Analysis: President Biden’s daunting foreign policy challenges

By Amitav Acharya, Distinguished Professor, American University, Washington, DC.

THERE is little question that the Biden administration will focus first and foremost on domestic challenges, especially the economic downturn and the Covid-19 pandemic. But four years of Donald Trump have also severely damaged US standing and credibility globally. In particular, the Trump years severely undercut US credibility and prestige around the world and damaged the world order, or what pundits call the liberal international order, which was created and led by the US since World War II.

The liberal international order was founded on a combination of globalisation, including free trade, and multilateralism. Mr Trump’s 2016 electoral victory was significantly helped by the failure of that order, and the US foreign policy that sustained it, to address the concerns of American domestic constituents left behind by free trade.

Mr Trump was able to exploit the backlash against globalisation, which was already brewing in some parts of the US, such as the mid-West, which had suffered job and income losses as factories and companies moved to other nations such as China, where production was cheaper and more efficient.

His “America First” and “Make America Great Again” slogans had deep resonance among the rural white lower-middle-class constituents (including white supremacists), who dislike globalism and have little understanding of the benefits of multilateral institutions.

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Mr Trump condemned global supply chains — a key driver of globalisation — as a threat to US national self-reliance on medical products. Mr Trump was able to sell his base constituents the idea that the US had got a “bad deal” from multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization, which was responsible for promoting global trade and favoured US competitors, such as China, at the expense of the US.

Mr Trump’s “America First” policy, disdain for multilateral institutions, disrespect for US allies, and dismissal of democratic values not only weakened the liberal order but also emboldened the more powerful challengers to that order, such as Russia and China.

Domestically, the Trump regime’s toxic mix of corruption, nepotism, racism and ineptitude caused the serious erosion of US prestige and credibility around the world. Just look at the US death toll from Covid-19, which now stands at more than 400,000.

Such a high toll was not inevitable, with proper policies and management. Mr Trump’s incitement of the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 has made the US appear unstable and made a mockery of US democracy and the rule of law.

While repairing the damage will not be easy, several factors might now help the Biden administration to stabilise world order and restore America’s global standing.

To begin with, the defeat of Mr Trump, the preeminent populist leader of a major nation in modern times, would discourage populist rulers. The fact that Mr Trump not only lost the presidency and the Senate but also leaving office with one of the lowest approval ratings ever for a US president, is not a great advertisement for populism.

Mr Biden’s victory should also be a warning to the current populist leaders in Brazil, the Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, Venezuela, Poland and India. Moreover, while Mr Biden is unlikely to push for democracy promotion abroad, the regime change in Washington would dampen the spirits of the leaders of authoritarian regimes around the world, including North Korea, who got support from Mr Trump. One cannot expect Mr Biden to encourage populist policies in democratic nations, as Mr Trump did when he embraced Boris Johnson and Brexit.

Mr Biden brings back a high level of personal decency to the White House. His vice president, Kamala Harris, as well as his choice of senior-level officials in his administration, symbolise the new administration’s respect for diversity and multiculturalism.

Mr Biden can reverse a good deal of the loss of US prestige and influence during the Trump era with a renewed commitment to global cooperation and multilateralism, and policies such as ending Mr Trump’s anti-immigration stance, including the travel ban from several Muslim nations.

While the US faces major economic and political challenges, so do Russia and China, as well as other emerging powers such as Brazil, India and South Africa. By being able to change its government and electing one with such fundamentally different ideology and political approach, the US actually has an advantage over other nations.

The Biden administration would restore the vigour of US alliances and multilateral institutions. Here, the damage inflicted by Mr Trump is not irreversible. Without exception, US allies would welcome the renewed US attention and engagement with them.

To be sure, thanks to Mr Trump’s affronts, the European Union, led by France and Germany, have talked about “European sovereignty”, including greater self-reliance on security. Such talk will not disappear, but the rationale for this will be weaker if US reengages with its European allies through Nato and the EU. The EU itself faces multiple challenges which would stifle its search for security self-reliance. It can do with American support.

America’s Indo-Pacific allies, especially Japan, South Korea and Australia remain heavily dependent on the US security umbrella and would be relieved if, as the Biden administration likely pursues more positive and respectful relations with them. All indications are that Mr Biden’s foreign policy and security team would pursue a consultative approach toward US allies, especially when and where their interests are involved.

On the multilateral front, Mr Biden’s policy of returning the to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization would be universally welcomed. Regional organisations such as Asean would also expect a more positive relationship with the US.

The multilateral system faces a long-term structural crisis caused by financial difficulties, as well as demands for reform to make the UN more democratic and accountable.

These problems are beyond the capacity of any single nation to resolve, but having a sympathetic US leadership committed to liberal internationalism helps. Mr Trump rejected globalism in favour of patriotism and nationalism. No leader would reject patriotism, but Mr Biden is likely to find a way to reconcile nationalism with globalism.

To be sure, the US cannot bring back the golden years of its global primacy, nor can it bring back the liberal international order to its fullest extent. The emerging world order is going to be more pluralistic than it has been for the last few centuries.

But if Mr Biden could contain the pandemic and stabilise the US economy, while revitalising US engagement with the world through respect for international norms and global institutions, the US would reemerge as a very respected and influential player in the changing world order.


Top: US President Biden set to work at the Oval Office having been sworn in earlier on Wednesday at the US Capitol. In his initial acts as the 46th US president, he signed 15 executive orders – the first to boost the federal response to the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Reuters and published by BBC

Insert: US Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff attend a televised ceremony at the Lincoln Memorial on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Photo: Joshua Roberts-Pool/Getty Images and published by CNN


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