Argument

It’s Still Hard to Be America’s Ally

Biden wants to rebuild relationships, but old friends aren’t so sure.

U.S. President Joe Biden talks to reporters.
U.S. President Joe Biden talks to reporters in the East Room of the White House in Washington, on March 25. Chip Somdevilla/Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden loves allies. When he took office, his first international phone calls were to allied heads of state: Canada’s Justin Trudeau, the United Kingdom’s Boris Johnson, and France’s Emmanuel Macron, along with Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The president’s “America is back” mantra has reintroduced the United States as a reliable, consistent, and trustworthy ally to friends in Europe and elsewhere—at least while Biden’s in office. The administration’s response to knotty questions—like what to do about China tariffs or how to deal with Iran—always contains a line about figuring it out alongside partners. Trump-era demands that foreign friends do more, pay more, and ask less have disappeared. “America First” has given way to “Allies First.”

Yet sometimes it’s hard to be an ally. The administration’s new approach is a breath of fresh air after four years of damage and disparagement, but complications will rise to the surface as soon as the honeymoon wears off. Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s gratuitous disputes with allies were self-defeating, but Biden’s welcome celebration of U.S. alliances raises its own set of ambiguities and contradictions. The drive to enshrine a U.S. foreign policy for the American middle class may, in particular, pose new dilemmas for long-term allies.

The tonal difference between the two presidents could hardly be clearer. Trump’s oft-articulated view that allies get rich under U.S. protection, refuse to pay their fair share, require U.S. commitment to areas of marginal importance, and generally take advantage of U.S. naiveté is out. In its place are messages like that of U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who has emphasized the current administration’s high regard for NATO, its willingness to listen to allies, and its desire to both consult and work with them.

Policy is following rhetoric as well. Trump’s demand that both Tokyo and Seoul increase their financial contributions for hosting U.S. troops created an impasse; the new team has already agreed to extend the existing deal with Japan and finalized a new arrangement with South Korea. Trump ordered the withdrawal of 12,000 U.S. troops from Germany; Biden put a halt to it. New sanctions on Russian and Chinese officials have been coordinated with the European Union and Canada, and the administration is collaborating on pandemic response in the Indo-Pacific with partners like Australia.

Still, dangers lurk under this refreshingly placid surface.

Some stem from domestic policy decisions whose ripples wash against foreign shores, particularly in the economic and environmental areas. Consider, for instance, the United States’ great ally to the north. Biden held a wonderful first phone call with Trudeau and a successful virtual meeting after that. The tone was friendly, the smiles were bright, and following four years of Trump antagonism, the sigh of Canadian relief was nearly audible in the lower 48 states.

Between the two conversations, however, Biden terminated the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico—and is both economically important and politically popular in Canada. He also issued a “Buy American” executive order that may bar Canadian suppliers from bidding on U.S. government contracts—an element, Biden said, of advancing a foreign policy for the middle class. Protecting U.S. jobs and procurement opportunities, it seems, can mean erecting barriers even to close and long-standing allies.

Other domestic economic moves impact foreign partnerships. Trump slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from a variety of U.S. friends, employing a weak national security justification to do so. Not only has the new administration so far left those tariffs in place, but it also reversed Trump’s 11th hour removal of tariffs on the United Arab Emirates, using the same national security reasoning. Allies fret that protectionist impulses, unchecked either by the executive branch or Congress, will erode trade opportunities—and with it, the constituency for close ties to the United States.

A second set of complications will stem not from foreign frustrations with U.S. policy but U.S. disillusionment at just how entrenched allied policy positions can be. Just before Biden took office, the EU signed an investment agreement with China; despite all of the talk about forging a new transatlantic approach to Beijing, it took Chinese sanctions on European officials to throw the agreement into doubt. Germany, out of the doghouse that Trump was so eager to consign it to, is proceeding with the ill-advised Nord Stream 2 pipeline to supply itself with Russian natural gas. The new administration sanctioned Myanmar’s military after its recent coup; Japan has thus far resisted calls to join the economic pressure campaign.

