Americans before allies: Biden’s limited multilateralism

Biden’s approach to multilateralism is driven by his sense of what American voters and elected representatives in Congress will tolerate

Joe Biden gives a thumbs up to the news media and onlookers as he and first lady Jill Biden ride bikes
Image by Kevin Lamarque

US President Joe Biden comes to Europe this week eager to show that the United States is back as a supporter of multilateralism. At the G7 summit and meetings with NATO and the European Union, Biden will reaffirm America’s commitment to work with its closest allies on a host of pressing international problems. Biden has already broken with the Trump years by supporting multilateral processes and institutions such as the COVAX vaccine initiative and the Paris Agreement on climate change. But the early months of Biden’s presidency have also shown that his approach to multilateralism is shaped by his administration’s core priorities, which impose clear limits on his readiness to cooperate with America’s closest allies.

Biden’s main concern is to show that US foreign policy can provide tangible benefits to ordinary Americans. This objective is driven by the polarised nature of US politics and a wider perception that American democracy is imperilled. Biden has the narrowest of governing margins in the Senate. And he knows that a populist-dominated Republican Party will seize any chance to argue that he is prioritising the interests of a globalist elite above those of working Americans. Biden and his advisers believe they must reconnect America’s actions abroad (and at home) to the interests of middle-class voters or risk further alienation of the US people from their political system. Beyond this, Biden has made it abundantly clear that he sees democratic countries as fundamentally threatened by an increasingly assertive and authoritarian China. To prevail in this global competition, the US and its allies need to show that their system of governance can outperform China’s authoritarianism, and to thwart China’s attempts to reshape the international order to its benefit.

This set of goals determines the way that the Biden administration approaches multilateral cooperation. Where there is a conflict between the perceived interests of American voters and a more global vision of the common good, Biden will put his people first. This was particularly evident in his approach to covid-19 vaccines. Since taking office, Biden has presided over a gigantic surge in vaccine production in the US, with almost all doses reserved for domestic use. “We’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but we’re then going to try to help the rest of the world”, he said in March. Biden also maintained the Trump-era policy of directing American producers of vaccine inputs to supply domestic pharmaceutical companies before foreign manufacturers, leading to delays in the production of some vaccines overseas. Only when the number of vaccines produced in America began to exceed the number of people waiting to be vaccinated did Biden unveil a large-scale plan to share vaccines with countries in greater need.

Biden’s decision to support a waiver of intellectual property (IP) rules on covid-19 vaccines, which caught Europeans off guard, was a by-product of this approach. According to news reports, a key motive for the move was that it would be a low-risk way of signalling concern for the plight of low- and middle-income countries, and would ease political pressure for the US to release vaccine doses. Whatever the benefits of an IP waiver in the long term, European policymakers rightly saw Biden’s initiative as fundamentally political. When Biden announced in May that his administration was launching a plan to scale up vaccine production, he specified that most of the capacity this added would be in the US, so that the effort “creates jobs here at home and saves lives abroad”. By contrast, while the EU has invested in increasing capacity in Europe, it has also announced a €1 billion plan focused on building up vaccine manufacturing in Africa.

Multilateralism is not an end in itself but a method of gaining other benefits

Biden’s focus on prioritising the perceived interests of working Americans extends to his approach to trade more broadly. He overturned Donald Trump’s policy of blocking the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as head of the World Trade Organization (WTO). But Biden has left Trump’s trade tariffs in place, even though many of them violate the spirit – if not the letter – of WTO rules. Biden’s trade representative, Katherine Tai, said that tariffs were a legitimate tool to counter Beijing’s state-capitalist approach and suggested that they gave the US leverage in trade negotiations with China. The Biden administration says its China trade policy is currently undergoing a “top to bottom” review.

European officials would like to revive discussions with the US on how to address China’s state-centred economic model within the WTO, but they are becoming frustrated by what they see as a lack of interest and engagement from Biden’s team. Trade policy is an awkward issue for Biden, because many of the middle-class voters whose support he is trying to retain are suspicious of international trade agreements. Yet his ambition to mobilise a global coalition against China implies an effort to strengthen economic ties between democratic allies, especially with those in Asia. Trump was happy to pursue a unilateral approach to economic rivalry with China, though he has strikingly little to show for it. Biden has a more complicated set of objectives to reconcile with one another. In the meantime, he has also set up his own “Buy American” programme for federal government procurement, to the dismay of some trade-oriented economists.

On climate, another European priority, Biden embraced multilateralism by rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day in office and hosting a global summit on Earth Day (22 April). But, again, his approach is driven by his sense of what American voters and elected representatives in Congress will tolerate. This means that he plans to cut emissions through investment in green technology and renewable energy rather than by deterring Americans from burning fossil fuels through a tax on carbon. That could create tensions with the EU if the bloc moves ahead with its planned carbon border tax, a measure that the Biden administration has tried hard to discourage.

In other ways, though, Biden’s agenda creates new opportunities for EU-US cooperation. His tilt towards working Americans and away from multinational corporations has led the US to support a landmark deal on corporate taxation with its G7 partners. Biden genuinely believes that the US needs to compete with China, but he also sees this as a way to persuade Americans to adopt a global perspective. While Europeans may blanch at some of Biden’s anti-China rhetoric, they can welcome his interest in increasing cooperation between like-minded democracies to define tech standards and build up global infrastructure, and to work together in sanctioning Beijing’s violations of human rights. Now that large numbers of Americans have been vaccinated, it should be possible to coordinate on an initiative to increase deliveries of doses to lower- and middle-income countries. Biden is committed to the Western security alliance in a way that Trump never appeared to be (even if the new administration’s recent announcement of a deadline for withdrawal from Afghanistan displayed America’s familiar habit of acting without consulting its NATO allies).

Europeans may be tempted to decry some of Biden’s policies as “America first” multilateralism, but they should resist the impulse to act superior. The fact that pharmaceutical firms based in Europe exported vaccines while those in America did not is more a reflection of the limited number of advance purchase agreements that the EU concluded than of any enlightened approach. More broadly, multilateralism is not an end in itself but a method of gaining other benefits. America’s conception of international cooperation is inevitably shaped by its situation, interests, and political culture. It would hardly help Europe’s efforts to promote global cooperation if Trump’s Republican Party regained control of Congress, let alone the White House. Given that he has beaten Trump once, Biden has a reasonable claim to know what he needs to do to retain popular support for his vision of internationalism. European leaders should welcome opportunities for cooperation with Biden but not hesitate to take their own approach to multilateralism when their interests lead in a different direction.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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