Two notable events took place in the United States on 13 January. First, Joe Biden announced he intended to nominate Samantha Power to head the US Agency for International Development. Power, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her 2003 book about failed Western responses to genocide, A Problem from Hell, and served as US ambassador to the United Nations under Barack Obama, is not universally popular. She is an ardent liberal interventionist and many criticised her support for military action in Libya, Syria and Yemen. Still, in choosing such an experienced foreign policy practitioner, and in elevating her role – she will also sit on the National Security Council – Biden was making another announcement, too. He was sending a clear message that the US, under his leadership, will take seriously its role as provider of international civilian aid and development assistance, in sharp contrast to the Trump era of cutting and politicising aid.
That was the morning of 13 January. In the afternoon – one week after an angry mob of Donald Trump supporters, convinced by their president that the election had been stolen, stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC – the House of Representatives impeached Trump for a second time. He was charged with “inciting an insurrection”. Though only ten House Republican representatives voted for impeachment, it has been called “the most bipartisan” impeachment vote in US history, and forms a striking contrast to Trump’s first impeachment, in December 2019, which not a single House Republican supported.
Following the riot, thousands of National Guard troops from various states were quartered in the Capitol Building to protect Congress. There are currently more American soldiers in DC than there are on the ground in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Joe Biden has declared that “America is back” and has assembled a group of veteran foreign policy hands, such as Jake Sullivan, who will be his national security adviser; Antony Blinken, his nominee for secretary of state; and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, his nominee for US ambassador to the UN, all of whom served in the Obama administration. Biden has also vowed to rejoin international treaties and alliances – including the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear capability – partner with other democracies to counter the threat of authoritarianism, and craft a foreign policy that works for the world and for ordinary Americans.
But, even assuming he has the best-laid foreign policy plans and the most proficient advisory team available, is it possible for Biden to restore the US’s global standing after four years of Trump?
Trump’s presidency has thrown the administrative state into chaos, polarised the nation, spread misinformation, gravely botched the federal response to the pandemic, and sought to erode public confidence in democracy and overturn the election he lost. Since March 2020 around 400,000 Americans have died from Covid-19, and the US is the world’s worst affected country in terms of case and death numbers. America’s reputation as global leader and the gatekeeper of liberal democracy is destroyed. This is Biden’s burden in the week he became the 46th president of the United States, at the age of 78.
The new president’s expertise is in foreign policy. He spent more than a decade as either chairman or a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before becoming Barack Obama’s vice-president, in which capacity he was known as the “point person” on Ukraine. Blinken and Sullivan are familiar names from that period, as are other members of his National Security Council. Jon Finer, who will be the principal deputy national security adviser, also served in the Obama White House. Wendy Sherman, who negotiated the Iran nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from, will likely serve as Blinken’s deputy.
Yet for all Biden’s foreign policy experience, and for all the depth and expertise of the team he’s assembling, the incoming administration’s most pressing issues are domestic: a worsening pandemic; rising unemployment; systemic inequality; and intense anger, inflamed and dangerously channelled by misinformation, polarisation and the spread of conspiracy theories.
But Biden cannot afford to be consumed by tribulations at home, despite Trump’s efforts – in word if not always in deed – to cut ties with much of the rest of the world. With nearly 800 military bases spread across more than 70 countries, and the dollar still the world’s reserve currency, the US remains too powerful and overextended for foreign policy to be a secondary issue.
“Allies still look to American direction,” according to Olga Oliker, the Europe and Central Asia programme director of the International Crisis Group, an NGO specialising in resolving deadly conflict.
Even US adversaries benefit from a Washington that isn’t too introspective, and that includes a serious geopolitical rival, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russians, by and large, “liked the chaos” of the Trump years, Oliker told me. “But if you’re Russia and you measure yourself against the United States… If the Americans are in chaos, what have you got?”
Trump has done tremendous damage to the international reputation of the US and its alliances over the past four years. According to a survey published in September by the Pew Research Center, the share of the public with a positive view of the US in the 13 countries surveyed is as low as it has been for nearly two decades. American standing was so low in the final days of the Trump administration that, following the assault on the Capitol, the foreign minister of Luxembourg and senior EU officials declined to meet Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
Making amends with America’s traditional partners will therefore be a primary concern. The US’s relationship with Europe – the EU and United Kingdom – is also essential, said Rachel Rizzo, the director of programmes at the Truman Security Project, a progressive national security NGO in Washington, DC. Biden has pledged to rejoin the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement – two treaties to which the US committed to under Obama, and withdrew from under Trump. “Biden’s win allows Europeans to breathe at least a temporary sigh of relief,” Rizzo said.
Foreign policy will be crucial to the success of Biden’s presidency not only in terms of restoring the US’s reputation and the stability of the international order, but because of its impact at home. The forever wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere, trade deals that prioritised huge corporations over workers, and a foreign policy establishment that largely failed to protect ordinary Americans from the destabilising forces of globalisation have created enormous economic anxiety, social alienation and disenchantment with, and distrust of, technocratic elites. These forces in turn enabled Trump.
The Biden camp understands this, at least rhetorically. His new national security adviser Jake Sullivan, in particular, has made the case that foreign policy must benefit working people. This is different from Trump’s “America First” rhetoric. Rather than blaming foreign competition for job losses, the goal, said Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to the Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, is “to promote a constructive, unifying vision – a foreign policy that actually delivers for Americans”.
