With a few notable exceptions, such as Russia and Israel, President Joe Biden – partly by dint of simply not being Donald Trump – will be widely welcomed on the international stage.
America’s traditional allies in Europe and Asia who have had to take four years of abuse and having their interests undermined by the Trump administration will be particularly relieved to see tomorrow’s inauguration of Joseph R Biden as the 46th President of the United States.
Even China’s leaders, while not expecting Biden to be a push over, will probably welcome a return to greater predictability and pragmatism in Washington.
But what the world needs to see from the US following four years of “America First” is also some humility.
Instead what we got when Biden announced his new foreign policy team on Twitter was this
While Biden acknowledges the world faces challenges which can’t be tackled without international cooperation, his emphasis is on “restoring American leadership”.
There’s no doubt Biden’s Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, will be a breath of fresh air after the bombast and ideologically-driven confrontation of Mike Pompeo’s tenure.
But while Blinken, who was Deputy Secretary of State under President Obama, is erudite, steeped in world affairs, speaks fluent French and believes in international cooperation and the multilateral system, he is also steeped in the traditional assumption of American foreign policy practitioners that the US must – and should – always lead. He is a believer in American exceptionalism and that leaves little room for humility.
In a 2015 speech, apparently forgetting the US’s long record of destructive military interventions, he said the world always turns to the US for leadership “because we strive to the best of our ability to align our actions with our principles, and because American leadership has a unique ability to mobilise others and to make a difference”
Last year, he told the Hudson Institute that US leadership in international institutions is essential, saying, “There is a premium still, and in some ways, even more than before, on American engagement, on American leadership”. He also argued that the world’s democracies need “leadership from the United States, playing the role that it played before, as the leader of the free world.”
This intellectual baggage makes it unlikely we are going to see a more humble US under President Biden, yet we need to.
For one thing, with its dysfunctional politics, the US foisted four years of Trump on the world and it is not churlish to expect for that alone the new administration should at least try to sound chastened.
More significantly, the world has changed from that unipolar moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union and America’s overwhelming victory in the Gulf War. China is now a serious rival and the European Union an economic powerhouse.
It is past time American leaders, Democrat or Republican, paid more than lip service to this geopolitical reality.
Biden and his new foreign policy team are right to say the world faces challenges – the COVID pandemic, the climate crisis and the rampant destruction of nature among them – that no one nation can face alone. But what the world needs is for the US to rejoin international efforts to face those challenges, not to attempt to reassert American leadership.
After all, it was that leadership since 1945 that has shaped the world we live in – with all those challenges.
The pandemic has wreaked enormous human and economic damage, but it has also presented a glimpse of what can be achieved when people work together for a common goal. The first lockdowns saw carbon emissions and pollution fall, allowing people to see that rapid improvements in air and water quality are possible. There has also been a realisation from governments, business and civil society that we as we recover from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to “build back better”, be that by making economic stimulus packages both socially just and green or by strengthening health systems.
In short, we should not just go back to business as usual and part of that means taking a more equitable and collaborative approach to international relations where countries work in partnership and no one country, however powerful, assumes it should lead.
It may be hard to be humble, but it what’s the world needs now (apologies to fans of trite American songs).