Governments all over the world are studying an article that appeared last January headlined — “Why America Must Lead Again”. The author is one Joe Biden.
Mr Biden’s essay for Foreign Affairs laments that the Trump administration has “abdicated American leadership”. It promises that “the Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table”.
But it is much easier for the president-elect to talk about re-establishing American leadership than actually to deliver. The US is not as powerful as it once was. Simply rejoining international groups — the World Health Organization or the Paris climate accord — does not put America “at the head of the table”. The cost of participating in international negotiations may be accepting compromise outcomes that are unpopular in Washington. Whether that is a price that US politicians and voters will accept is not clear.
In Washington, the terms “American-led world order”, “liberal world order” and “rules-based order” often seem to be used interchangeably. That confusion is understandable. The post-second world war order was essentially designed by the US. There is a reason that the IMF and World Bank are based in Washington and the UN in New York. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 only strengthened US hegemony.
Donald Trump came to power in 2016, claiming that international bodies such as the World Trade Organization no longer worked for America. The US had been hoodwinked and “globalists” were impoverishing ordinary Americans, he said. Strip away the Trumpian hyperbole and paranoia and there was a real point underneath the rhetoric. In a world in which power is more evenly distributed, a rules-based order and a US-led world are not the same thing.
That unresolved tension runs through the Biden approach to international affairs. In his Foreign Affairs article, Mr Biden asserts that “the US must lead the world” on climate change and promises that America will “convene a summit of the world’s major carbon emitters”. The single largest emitter is China. It seems highly unlikely that Beijing will meekly agree to show up at a US-convened summit — at which Mr Biden promises to “lock in enforceable commitments that will reduce emissions”.
Realistically, China and many others, will insist that the only proper forum for climate negotiations are UN-sponsored talks. Fortunately for the Biden administration, the next UN climate conference, COP26, will be chaired by a friendly country — the UK. Even so, the president-elect’s promise of enforceable commitments on emission-reduction may not be deliverable — not least in the US itself. America’s negotiating partners will know that Congress is likely to have the final say over any US promises. With the Republicans probably still in control of the Senate, the Biden administration would struggle to deliver.
Similar problems threaten to hobble the new president’s pledge that America will lead on trade. Mr Biden promises to resist “a dangerous global slide towards protectionism”. But he knows that Mr Trump’s hostility towards free trade strikes a chord with many American voters. The suspicion of new trade deals crosses party lines. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was forced to repudiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a far-reaching trade deal that she had helped to negotiate, because of hostility within her own Democratic party.
Mr Biden’s solution is to promise that “labour and environmental leaders” will be “at the table” from the beginning of any future American trade negotiations. But that could slow progress towards new trade deals to a crawl. Meanwhile, the world is moving on. This past weekend leaders from 15 Asia-Pacific nations — including Japan, China and South Korea — signed one of the largest free-trade deals in history. Mr Biden and his team talk a good game about rallying America’s friends to push back against China. But new facts are already being created on the ground.
The president-elect’s stress on working with allies, rather than confronting and abusing them as Mr Trump did, is clearly a good idea. But a more friendly American attitude is no guarantee of success — even in Europe.
The EU is pressing ahead with plans to increase regulation and taxation of US tech groups, such as Google and Amazon. The Biden administration, like the Trump administration, is likely to oppose many of these efforts. An early row over tech taxes or regulation could deflate hopes that a new age of transatlantic comity is at hand — or that “American leadership” is an easy answer to difficult problems of global governance.
John Ikenberry, a Princeton academic, who coined the phrase, the “liberal international order”, suggests in a new book that the idea of liberal internationalism needs to be separated from American hegemony. He argues that for the US, “in an era of declining American power, the value of co-operation with other liberal democracies should grow”. That is probably true. But it may be an easier argument to win in Princeton than in Washington, where sovereignty is still zealously guarded.
Mr Biden will find it hard to persuade Americans that the US can benefit from international engagement, without automatically taking the leadership role. But — on the plus side — America will no longer be actively destroying global institutions. That is reason enough for huge relief.