Donald Trump’s presidency accelerated the erosion of the influence of the liberal-democratic ethos on the world order and its institutions. Trump showed no interest in maintaining the status of the US as leader of the free world, which promotes the values of democracy and human rights. With little regard for the United States’ Western allies, he showed no interest in alliances or in the cultivation of international institutions; he abandoned the Iran nuclear agreement, left European leaders with major questions about his commitment to NATO, withdrew from the climate agreement, and terminated support for the World Health Organization. Trump did not disapprove of dictators; he rejected the “ideology of globalism,” preferring instead the “doctrine of patriotism.” He made it clear that he would not interfere in the domestic affairs of countries that violate human rights, and did not condition his support for them on democratic reforms.
Since the US presidential transition (January 2021), it has become clear that President Joe Biden aims to reverse the course set by his predecessor on a number of foreign policy issues. On other matters, despite differences in style and rhetoric, Biden remains aligned with Trump’s policies. Biden has affirmed that American diplomacy should once again emphasize the values of freedom, human rights, and respect for the rule of law. He argues that the “defining question of our time” is the struggle between the autocratic and the democratic worlds, and that the central mission of the US is to help democracy win. He has promised to refortify the global democratic camp, declared that the US is once again fulfilling its role as a world leader, affirmed the US commitment to defending NATO allies (Article 5), and pledged renewed US involvement in international organizations.
True to his promises, Biden returned the US to the climate agreement; renewed American support for the World Health Organization; is working to return the US to the Iran nuclear deal; has returned to the UN Human Rights Council; is lifting the sanctions Trump imposed on the International Criminal Court (which early this year approved opening an investigation against Israel on suspicion of war crimes); has publicly recognized the Armenian genocide; has attacked China for oppressing its Muslim Uygur minority and violating the rights of Hong Kong residents; has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of interfering in the 2020 US elections, and called him a “murderer”; has warned Russia of “devastating consequences” should opposition leader Alexei Navalny die in prison (the Biden administration has been unequivocal in contending that Navalny was poisoned by the Russian security services); and is tightening sanctions against Moscow over its aggression and human rights abuses.
However, like his predecessor, Biden is also prioritizing American internal challenges, and harnessing foreign policy to help address domestic distress. He, too, is seeking to bring American troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of the year, but a failed implementation of the withdrawal from Kabul in mid-August could lead to long-term consequences. Images of Afghans trying to hold on to American evacuation planes and falling from great heights to their deaths have led to a widespread analogy between this retreat and the humiliating images of the American abandonment of Saigon in 1975. The bottom line is that after 20 years of engagement in Afghanistan, 2,300 American soldiers were killed and over a trillion dollars invested in occupation and rehabilitation, the Taliban have taken over the country. The Afghan military, trained and equipped by the US, has vanished as if it never existed. Biden’s promise that the United States will once again play a leading role in the global arena and that issues of democracy and human rights will be re-emphasized in US foreign policy has come under a resounding question mark. The strategic vacuum left by the American abandonment of the Middle East was not absent from the threat assessment submitted to the president in mid-April, according to which “Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, and Pyongyang have demonstrated the capability and intent to advance their interests at the expense of the United States and its allies […].” The shocking images of the evacuation from Afghanistan may intensify this trend.
As a realist leader experienced in assessing the international power balance, Biden does not delude himself that the current world order can function under exclusive American hegemony; he aims for sober management of inter-power competition. Secretary of State Antony Blinken defined this approach as follows: “[The United States will be] competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.” Faced with the challenge posed by China and Russia in their efforts to expand their spheres of influence, Biden is working to strengthen such regional alliances as NATO and the Quad (the US, Japan, Australia, and India) that aim to obstruct China’s efforts to dominate the South China Sea. Biden’s ambition to mobilize Europe alongside the US in contending with China and Russia is not easily realizable. The European nations do not underestimate the power, or the geopolitical cards held by Beijing and Moscow. Thus far, 139 countries have joined the Belt and Road Initiative, expressing the world’s recognition of China’s economic might and a desire to do business with it. Economic considerations also undergird Germany’s insistence on advancing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Russia, ignoring Washington’s disapproval. Germany even managed to persuade Biden not to threaten project participants with sanctions (May 2021).
Like his predecessor Trump, Biden views the challenge posed by China’s growing economic and military power as the organizing principle of American foreign policy. China is coping with the sanctions imposed by Washington by reducing its economic dependence on the United States. This could erode the element of interdependence that has helped maintain stable relations between the two superpowers. Although Biden depicts the confrontation with China (and Russia) as an ideologically charged struggle (democracy versus autocracy), he knows that the more the US steps up tough measures against Chinese and Russian violations of liberal-democratic norms, the less willing they would be to cooperate on global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic, free trade, nuclear arms proliferation, global warming, and calming conflict hotspots. Biden is well aware that the solutions he wishes to advance in the face of these challenges require cooperation and recognition of the power of Beijing and Moscow. This awareness is reflected in his decision, immediately upon taking office, to extend the American-Russian START treaty on nuclear nonproliferation by five years.