Biden bids for activist world role. Will Americans back him?

Biden bids for activist world role. Will Americans back him?

Why We Wrote This

President-elect Joe Biden is promising the world renewed American leadership. But first he has to convince citizens at home that an active U.S. foreign policy is in their interests.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden is seen making remarks on his plan to fight COVID-19 on a monitor from the White House Briefing Room, after pharmaceutical giant Pfizer said its experimental COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective, in Washington, Nov. 9, 2020.

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December 3, 2020

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“America is back.” President-elect Joe Biden’s message to the world has been clear, but making it happen could prove easier said than done.

One early challenge will serve as a signal. What will Washington do to distribute promising U.S. and European vaccines in developing countries, amid concerted drives by two strategic rivals, China and Russia, to promote vaccines of their own?

Its response will be a first step towards the incoming administration’s broader aim: to reclaim the broad and multifaceted leadership role that the U.S. built in the decades following World War II.

But that will mean healing a growing rift at home, the one between U.S. administrations which make foreign policy – both Republican and Democrat – and the huge numbers of American voters who see such policy as a waste of money, often a waste of lives, and a distraction from dealing with domestic priorities.

Mr. Biden will have to make the case that American leadership abroad is valuable not just for the world, but for Americans as well. Only then will he have democratic support for an active foreign policy.

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“America is back.” President-elect Joe Biden’s message to the world has been clear, to friend and foe alike. That could prove easier said than done, though, and one early challenge awaiting the next U.S. administration will serve as a signal.

Unsurprisingly, it is pandemic-related: What will Washington do to distribute promising U.S. and European vaccines in developing countries, amid concerted drives by two strategic rivals, China and Russia, to promote vaccines of their own as part of a broader effort to extend their political and economic influence?

Mr. Biden has already announced that he will reverse the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization.

But that is just a first step toward the incoming administration’s broader aim: not just to rejoin international institutions, but to reclaim the broad and multifaceted leadership role that the U.S. built in the decades following World War II.

And that, in turn, will mean healing a serious rift at home, one that’s been widening since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. It is the cleavage between U.S. administrations which make foreign policy – both Republican and Democrat – and the huge numbers of American voters who have come to see such concerns as a waste of money, often a waste of lives, and a distraction from dealing with domestic priorities.


Trump administration seeks to tie Biden’s hands. Will it work?

In other words, Mr. Biden will have to make the case that American leadership abroad is valuable not just for the world, but for Americans as well.

The vaccine question will put that proposition front and center from the day he takes office. The pandemic is a borderless threat, Mr. Biden’s team will argue, and one from which Americans cannot ultimately be safe without coordinated success in turning it back in other countries.

Inevitably, the incoming president’s first task will be to deal with the effects of the pandemic at home. His team has already been devoting its transition work to ensuring the earliest and widest possible distribution of vaccines to Americans.

Yet he does seem alert to the need to “bring America back” with a post-pandemic economic recovery plan and trade policies that protect everyday Americans and their jobs. Introducing his foreign policy team, he said of Jake Sullivan, his national security adviser, “Jake understands my vision, that economic security is national security, and it helps steer what I call a foreign policy for the middle class.”

Still, the administration will also be aware that the U.S. can assert its renewed leadership on pandemic issues only through the very international institutions, investments, and involvement that President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach has worked actively to oppose or weaken.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with Dr Margaret Chan, director-general of World Health Organization (WHO), after speaking at the United Nations meeting on the Ebola outbreak, in New York September 25, 2014. At center, is Chairperson of the African Union Commission Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

The clearest example is the World Health Organization, the U.N. body Mr. Trump has accused of mishandling the world’s pandemic response. But effective U.S. leadership implies a broader approach, the kind former President Barack Obama took in 2014 to deal with another pandemic threat – from the Ebola virus in Africa.

As his then-U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, pointed out in a Foreign Affairs article last month, the Obama administration took the lead in mobilizing more than 60 countries behind that effort.

She argues that the U.S. should now do more than rejoin the WHO, and end the Trump administration’s boycott of COVAX, the 184-nation alliance pledged to make some 2 billion vaccine doses available to people in developing countries. It should draw on the long experience of bodies like the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the federal government’s foreign aid arm, the U.S. Agency for International Development, in working on other immunization programs with less-developed countries.

Within America’s so-called foreign policy establishment, the case for why such an initiative – and a wider reassertion of U.S. leadership – ultimately benefits Americans themselves is clear.

It begins with principle, though the current domestic political climate of division and anger has undermined this argument: the historic importance of America’s international voice in favor of democratic governance, freedom of assembly, expression, travel, and other human rights.

But beyond that, say the establishment traditionalists to whom Mr. Biden is entrusting U.S. foreign policy, Americans’ own interests – their national security, and their economic health – lie in being able to counter moves by undemocratic states to expand their international influence.

Increasingly, this balance-of-power case centers on Russia and, especially, China.

There’s an important additional dimension to that argument: that the effectiveness of American leadership, especially on security, has been hugely bolstered by the strength of alliances with like-minded democracies, above all in Western Europe and in Asia, which Mr. Trump has generally disdained.

Still, making the case is one thing. Getting it heard, and accepted, could yet prove difficult.

Last summer, I was a keynote speaker – via Zoom – at the annual conference of the School of Public Policy at the Central European University, the post-Cold War institution established by philanthropist George Soros in Budapest. In the discussion afterward, the CEU’s Canadian-born president, Michael Ignatieff, raised the issue of the policy rift that Mr. Biden now faces.

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“There’s been an uncoupling of American foreign policy from its domestic base of political support, and unless that’s renewed, you can’t get the democratic support for an outward-faced foreign policy,” he argued. Repairing the link would be “a huge job,” he said, and he did not sound particularly hopeful.

But then he paused, and added “America’s an amazing place. So why not?”

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