely limited by circumstances beyond his control. He has the power to make some important changes, however, although he will have to play the hand he has been dealt with great skill.
Otto von Bismarck famously quipped that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America.” In this grim situation, Joe Biden (and indeed, all Americans) must hope he was right.
John J. Mearsheimer is the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. His many books include The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities and The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.