A third area of difficulty stems from the administration’s commitment to elevate democracy and human rights. The approach implies collisions with several allies like Thailand, the Philippines, Hungary, and Turkey as well as close partners like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. U.S. policymakers have long faced trade-offs between a forceful promotion of universal values and the desire to bolster ties with friends of an autocratic disposition. Yet after four years with a president disinclined to press allies for improvements in their domestic conduct, the dilemma will be thrown into newly high relief.

This inherent tension flared most prominently after the administration released an intelligence assessment that blamed the Saudi crown prince for the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden ultimately employed a pragmatic blend of naming-and-shaming, sanctions against lower-level officials, reassurance of the alliance’s importance (and a near-simultaneous attack on Iranian facilities that underscored the point), and a continued push toward ending Riyadh’s war in Yemen. On the whole, however, his reasonable response elicited fierce criticism from all sides. Such conundrums are just the beginning for a new administration that will wish to save the Visiting Forces Agreement with the Philippines, ensure Turkey does not stray further into Russia’s orbit, and enhance ties with India even as worries rise about illiberal tendencies there.

The final challenge stems from doubts about U.S. steadfastness, often murmured under allied breaths. Some in Asia, for instance, decried Trump’s disdain, inconsistency, and overly personalized approach to foreign policy but appreciated his tough stance on China nonetheless. Middle East partners saw Trump’s military strikes on Syria’s Bashar al-Assad regime and Iran’s Quds Force commander as welcome evidence of decisiveness and resolve. Should allies join in the “extreme competition” Biden foresees with China or hedge in case his administration eventually seeks broad cooperation? Should they stay in Afghanistan despite a peace process they are not party to? Should they join a coalition to push back against Iran when the previous Democratic president advocated Gulf Arab states share the region with Tehran?

More fundamentally, the “America is back” pronouncement suggests it’s Trump, not Biden, who represents the aberration from traditional U.S. foreign policy. The truth of that assumption is no longer self-evident. Observers have wondered aloud about how much of the past four years have been about Trump and how much about America. Is the Trumpian cramped worldview—one that defines interests narrowly and deals with partners transactionally—the outlier, or is it the new normal from which long-experienced Biden—with his traditionally enlightened foreign-policy approach—is the last departure? And with presidential terms at eight years at best, can allies risk siding with U.S. positions if a new leader enters bent on reversing them?

Consider, for example, the roller coaster of Iran sanctions that U.S. European allies have ridden on. Before and during nuclear negotiations, the message from Washington was European governments and companies should cease most business ties with Iran. Once the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) took effect, the Obama administration observed that Tehran must discern tangible benefits from the agreement and urged Europe to forge commercial ties with Iran. Enter Trump, who reimposed sanctions and implored Europeans—so recently told to facilitate trade with Iran—to cease and desist. Now, with the likelihood of U.S. reentry into the JCPOA, it’s easy to imagine reversing course one more time. But the roller coaster is not yet back in the station; if there is a Republican president who, in less than four years, wishes to sanction Iran, European allies will be in the front car for a return trip. Such lurching invites weariness, hedging, and cynicism among the United States’ friends.

Messy relationships are nothing new in foreign policy, of course, and no alliance is ever free from complications. Some of the toughest disputes—think trade battles with Japan in the 1980s or the transatlantic fight over the 2003 Iraq War—have involved the United States’ closest friends. Setting a new tone, as Biden is doing now, helps manage them. The key is to make sure potentially divisive policies do not overwhelm unifying rhetoric and sentiment.

George Shultz, former U.S. secretary of state who passed away in February, famously referred to the diplomat’s task of “tending the garden”—building relationships of trust over time with key counterparts. Less often cited is what he observed that tending entails. “Any good gardener knows,” Shultz said, “you have to clear the weeds out right away.” Identify potential problems early, eliminate what you can, manage what you can’t, and by all means keep them from strangling the greater good in alliance relationships.

As allies grow accustomed to Biden’s welcome new tone and policies, the weeds—protectionist moves, a complicated China approach, pressure on the human rights agenda, doubts about U.S. consistency, and more—will look taller. The new team should start tending to them now.

Richard Fontaine is the chief executive officer of the Center for a New American Security. He worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. Twitter: @RHFontaine

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