Just recently, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made the rather embarrassing announcement that various European leaders had cancelled their meetings with him. In the wake of the January 6th insurrection, various politicians from across the world have commented on the status of America. Dictatorships have poked fun at the political crisis, touting their own authoritarian branding as a joke. Staunch allies have given cautious remarks, demonstrating a worried perspective on America’s future trajectory.
Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau was “deeply disturbed and saddened by the attack on democracy” he had witnessed. German Prime Minister Merkel noted that what she saw “made [her] angry and also sad,” explaining that all parties “have to play their role with decency and responsibility so that democracy itself remains the winner.” Turkish officials, on the other hand, made light of the situation, claiming that it “invites all parties in [the] US to use moderation, common sense to overcome this domestic political crisis.” As a whole, it’s become clear that our allies and our enemies have lost respect for our nation, and the events of January 6th herald a restructuring in America’s foreign relations.
However, this was not the fault of a single event. The collapse in America’s international presence comes at the back end of over four years of isolationist and xenophobic rhetoric. The focus on “America First'' has left our allies with broken promises and caustic remarks. Obligations to NATO and the United Nations have faltered, while bilateral support to nations like France and South Korea has diminished. By focusing on ourselves, we have shunned the world, and only made things worse off. At the same time, the Trump Administration has pandered to brutal dictators and autocrats, giving tacit permission to Turkish president Erdogan and Philippine president Duterte to commit horrible acts of violence and repression. The international image of the United States, already strained in its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has become marred by an inconsistent approach that seems to benefit ideologues while shunning allies.
At the same time, the world has not stayed quiet. In the wake of America’s absence, international developments have marched at pace. President-elect Joe Biden will have a daunting and vastly important job. We’ve already seen countless articles describing Joe Biden’s challenges in restoring international confidence in America and in revitalizing our bonds with key allies. We’ve heard pundits and analysts urge Biden to toughen America’s position on dictators and tyrants. These are important goals, but there are individual facets worth examining. The Trump administration has radically altered the global landscape, and it’s worth assessing some of the specific issues that will challenge Joe Biden.
Legacies and Ghosts
President-elect Joe Biden will be entering office with the legacy of former president Barack Obama. This pedigree is both a blessing and a curse. During Obama’s tenure, Biden was at the forefront of the administration’s foreign affairs. He met with many foreign leaders and advised Obama during a number of international crises. He demonstrated his years of experience in the Senate Foreign Relations committee, and as Vice President, he navigated the tough waters of the global economic crisis, the Arab Spring, and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, to name just a few. It is certain that our allies will be grateful for Biden’s leadership. Our enemies, meanwhile, will have to be cautious.
However, his many years of experience give critics of Biden a wide selection of attacks to choose from. Many have criticized Obama’s handling of Iraq and Afghanistan. Others have decried Obama’s drone policies in places like Yemen or his continued operations of Guantanamo Bay. These critiques are often applied onto Biden by virtue of association.
This consideration is important. Joe Biden will enter the Presidency with a world order that is fractured and an international community vastly different than the one he engaged in during his time as Vice President. To face these challenges, Biden cannot act as a carbon copy of his tenure during the Obama years. We have seen key picks for his cabinet that highlight his readiness to face these challenges. He has picked individuals like Lloyd Austin and Anthony Blinken, individuals with a documented history of expertise and experience in the realm of international relations. Biden’s cabinet and his years of experience will be instrumental in facing the challenges to come in the international community.
Peacekeeping in a Conflicted World
The world today is not the same as the world left behind by Barack Obama. The Trump Administration gave rhetorical and direct support to autocrats and dictators. Donald Trump attempted to broker deals with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-un in 2018. Trump has called Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man known for the jailing of activists and reporters, as his “dear friend.” From the Philippines to Egypt, the Trump Administration’s support for these autocratic leaders has hurt American legitimacy and devastated the international liberal order.
At the same time, the Trump Administration’s focus on “America First” has resulted in a proliferation of protectionist and nativist policies. These included the “Muslim travel ban,” the still incomplete wall on the Mexican border, and the trade war with China. However, these particular events manifested in an international community that had radically changed. With America abandoning its post as the international peacekeeper and as the defender of the liberal order, conflict and chaos spread across the world.
In 2020 alone, we saw the rise of ethnic strife in Ethiopia, acts of aggression in Western Sahara, and outright warfare between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Other powers have used this lapse to stake their own positions. Russia acted as a mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh War while also continuing to meddle in a variety of European elections. China, meanwhile, launched scathing rhetorical and cyber attacks on Australia, a key ally of ours, while threatening other allies like Taiwan. Human rights have been routinely abused, and worldwide, autocracies have only grown in strength.
Biden’s foreign policy platform seeks to redress the Trump Administration’s failures. Biden has committed to restoring American leadership and to adhering once more to the international liberal order. He has talked about supporting allies, reengaging in bilateral and multilateral agreements, and acting in good faith in institutions like the United Nations and NATO. At the same time, Biden understands that more must be done. The Trump Administration demonstrated to the world the shortsightedness of American foreign policy. Allies and enemies became aware of America’s propensity toward radical agenda shifts every four to eight years.
To that end, Biden has focused his agenda on committing to long-lasting change. This means strengthening America’s own democracy and its focus on the rights of immigrants. This means strong economic policies that will restore domestic faith in the international community and free trade. This means working with domestic and international partners to address climate change and other global problems. Biden’s foreign policy is about renewing “American leadership to mobilize global action on global threats.” The road will be tough. The stain of the previous administration will be hard to wipe away, but Biden has the opportunity to carve a new path for the United States that fosters a more inclusive and peaceful international community.