He pointed specifically to trade, and the need for policies that protect American industry and innovation. Biden has said he won’t immediately remove tariffs on Chinese goods: he is determined to confront a range of unfair or coercive Chinese economic and trade policies. Biden’s team also realises that an unwillingness to coordinate a crackdown – both domestic and global – on tax avoidance and evasion has helped the world’s wealthiest, at the expense of many Americans.
There is perhaps no more pressing foreign policy concern for the incoming administration than climate change. This will require concerted, bold global coordination; recommitting to the Paris Agreement is merely a preliminary step – “kindergarten”, as Senator Cory Booker described it in a Democratic primary debate in 2019.
The planet cannot afford another four years of the world’s second largest carbon emitter failing to address the urgent imperative of greening its economy. Or, as Trump did, refusing to acknowledge the crisis altogether while rolling back emissions regulations and supporting the fossil-fuel industry. Climate change is a global issue. But the consequences of America’s actions – such as extreme weather and natural disasters – are local. If the US fails to contribute to the international effort to address climate change, through a combination of foreign and domestic policy, Americans, particularly the most marginalised, will suffer.
The global credibility of the United States depends, to a large extent, on how effectively the Biden administration can steer the US through its economic and health crises, and restore faith in democratic institutions. There are certain areas over which US authority has been severely undermined, and is unlikely to be restored in the short term. “I think that there was a lot of hope on the part of some in the Biden camp and in the Democratic foreign policy establishment more generally that a new administration would be able to shine a light on various aspects of democratic backsliding,” Milan Vaishnav, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s South Asia programme, told me. And then came the storming of the Capitol. “However diminished our moral high ground was before 6 January, it’s kind of gone up in smoke,” Vaishnav added.
There was reason to believe that Biden might try to speak out about the crisis of democracy in India – an increasingly important US partner, especially in the geopolitical context of China’s influence in Asia. Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, which has worked to push through a policy that could strip millions of Muslims of their Indian citizenship, has resisted lectures from the Americans on human rights issues. And it has had its case “further bolstered” by recent events in Washington, DC, Vaishnav said.
Biden’s plans for a “partnership of democracies” will be further complicated if, in response to four years of Trump, progressives become more emboldened to speak out against injustices in partner democracies such as India in order to reaffirm the US’s commitment to democracy and human rights. That does not mean the security or even the trade relationship between India and the US will be affected, but it does complicate the kind of robust, values-based approach Biden favours.
“I’ve never been a big fan of lecturing people on democracy and good governance in general,” said Olga Oliker. “You’re absolutely being hypocritical when you’re telling people do as we say and not as we do.” And perhaps it is no bad thing that American exceptionalism has been exposed for what it is: a self-serving myth.
The credibility of US foreign policy will depend on the extent to which Biden can depoliticise international affairs at home, and on whether he can convince partners that the US won’t revert to America First nationalism in 2024. But more than that, the US needs to practise good governance at home. “The lesson we can take,” said Sarah Repucci, the vice-president of research and analysis at Freedom House, a US-government-funded NGO, “is the same lesson that’s valid anywhere. Democracy needs to be cared for and fostered if it’s going to flourish, otherwise it’s going to backslide.”
Repucci said that the Biden administration must strive to uphold the values of the constitution for all Americans. “Most prominently, for people of colour and especially black Americans who have been discriminated against and face really unequal justice in this country. I think we need to seriously examine some of the norms that have held our leaders accountable but have not been institutionalised in law.”
There is no easy solution for reforming American democracy, but as a starting point, the Biden government should tackle gerrymandering – since 2000, and especially since 2010, the Republican Party has managed to redraw electoral boundaries to its advantage.
“That, combined with the party primary system, has brought a lot of people to Congress who are really not representative of the American public as a whole,” Sarah Repucci said. “That has impeded our democracy in a lot of different ways and is really a priority to address.”
Reckoning with the past four years is a priority, too. There may be a temptation to move on to other issues, including restoring the US’s standing in the world. But its global reputation depends on contending with its own democracy and the forces that brought it to its parlous current state.
“Everyone in the world saw what happened. They saw an armed mob take over the Capitol,” Representative Ami Bera, a Democrat from California who sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told me. “I think it is important for the rest of the world, if we want to be a leading democracy, to see those perpetrating the insurrection held accountable. That includes the president of the United States.”
Representative Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Texas, a Democrat who also sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was one of the members of Congress tasked with managing the second impeachment of Trump. “The world is watching and wondering whether our country will work the way that it should,” he said. “That’s why holding the people responsible for the insurrection and attempted coup is so important.”
After the disgrace of the Trump presidency, Biden’s burden is nothing less than restoring US democracy at home and its reputation in the world. The domestic crisis will dramatically impact how seriously US foreign policy is taken by others; its foreign policy, in turn, will need to support and prioritise the aspirations of the American people.
Nationalist populism isn’t going away soon, and neither is white supremacy. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are,” Joe Biden said. But those scenes were at least a part of what America is. Biden’s team of foreign policy stalwarts is America; the man waving a Confederate flag in Congress is America, too.
But who and what America is, or can be, is not set; it is mutable. In the short term, it depends on the Biden administration creating a domestic agenda and foreign policy platform based on accountability, equity and justice for all. “There’s no question that we will be met at times with scepticism, resistance, doubt,” Castro told me. “You can’t wish it away. You just have to make sure that our system is respecting the rule of law – and with a new president undoing a lot of the damage that Trump has done.”
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden