What will President Biden’s United States look like to the rest of the world?
The future of a diminished superpower now lies in being part of a wider network of democracies
What is the best the world can now hope for from the United States under President Joe Biden, now that the election has been called for him? My answer: that the US will be a leading country in a post-hegemonic network of democracies.
Yes, that’s a, not the leading country. Quite a contrast to the beginning of this century, when the “hyperpower” US seemed to bestride the globe like a colossus. The downsizing has two causes: the US’s decline, and others’ rise. Even if Biden had won a landslide victory and the Democrats controlled the Senate, the United States’ power in the world would be much diminished. President Donald Trump has done untold damage to its international reputation. His disastrous record on handling covid-19 confirmed a widespread sense of a society with deep structural problems, from healthcare, race and infrastructure to media-fuelled hyper-polarisation and a dysfunctional political system.
In a recent eupinions survey, more than half of those asked across the European Union found democracy in the US to be “ineffective”. And that was before Trump denounced as “fraud” the process of simply counting all the votes cast in an election. When the US lectures other countries on democracy these days, the politest likely answer is: “Physician, heal thyself!”. Even compared with the grim period of Vietnam and Watergate, this must be an all-time low for American soft power.
Europe has many problems of its own, but set against the record of US regress over the last 20 years, our European story looks like triumphal progress.
Europe has many problems of its own, but set against the record of US regress over the last 20 years, our European story looks like triumphal progress. The same can be said for Australia, New Zealand, or Canada. Still more dramatic has been China’s rise, facilitated by years of American strategic distraction.
Even assuming that all legal challenges to his election will have been dealt with when the 46th president is inaugurated next January, he will face an almost bitterly divided country, an almost certainly divided government and a far from united Democratic Party. Thanks to Trump’s shameless mendacity, millions of Trump voters may not accept even the basic legitimacy of a Biden presidency. His ability to push through desperately needed structural reforms will be hampered, if not stymied, if the Republicans retain control of the Senate.
Fortunately for the rest of us, the area in which he will have most freedom of manoeuvre is foreign policy. Biden has immense personal foreign policy experience, as a former vice-president and before that, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee. He has an experienced foreign policy team. Members of that team identify their greatest strategic challenges as the “3 Cs”: Covid (including its global economic aftermath), climate change, and China. That is an agenda on which allies in Europe and Asia can happily engage. Rejoining the Paris climate agreement, which the US formally left on Wednesday, will be an important first step.
Nato remains essential for Europe’s security against an aggressive Russia, but the key to winning back disillusioned Europeans will be to offer a new quality of partnership to the European Union. Even before he becomes president, Biden might like to express his appreciation for the way the EU has kept the flag of liberal internationalism flying while the US under Trump was awol. His first presidential visit to the old continent should include the EU institutions in Brussels. (Perhaps an address to the European parliament?) A bipartisan reference back to President George HW Bush’s 1989 “partners in leadership” speech in Germany could be helpful, but applying it now to the entire EU. In this partnership of equals, the US will not always sit at the head of the table. That’s what I mean by “post-hegemonic”.
Europeans should do more for their own security, but Biden would be unwise to start by hammering away at the old “Spend 2 per cent of your GDP on defence” theme. The German strategic thinker Wolfgang Ischinger has suggested a good way to reframe the issue: think of it rather as 3 per cent on 3D – that is, defence, diplomacy and development. A self-styled “geopolitical” EU must assume a greater burden in its wider neighbourhood, which means to the south, across the Mediterranean to the Middle East and North Africa, and to the east, in relations with Belarus (currently in peaceful revolt), Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s aggressive but also fundamentally weak Russia.
A new emphasis on the EU will leave the ultra-Brexiters who dominate Boris Johnson’s government in Britain feeling slightly miffed. But the Johnson government does have one good idea, which is to extend the G7 meeting it will host next year to major democracies in Asia.
This chimes perfectly with a central leitmotif of the Biden team: working with other democracies. The US already has the Quad format, linking it with Australia, Japan, and India. They will be at least as important as the EU and Britain when it comes to dealing with China.
If the Biden administration is wise, it will envisage this as a network of democracies, rather than a fixed alliance or community of democracies. Even a “summit of democracies”, reportedly a pet scheme of the president elect, would pose tricky questions of who is in and who is out. Think of it as a network, however, and you can keep it flexible, varying the coalitions of the willing from issue to issue and finessing the difficult borderline cases. For example, Narendra Modi’s India is anything but a model liberal democracy at the moment, yet indispensable for addressing the “3 Cs”.
On every issue, both the US and Europe should start by identifying the relevant democracies; but of course you can’t stop there. You have also to work with illiberal and anti-democratic regimes, including China. China is the greatest geopolitical challenge of our time. It is itself one of the “3 Cs”, yet also crucial for addressing the other two: climate change and Covid. It is a more formidable ideological and strategic competitor than the Soviet Union was, at least from the 1970s onward, but its cooperation is also more essential in larger areas.
In pursuing a twin-track strategy of competition and cooperation, the US has unique strengths. Although the “greatest military the world has ever seen” ended up losing a war against technologically inferior adversaries in Iraq, the US is the only military power that can stop Xi Jinping’s China taking over the Chinese democracy in Taiwan. The US still leads the world in tech, which is the coal and steel of our time. We watch French series on Netflix, buy German books on Amazon, contact African friends on Facebook, follow British politics on Twitter, and search for criticism of the US on Google. In the development of AI, Europe is nowhere compared to China and the US.
Yet, especially given its domestic travails, the US cannot begin to cope on its own with a China that is already a multidimensional superpower. It needs that network of partners in Europe and Asia as much as they need it. So let the world’s democracies stand ready to grasp the outstretched hand of a good man in the White House. What a change that will be.
Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of Free World: America, Europe & the Surprising Future of the West. Twitter: @fromTGA
This article first appeared on The Guardian.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.