Joe Biden’s US must act like a new leader, not a returning one


The writer is chief executive of the New America think-tank and an FT contributing editor

Five sentences. That is all Joe Biden devoted to foreign policy in this week’s 21-minute inaugural address. Moreover, one of them, borrowed from Barack Obama and tracing back in spirit to Thomas Jefferson, was, “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example” — which means fixing things at home. This came from a new US president who has travelled the world, chaired the Senate foreign relations committee and is on a first-name basis with scores of global leaders.

He got the balance right. US power and influence abroad ultimately will depend on his ability to bring the nation together; repair its infrastructure, health and education systems; restore public trust in democracy; and close the yawning gaps of race and class. Given this, the question is where Mr Biden and his experienced foreign policy team should focus their limited time and attention.

Step one, as Mr Biden acknowledged, is “to repair our alliances and engage with the world once again”. He began making good on this promise with a flurry of executive orders: rejoining the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, and seeking a five-year extension of an important US-Russian arms control treaty. Mr Biden will also be taking calls with many heads of state and government in the coming days, affirming that America can once again be trusted as a reliable ally and partner.

Overall, however, the US needs to do more listening than talking. Secretary of state-designate Antony Blinken will probably make a global reassurance tour, but he should act as if America is a new leader rather than a returning one. As Nicholas Stern noted on the politics of climate change back in November, “It’s not simply that the [US] is a world leader who took four years off and it just picks up again. The world has moved on and it has been moving on for a long time.” The new world is one that “has the US, China, EU and India at centre stage”.

The Biden team must think hard about how to lead in this world and start from the presumption that the US is no longer an indispensable power. Their best move would be to turn to the EU. One of the greatest contributions America could make to global peace and prosperity is to stop thinking of Europe as 27 separate capitals and instead work with Brussels towards a true transatlantic coalition that would include nearly 800m people; about one-third of the global economy; a vast diplomatic and cultural network; and a set of shared aspirational values.

Mr Biden should thus move quickly to accept European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s proposal for “a new transatlantic agenda”. China has just completed and investment treaty with the EU; polls taken by the European Council on Foreign Relations show large majorities across 11 European countries predicting that China will probably “be a stronger power than the US” within 10 years. 

Mr Biden should fast-track negotiations for a US-EU agreement that should cover not only trade and investment issues, but also deep co-operation on going green, a shared commitment to racial and gender justice and a framework for governing the digital world. Many countries, led by China and Russia, are proclaiming their digital sovereignty, creating a splinternet. If the US and the EU could agree on common rules and norms for an open and secure internet that safeguards digital rights, they would lay the foundation for a new 21st-century order.

Finally, Mr Biden should prioritise global issues over great power competition. Congress and some of his own advisers are naturally focused on countries and regions. But Mr Biden’s domestic emphasis on climate and health, issues where he seeks solutions that can also power a strong and sustainable economy, should guide his foreign policy as well. 

Mr Biden needs no persuading on climate change. His first batch of appointments included John Kerry as climate envoy for national security. In addition to rejoining the Paris agreement, he has already cancelled permits for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed to transport Canadian crude oil to US refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

Global health diplomacy is just as important to combat the pandemic. As the virus that causes Covid-19 mutates, national vaccine strategies alone will not work. If developing countries remain locked down or in economic collapse, the global economy cannot recover. Moreover, health diplomacy advances US interests relative to its rivals: George W Bush’s launch of a special presidential fund to combat the HIV-Aids pandemic accomplished more for America’s reputation in Africa than many direct efforts to combat Chinese influence on the continent.

If history is any guide, no matter what priorities Mr Biden sets, the world will get in the way. North Korea could launch a missile; Vladimir Putin could create a crisis to distract Russians from Alexei Navalny’s anti-corruption drive; China can and will tighten the vice on Hong Kong. The Middle East is still full of surprises, and Venezuela is becoming a failed state. When the crisis comes, Mr Biden will respond with strength and competence. In setting his own course, however, he must pick his shots.


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