Biden’s Plan to Lead From Alongside

The new U.S. president believes in the legitimacy of American power. Does the rest of the world?

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden salutes before boarding a flight for Washington at the New Castle County Airport in Delaware on Jan. 19, the day before being inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Here’s a litmus test for you: How do you feel when U.S. President Joe Biden declares that the United States will resume its place as “leader of the free world”? Do you say, “It’s about time”—or “That way hubris lies”? It is, at bottom, a question not about power—about America’s ability to lead—but about moral standing. Biden may have earned the right to lead America, but in what respect has America, in 2021, earned the right to lead the world?

This is an old question; it’s one I grew up with. I became politically conscious in 1969, when I was 15; I handed out leaflets against the Vietnam War at the train station where my father and his friends commuted to New York City. I would have barked with laughter at the argument that the Cold War was a struggle between good and evil. Domestic policy, I would have told you, was the sphere in which justice might be done; foreign policy was spy versus spy.

Fifty years later, most of the students in my New York University classes on U.S. foreign policy find the idea of American leadership similarly risible. Whether Americans, Europeans, or Emiratis—for I also teach at NYU Abu Dhabi—they tend to regard the Iraq War as the signal act of American leadership of the last generation, just as I would have described Vietnam. The more politically conscious would add in the ravages of a made-in-America neoliberalism.

So, too, for many of today’s progressives, who regard the United States as a neoimperialist power gussied up with moralistic window-dressing. Yale University professor Samuel Moyn recently described the “rules-based international order” that Biden vows to revitalize—and lead—as a self-serving fiction that the United States has propagated even as it “bent or broke the rules across the world.” American belligerence has been bipartisan; Moyn bitingly reminds us of the imagery of America as the “indispensable nation,” a phrase associated with Democratic Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

American self-righteousness sticks in the world’s throat; yet Albright used the term when the Clinton administration finally, belatedly, intervened in the Balkans after realizing that Europe would not act on its own. For many liberals, including myself, that moment was a revelation. The lesson was that a world order does not lead itself; it must be led, in concert with others, by its organizing and orienting power.

All such orders, as former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger writes in his book World Order, depend on a combination of power and legitimacy. The distinctive feature of a liberal or rules-based order is that it legitimacy proceeds from the willingness of the dominant power to uphold liberal values even though it has the power to ignore them when it wishes. Moyn, and my students, and the me of 1969, would say that the United States has failed that test again and again. Perhaps it has; yet while Vietnam and Iraq and neoliberal excess occupy one side of the ledger, the other includes a largely peaceful and prosperous and democratic Asia and Europe, a vast network of alliances, and a suite of regional and global institutions. The international relations theorist G. John Ikenberry more usefully describes the United States as a “liberal leviathan”—in his book of the same name, as well as in his recent A World Safe for Democracy—that, despite grave lapses, has bound itself to rules and institutions in the name of long-term self-interest.

It is precisely because he understands the moral foundations of leadership that Biden has said that his administration must renew democracy at home before seeking to protect and extend it abroad. The United States, that is, must earn back its leadership role. Nevertheless, Biden is not likely to delay the planned “summit of democracies” until America climbs back up the ranks of Freedom House’s freedom index. In his heart of hearts, Biden probably regards his own election as sufficient proof that “America is back.”

The language of leadership—of “the indispensable nation”—comes more naturally to Biden, a product of the 1950s, than it did to Barack Obama, the first U.S. president to have seen the operation of American power from the vantage point of a developing nation. Obama never actually used the expression “lead from behind,” but the phrase stuck to him in part because one could have imagined him doing so. His circumspect sense of American power arguably constituted a suitable response to eight years of President George W. Bush’s rhetorical and strategic belligerence. Today, however, the liberal values that underpin the world order are under grave threat both from autocratic great powers—China and Russia—and from within democratic societies. The world needs U.S. leadership more urgently than it did a decade ago, even as America’s right to exercise that leadership seems even shakier than it was before.

Once we bring this idea down from the clouds we can see where Biden will and will not run into resistance. In his speech last week to the Munich Security Conference, Biden vowed to convene a global summit on climate change. Leadership on the most pressing of global problems is, of course, a good thing, as would be the case with leadership on public health or on, say, ending the senseless war in Yemen. Nothing neuralgic there. Even Biden’s aspiration to protect democracy abroad is unlikely to encounter resistance on the home front.

That call may, of course, fall on deaf ears beyond U.S. borders. With the multilateralist President Bill Clinton having given way to the unilateralist George W. Bush, and Barack Obama to Donald Trump, America’s allies have every reason to question the metaphor of the United States being “back.” Europe seems more staunchly committed to that rules-based order than is the United States. President Emmanuel Macron of France used his speech at Munich to assert that Europe needs to be “more in charge of its strategic autonomy” than it is now. Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel staked out a less adversarial stance toward Russia and China than Biden.

In any case, Biden will encounter resistance from the Democratic left on defense spending, troop deployment, and everything else associated with the word “military.” One of the most tangible global goods that the United States has provided to its allies over the last 75 years is the forward deployment of troops to deter attack by rivals. Progressives of all stripes regardAmerica’s global military footprint as a waste of money and a dangerous provocation. Biden does not. He has not spoken of cutting the defense budget, nor of significantly reducing troops in the Middle East, Europe, or Asia. And he is prepared to use military force to make a point, as he did earlier this week when he authorized airstrikes against Iranian-backed militias in Syria in response to a rocket attack by those forces against an American base in Iraq.

Last week I predicted that Biden will disappoint hard-liners by his preference for diplomacy over coercion in Iran. But I suspect he will equally disappoint progressives who regard military strength itself as a proof of imperial ambitions. Biden would say—and rightly so, I think—that preserving world order doesn’t just mean standing up for democracy and the rule of law or rethinking neoliberal doctrine; it also means stopping Russia from undermining its neighbors through cyberwar, economic blackmail, or proxy forces, and preventing China from gaining dominion over the South China Sea.

Military strength is not to be confused with war. First in Vietnam, then in Iraq, and now perhaps in Afghanistan, Americans have found that war is often far more ruinous and far less effective in producing political change than they imagine beforehand. In a brief for American global leadership in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Robert Kagan insists that critics have overreacted to “unsuccessful” wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Yet those wars did not just lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and tens of thousands of American soldiers; they utterly destroyed the political consensus at home and blackened America’s reputation abroad. It is because of those wars that so many now recoil at the language of American leadership.

Joe Biden voted for the war in Iraq, but I think he knows the price America paid for that mistake. I am quite sure that he does not plan to adopt the penitential policy urged on him by the left, but also that he recognizes the harm the United States has done in the name of its calling to put the world right. American leadership does not have to mean American bellicosity or high-handedness. It doesn’t mean leading from behind, but it does mean leading from alongside. The world needs American leadership. The alternative isn’t Sweden; it’s China.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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