Biden Can Reinvent American Power for a Post-Trump World

The U.S. president-elect promises a humble foreign policy. That can start by coming to terms with America’s diminished capacity to lead the world after Trump.

By Elise Labott, an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President-elect Joe
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden leaves after speaking on unemployment figures at The Queen in Wilmington, Delaware, on Dec. 4, 2020. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

It’s hard to reduce to a word or phrase the trail of destruction U.S. President Donald Trump leaves in his wake as he exits the world stage. And while it would be tempting for allies to write him off as an anomaly and for adversaries to hold him up as a cautionary tale of the American experiment, Trump gifted the world two particular things that, collectively, make his imprint on it more profound.

First, he turbocharged a global ecosystem of disinformation and fascist conspiracy theories that are increasingly making large swaths of the world’s population immune to the rule of law. And second, he yanked the world’s policeman off the beat. Neither will change when President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Wednesday.

Whatever comfort most nations are taking from Biden’s enthusiastic declaration that “America is back” don’t fully grasp the Trump-sized hole America has to dig itself out of. To do so, the United States will be absorbed by its own business, or, in the words of one foreign diplomat, it will be “playing with itself” for some time.

That doesn’t portend a continuation of Trump’s “America first” agenda. Biden has spoken eloquently about his desire for the United States to reassume the mantle of international leadership—and he has a chance, by embracing a humbler foreign policy, to bring U.S. leadership back to the big transnational challenges that Trump ignored or made worse.

But perhaps the greatest self-inflected casualty of America’s global dominance was its neglect of the dark forces brewing at home. The negative effects of globalization and growing income inequality have weakened the middle class, created fertile ground for Trump’s brand of tribalism to take root, and brought long-simmering issues of racial injustice to a boiling point.

Any world leader facing the problems Biden is inheriting would be looking inward.Any world leader facing the problems Biden is inheriting—a raging pandemic, a devastated economy, and a violent insurgency within its borders—would be looking inward. Indeed many countries are facing the same headwinds. Trump-style demagoguery is flourishing in countries around the globe, where globalization, income disparities, and migration have alienated the working class and fueled its embrace of populism—just as in the United States.

Whether it is the United Kingdom’s Brexit, the election of Hungary’s xenophobic president-turned-authoritarian Viktor Orban, or the rise of Trump protege Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, right-wing leaders have exploited their supporters’ rage to seize and hold onto power. Poland, India, Turkey, and the Philippines are all being led by populist strongmen riding waves of discontent.

The coronavirus has highlighted and deepened these inequities and is furthering global social unrest. Easily radicalized online, disaffected citizens are turning extremist, and violent protests are becoming commonplace, even in established democracies like Germany—where belief in QAnon conspiracy theories rivals that of the United States and fueled last summer’s storming of the country’s federal parliament building over the county’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Today, some of these groups are taking inspiration from this month’s events in Washington and are already discussing further plans online.

If I am a leader in Europe, I am not ruminating about my disillusionment with Jeffersonian democracy. After watching the most powerful nation suffer essentially a coup attempt, I am worried the same tsunami will crash on my shores. If the United States, with its centuries-old institutions, proved so vulnerable, how can countries with less institutional ballast weather such a powerful storm?

As America reengages with its allies, the best course for Washington would be to avoid trying to paper over the cracks Trump left behind, both at home and abroad.

Biden has said he favors a humble foreign policy that ends long, costly, and unpopular interventions abroad in favor of one that benefits the middle class at home. That must begin with a greater awareness of America’s domestic priorities and a recognition there is no appetite among the U.S. public for adventurist diplomacy in which the United States inserts itself even in issues and places that are far from its core interests.

The best course for Washington would be to avoid trying to paper over the cracks Trump left behind.It also calls for a clear-eyed assessment of the post-Trump world, America’s role in it, and its diminished capacity to lead. That will require humility and patience, uncommon traits inside the Beltway. The United States can’t both “build back better” and sit “at the head of the table once again” at the same time, as Biden has suggested.

For starters, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will need to replenish the depleted ranks of a diplomatic corps that was ground zero of Trump’s four-year assault on government institutions and civil servants.

Four years of Trump’s rebuffing key allies, retreating from international alliances, and reneging on institutional agreements have forced U.S. partners to fend for themselves. Accustomed to going it alone during the Trump years, European countries have been pursuing a policy of “strategic autonomy” favored by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last month, just weeks before Biden took office, the European Union reached a trade deal with China—ignoring clear signals by Biden’s team that he wanted to coordinate on China’s most problematic trade practices.

Beijing also reached a trade deal with 14 Asian countries that included major U.S. allies Australia, South Korea, and Japan, as well as other nations abandoned by Washington when Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Together, the bloc represents 2.2 billion people and 30 percent of the world’s GDP.

Some of Biden’s early moves—reentering the Paris climate agreement and rescinding the travel ban on several Muslim countries, as well as reengaging with Iran on nuclear talks—will suggest a return to the kind of moderate foreign policy U.S. allies know. But the political fractures so evident throughout the United States can’t give any nation confidence that agreements reached with Biden will withstand future administrations.

One profound way Biden can reassert U.S. leadership is by mobilizing efforts to address transnational challenges that are fueling global instability: economic stagnation, the COVID-19 pandemic, the negative effects of climate change, and fracturing states that are driving refugee flows.

He can also spearhead a global campaign to curb the proliferation of disinformation and influence operations that are adding to the unrest. Putting an end to Russian hacking and election meddling in NATO countries and combatting Chinese propaganda efforts being used to wield diplomatic and economic influence around the world will do more to restore the United States as a leading democracy than any return to an outdated diplomatic playbook that ignores the tectonic global shifts taking place.

The best thing the United States can do for the world, and for itself, is to build antibodies against the forces that allowed Trump and leaders like him to thrive. With a more humble, pragmatic, and restrained foreign policy, Biden can reinvent American power and transform it—and, perhaps, the country—for the future.

Elise Labott is an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott