President Biden’s Foreign Policy Challenge: Revive World Order and Restore America’s Image

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

Amitav Acharya

[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 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 world order, or what pundits call the liberal international order, which was created and led by the US since World War II.

Sand sculpture by renowned artist Sudarsan Patnaik @sudarsansand
on Puri beach, Odisha, India. Source: https://twitter.com/sudarsansand/status/1351756891039232003

The Liberal International Order was founded on a combination of globalization, including free trade, and multilateralism. 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. Trump was able to exploit the backlash against globalization 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 Covid-19 pandemic hit, Trump condemned global supply chains – a key driver of globalization – as a threat to US national self-reliance on medical products. 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 the WHO which favored US competitors such as China at the expense of the US.

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 a serious erosion of US prestige and credibility around the world. Just look at the US death toll from the COVID-19, which now stands at 400,000. Such a high toll was not inevitable, with proper policies and management. Trump’s incitement of the Capitol insurrection on Jan 6, 2021 has made the US appear unstable and made a mockery of the US democracy and rule of law.

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

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

Biden’s victory should also be a warning to the current populist leaders in Brazil, Philippines, Turkey, Hungary, Israel, Venezuela, Poland and even India. Moreover, while 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 Trump. Nor can one expect President Biden encouraging populist policies in democratic nations, as Trump did within the US itself and in the UK, when he embraced Boris Johnson and Brexit.

President 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, symbolize the new administration’s respect for diversity and multiculturalism.

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

If Biden he succeeds in ensuring economic restoration, then he will steal thee thunder from other powerful nations in the world.

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 Trump is not irreversible. Without exception, US allies would welcome renewed US attention and engagement with them. To be sure, thanks to Trump’s affronts, the EU, 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 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, Australia remain heavily dependent on US security umbrella and would be relieved if, as likely, the Biden administration, pursues a more positive and respectful relations with them. All indications are that Biden’s foreign policy and security team would pursue a consultative approach towards the US allies, especially when and where their interests and involved.

On the multilateral front, Biden’s policy of returning the to the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization would be universally welcome. Regional organizations such as ASEAN would also expect a more positive relationship with the US, after the snub of Trump years.

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. Trump rejected globalism in favour of patriotism and nationalism. No leader would reject patriotism, but President 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 restore the liberal international order to its fullest previous extent. The emerging world order is going to be more pluralistic, “multiplex”, or less US- and West-dominated than it has been for the past few centuries. But if Biden can contain the pandemic and stabilize the US economy, while revitalizing 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.

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