World wonders whether Biden has enough bandwidth for it

World wonders whether Biden has enough bandwidth for it

Why We Wrote This

President Biden would like to restore American global leadership. But with a plethora of domestic crises to resolve, how much effort will he want to expend on boosting U.S. influence abroad?

Ritzau Scanpix/Reuters

Danish Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod attends a video conference with other EU-leaders and U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, in Copenhagen Denmark, January 22, 2021.


January 27, 2021

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President Biden has pledged to reclaim and redefine America’s place in the world, and he seems to have three options before him, which could be characterized as “Go Big,” “Lie Low,” and “Steady the Ship.”

Going Big would mean energetically reasserting American global leadership. That jibes with Mr. Biden’s instincts, but he has so much to do at home that he may not have the bandwidth to “go big” internationally.

Lying Low might seem tempting, but even if the new administration wanted to put the world on hold, the world won’t do the same to America. Issues demanding Washington’s attention will keep cropping up.

So Steadying the Ship appears the most likely course for now. But Washington’s success in re-engaging the world could depend on what happens at home. The last four years have raised questions about U.S. reliability. Now, Mr. Biden said in his inaugural speech, America must lead “not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”


“The world is watching.” The words, spoken by U.S. President Joe Biden in last week’s inaugural address, were true. But they told only half the story: The world wasn’t just watching, it was wondering.

Amid the daunting domestic challenges President Biden faces, America’s friends and foes alike were wondering the same thing: How quickly and decisively would he, or could he, fulfill his pledge to reclaim and redefine America’s place in the world?

In other words, which of three menu options would guide the president and his foreign policy team?

Would they click on Go Big?

Lie Low?

Dear Mr. President: 10 letters of advice for Biden

Or Steady the Ship?

Each offers temptations. Each also holds pitfalls. But – spoiler alert – the balance of risk and reward is making one of them likeliest, at least for the near future.

Go Big would mean not only reconnecting with allies and international organizations shunned by former President Donald Trump, but energetically reasserting American leadership. This jibes with Mr. Biden’s own deeply held view of the U.S. as a key voice in tackling international challenges, safeguarding global stability, and advancing the shared interests of democratic allies.

The new president has been nodding in this direction since the day he took office, especially when it comes to topics he has characterized as “tomorrow’s challenges,” such as climate change and dealing both with COVID-19 and potential future pandemics.

In announcing his administration was rejoining the Paris climate accords and the World Health Organization on Day One, he clearly meant for the U.S. to do more than just make up the numbers. After all, he has named a “climate envoy” to his cabinet: John Kerry, the former secretary of state who affixed America’s signature to the Paris Agreement.

Some, however, would like him to go further. One of Mr. Biden’s friends, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, is urging the president to propose a special summit of the G-20 group of leading world economies to spearhead “emergency global action” on climate change and the interlocking health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic.

He also wants the Biden administration, along with Europe, to stump up the $30 billion needed to ensure COVID-19 vaccinations for the entire world.

Will all that happen? It is possible. Yet given the enormous scale of the domestic tests Mr. Biden has set himself – curbing the pandemic, rescuing the economy, and healing a bitterly divided nation – the administration may lack the bandwidth to “go big” internationally.

That’s why Menu Option 2 – Lie Low – might seem enticing. In essence, it would limit early foreign policy moves to basic reengagement and patching up frayed alliances, while deferring broader action until Mr. Biden has made a significant dent in his to-do list at home.

But there’s one huge impediment to lying low, which pretty much rules that option out.

Just in his first week in office, the president has had to consider a raft of real-world issues, ranging from provocative flights by Chinese jets near Taiwan and widespread street protests in Russia to a refugee caravan heading toward the southern U.S. border. Plus, the last surviving arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia is due to expire early next month.

The administration may see advantages in putting the outside world on hold.

But the world isn’t going to put America on hold.

So, on balance, the third option – Steady the Ship – would seem most likely, at least for now. That doesn’t imply doing nothing. It has already meant rejoining Paris and the WHO, as well as signaling support for a five-year extension of the New START arms accord with Moscow. At the same time, the administration has taken a stern line on Russia’s arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny and of protesters who turned out to support him, as well as announcing a review of Washington’s strategy toward Beijing, declaring that China had become “more authoritarian at home, and more assertive abroad.” 

The president, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and national security aides will be busy talking to key allies on all these issues in the coming weeks. They’ll also be working to define a post-Trumpian approach to a pair of especially thorny challenges: a nuclear-armed North Korea and an Iranian regime drawing ever closer to its own nuclear capability.

Yet how successful Washington will be in re-engaging the world, whichever option it chooses, could still depend on what happens at home.

The past four years haven’t just damaged U.S. alliances overseas, raising questions about America’s reliability as a partner.

The virtually unchecked spread of the pandemic in the U.S., the assault on the Capitol challenging the results of the presidential election, and continuing evidence of deep anger and political divisions – all these have badly tainted America’s image as the world’s exemplary, stable democracy.

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Another line from Mr. Biden’s inaugural speech, which was not just lofty rhetoric but trenchantly accurate, summed up the challenge that implies.

America, he said, must be able to lead “not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”

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