Biden I is Not Obama III — An International Legacy
As Joe Biden puts together a team of high quality and experienced people, it might be helpful to look at the task ahead. Many Biden Administration appointees were also in the Obama Administration. This could be misconstrued as “more of the same”, which also harmed Hillary Clinton.
I just came back from a two-week trip to Brussels, London, and Paris. As many are focused on Brexit, I was struck by the fear for Donald Trump, combined with hopes that Joe Biden can turn this ugly page in the history of U.S. international relations.
Donald Trump has damaged international trust in the United States
The biggest damage resulting from 4 years Trump is to the international reputation of the U.S. and its presidency.
For many outside the U.S., it was frustrating to watch how America’s signature to an international treaty or agreement could be removed by an angry pen’s Executive Order, especially when said Treaty or Agreement had been previously approved by Congress.
Joe Biden announced his intention to rejoin the Paris Agreement from his first day, and “America is back and ready to lead the world”. That bold statement can’t be taken literally. As Aaron David Miller and Robert Sokolsky from the Carnegie Foundation describe it: If the administration wants to succeed, it will have to establish a more cooperative and less imperial style of leadership, choose its battles wisely for promoting democracy and human rights, and not automatically discard the few things that President Trump got (mostly) right on foreign policy.
Will the Biden Administration be humble enough to rebuild broken bridges?
The rejection of multilateral policies
Rebuilding trust with people, leaders, and countries on critical Treaties like NATO, is not a small challenge. NATO is redefining itself on its 79th anniversary, while confronted by an increasingly powerful China. It will require more than words.
Without a change of the US legal framework that gives excessive powers to the Executive branch, it will not be possible to restore U.S. international values to the signature of the United States of America. Attacks on the United Nations are counterproductive, isolating the US from the rest of the world.
For four years, the world learned that military commitments could be withdrawn. Withdrawing from Membership of communities as important as the Paris Treaty on the environment, the Iran working group, the nuclear Treaty aiming to control the dissemination or the Asia Pacific Treaty is not only unfair, it is dangerous and threatens world peace.
It will be critical to establishing that multilateral agreements agreed by Congress cannot be unwound without the approval of Congress. That wars (like Yemen) rejected by Congress cannot be continued without consideration for their vote.
Moral leadership has been damaged
For better or worse, the world got used to the fact that the United States is leading with a combination of self-interest and global standards. Donald Trump was known for his protectionism, and was turning his back on the ethical rules of international relations and trade.
Our key values such as nuclear controls, environmental risks, prosecution of war crimes, the abolishment of the death penalty, community values rather than separation, the fairness of immigration no longer a stable background to the US policy? The fact that China became the loudest voice on international cooperation is threatening our democracies.
It is not just the White House that turned its back to those values. The Republican Party, still today, fears the retaliation of a fallen leader beyond his mandate. The GOP will have to go back to its roots and principles if they expect to gain renewed confidence in the United States from the world.
The world is welcoming America back to the concert of nations
The Biden Administration reenters the international foray with a favorable prejudice. In Europe, he will experience a warm welcome from many Western countries. Hope is back. It is a moment of opportunity where countries can believe that the United States can lead, but in a more collaborative manner — America needs to show it can be trusted.
It is from that position that the U.S. will rebuild the alliances that are needed to deal with China: it is more a power-sharing that an exclusive right to take initiatives. The EU has already indicated its willingness to work alongside the United States on this defining foreign policy issue. Any strategy will need to include Japan, to neutralize the threat of the Chinese military expansion in the China Sea.
This is a moment of opportunity, not to be missed.