In capitals across the globe, America’s allies have penned lengthy wishlists for president-elect Joe Biden. They want the new administration to refurbish alliances, rejoin the Paris climate change accord, re-engage in nuclear talks with Iran, re-establish clear terms of engagement with Beijing and Moscow and respect global trade rules. That’s just a start.
Most of the ideas sound sensible enough. They are not entirely selfish. Mr Biden has spoken eloquently about how the US national interest is best served when it assumes international leadership and acts as a convener of like-minded democracies.
That said, to look at the next four years as an exercise in ticking the right foreign policy boxes would be to miss the significance of the Biden presidency. There is far more at stake than whether Washington is going to be nice to Nato.
America’s retreat from global engagement began before Donald Trump’s presidency — and could well continue after. Its roots lie in popular disenchantment with the idea that the US is the world’s police officer, and with a strong strand of protectionist opinion, mirrored across the aisle in Congress, that says it can do better by turning inwards.
Foreign policy, in the eyes of many Americans, has become something practised by the elites for the elites. The danger is that the country is on the edge of a generational shift to isolationism comparable to that seen in the 1920s and 1930s. This is what other western democracies that rely on the US for their security should be worrying about.
There is a fair chance that Mr Trump’s complicity in the insurrection at the Capitol has scuppered his hopes of running again. The outgoing president has begun to look toxic even for some of his most craven supporters in the Republican party.
The US, though, has a deeper problem with far-right extremism in mainly white, working-class communities. If the Democrats want to hold on to power, Mr Biden needs to detach the economically insecure and disaffected from these nativists and conspiracy theorists.
The first task now for an internationalist president is to make a success of domestic — and domestic means economic — policy.
To borrow the familiar adage, if the US wants leadership abroad, it has to be strong at home. Mr Biden inherits an economy ravaged by an out-of-control Covid pandemic that has cost millions of jobs and laid low countless small businesses.
The important foreign policy decisions in his first two years will be about the size and shape of his fiscal stimulus plan (it has to be big) and his promised programme of infrastructure investment. These things take time, but voters notice when foundations are being dug.
Some might call this an America-first foreign policy. For Mr Trump this was a powerful but ultimately empty slogan. For Mr Biden it would reconnect the interests of its citizens with America’s conduct on the global stage.
Popularising foreign policy is not easy. The ties between geopolitics and personal security are not always obvious. Losers from trade deals are rarely comforted by the fact that they may have produced big gains for the economy overall. Globalisation looks too much like a rich person’s game.
Washington foreign policy experts, a report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes, “crave neat organising principles”. They think in terms of “grand strategy”. But the vast majority of Americans “are more concerned with proximate threats to their physical and economic security”. Trade deals that disrupt traditional industries need to be closely connected to local economic regeneration programmes.
The report has some good advice for the incoming administration. Given that Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s prospective national security adviser, was among the authors, it should also be assured of a hearing in the Oval Office.
The days of foreign adventurism — wars of choice in the Middle East — are over. The middle classes, the authors note, want the US to exercise power but to do so judiciously. None of the present mainstream approaches to foreign policy — post-cold war liberal internationalism, America-first unilateralism, or the elevation over military power of progressive policies towards climate change, social justice and the like — fit the bill.
The report’s answer is an approach that builds on a stronger, fairer economy and harnesses foreign policy to “less ambitious” ends. Consistency and trust count for more than grand ambitions. It all sounds less than heroic. But then the city on the hill has lost quite a lot of its shine.
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