Biden Was Right: America Is Back
The country’s reputation won’t be fixed anytime soon, but the fact that it’s trying is a sign of exceptionalism—and a return to the United States’ finest tradition.
President Joe Biden’s declaration to the Munich Security Conference last Friday that “America is back”—lest anyone miss it, he repeated the line three times—hasn’t gone down very well in the days since. While I suspect many in the Zoom audience were quietly relieved to hear it, public responses have ranged from skeptical to hostile. At the same conference, for example, French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that France stake out greater “strategic autonomy” from the United States. His German counterpart, Angela Merkel, reminded the audience that U.S. and German interests “will not always converge.” And back in the United States, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said: “I don’t think the American people can afford to go back to eight more years of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.”
While Pompeo’s sneering is easy to dismiss (why waste time worrying about the opinions of the worst secretary of state in U.S. history), the other comments deserve more attention. Yet they and the critiques of various pundits who have argued that the president’s pledge was both premature and hubristic also miss the key point. Biden surely didn’t mean to suggest that the United States has returned to the level of power, prestige, and importance it enjoyed in 2016. Or that it has recaptured its moral standing. He wasn’t arguing that he’d already repaired all the damage done by his predecessor; of course not. What Biden likely meant to convey—and what allies and adversaries should pay attention to—is the fact that Washington is trying again: trying to mend ties and restore cooperation with its friends. Trying to push back against authoritarian regimes and defend universal values. Trying to protect public goods like the environment. And, like it or not, trying to lead.
If you have any doubt that America is back in this sense, just compare any of the five weeks Biden has been in office to any one of Donald Trump’s 208. Since taking charge, the new president has sought to wrap the country’s traditional allies in one of his trademark bear hugs: by returning to the G-7 (which Trump spurned), for example, or by reversing Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany. Washington has rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change and the World Health Organization (both of which Trump dumped). Biden has extended the New START nuclear arms treaty with Russia (which Trump was about to abandon) and broadcast his intent to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He has stood up for democracy and human rights by imposing sanctions on the junta in Myanmar and preparing new measures to punish President Vladimir Putin and his cronies in Russia, as well as by ending U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen. And he has pledged up to $4 billion to COVAX, the global initiative to help vaccinate the developing world against COVID-19.
That would be an impressive list of accomplishments for any monthlong period. When you remember that the Biden administration has pulled all this off while seriously understaffed (most of its key appointments have yet to be confirmed) and while the country is still suffering the aftershocks of last month’s violent insurrection (tremors that included Trump’s second impeachment), it looks even more remarkable—and makes recent criticisms of Biden’s foreign-policy record seem a little unfair. That’s especially so when you also factor in the administration’s overwhelming domestic to-do list, which includes small matters like passing a $1.9 trillion recovery package and speeding up the country’s COVID-19 vaccination drive.
Indeed, the fact that the administration is spending any time at all on foreign policy right now—let alone looking beyond immediate crises to longer-term priorities like restoring the country’s international standing—is yet more evidence for Biden’s claim that America is back. Such moves also firmly align the administration with a long-standing national tradition. One of the most unusual and distinguishing features of the country’s domestic and foreign-policy record isn’t the absence of mistakes—the United States makes as many or more of these than other countries. It’s the United States’ record of acting to repair the damage once it has been done and the moment has passed. The country has developed a remarkable mechanism for self-correction, a history of ensuring that, after every one of its disastrous bouts of inattention (think the interwar period) or destructive Jacksonian rage (think the aftermath of 9/11), the national pendulum swings back to the middle. Every Richard Nixon gets followed by a Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter, every George W. Bush by a Barack Obama. Some mistakes take a lot longer to address than others. But the country often gets there in the end.
American exceptionalism has become a dirty word in recent years, but this is that exceptionalism in its best form. Of course, the United States still has an enormous way to go before it can claim to be “back” to the kind of prominence it enjoyed before Trump’s election. But the fact that it’s trying so hard to get there shows it is already back in a critical sense. And that’s something we should all be grateful for.
Jonathan Tepperman is an editor at large at Foreign Policy, a role he assumed in November 2020 after three years as the magazine’s editor in chief. He is the author of The Fix: How Countries Use Crises to Solve the World’s Worst Problems. Twitter: @j_tepperman