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Beyond American exceptionalism: a global agenda for the Biden-Harris administration


Written by Sara Pantuliano, Marta Foresti, Rebecca Nadin, Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, Jon Mitchell

Hero image description: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Image credit:https://bideninaugural.org/ Image license:https://bideninaugural.org/terms/

2020 has shown us that global problems require global solutions. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the crisis of multilateralism into stark relief. Countries have followed deeply nationalistic agendas, while multilateral institutions have been marred by inertia. The lack of global leadership has been all too apparent. All eyes are on the new Biden administration to reinvigorate international cooperation as part of the ‘global reset’.

Biden’s recent appointments to the State Department and USAID show a clear intent for his administration to re-engage with multilateral institutions and play a leading role once again. But the recent events in the US Capitol reinforce the need for careful consideration of the limits and dangers of American exceptionalism. These events have shown that the US is not immune from weak governance and failing institutions.

The new administration can’t simply revert to pre-Trump policies and approaches. They must not only rebuild trust and relationships across borders and institutions, but also rethink existing alliances, priorities and approaches. The relationships will need to adapt to the rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics, shifting power relations, redefined priorities and new actors coming to the fore. And all this in the context of the US’s image being tarnished, hindering its ability to project moral leadership.

A two-pronged strategy

First, the Biden administration needs to recognise the interrelated nature of domestic and international priorities. This will mean demonstrating how the ‘America First’ narratives and objectives can be better served by working with others, from securing vaccines to securing borders.

Secondly, they must play the long game to ensure sustainable and lasting change. However they can immediately pick some “low hanging fruit” to signal the US's determination in taking on a renewed global leadership role.

To this end, we identify some immediate priorities for multilateral cooperation, geopolitics, peace and security to reset the US's role on the world stage, while making note to the longer-term challenges.

A multilateral reset: Covid-19, climate and migration

First and foremost, Biden needs to reverse the missteps of the Trump administration. It is encouraging to see that he has already announced a number of immediate actions on his first day, such as rejoining the critically important Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as reverting the so called ‘Muslim travel ban’. He will also make wearing masks mandatory and will soon put an Immigration Bill through Congress, aiming to legalise the US's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

But on complex global issues like pandemics, climate change and immigration, he will need to do much more than signing executive orders if the US is to regain credibility on the global stage.

From vaccine research and development to PPE production and track and trace technology, nothing could more dramatically illustrate the importance of international cooperation and multilateralism than the Covid-19 pandemic. The consequences on lives and livelihoods of many countries acting alone and not making the most of a global cooperative approach have been all too apparent.

On the vaccine, the Biden administration must step up to financially support global efforts to accelerate equal access to vaccines for low-income countries, via the Covax facility and the WHO.

Beyond Covid-19, and to deliver on the Paris Agreement, there is a need for urgent collective action from all countries to stop the irreversible damage that faces our planet. The US can play a key role in setting an example domestically and supporting just transitions in order to make net zero global carbon emissions achievable by 2050. Ending public financial support for fossil fuels would help. Reallocating these funds for low-carbon infrastructure and skills development across the country would ensure a just transition to a cleaner and more dynamic economy.

Trump famously pulled out from the Global Compact for Migration (GCM) even before the actual political negotiations on the text began. The US then engaged in a de facto campaign to persuade other states to leave the negotiating table, undermining the diplomatic efforts during the negotiations and contributing to a tense international debate around it. Despite the lack of support from the US and a handful of other countries, including Oban’s Hungary and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, the GCM was adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2018 with the backing of 163 member states.

Biden should now adopt the GCM, to send a clear signal that as with climate and global health, the new administration is changing direction and choosing a path of international cooperation. This would encourage other states to follow suit, like Switzerland, Italy and others who have been on the fence about the GCM, pointing to their own short-term domestic pollical pressures. The US must lead by example. By signalling it is in a different camp to Bolsonaro and Orban, it can mark the beginning of a new era of global cooperation on international migration.

Closer to home, there is no doubt that the most striking images of Trump’s era relate to the ‘wall’ he promised on the Mexico border, and the treatment of children and other vulnerable migrants separated from their families on the US southern borders. The Biden administration must take immediate action to expand legal pathways available to migrants and asylum seekers from the ‘Northern Triangle’ region, namely Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, mostly travelling via Mexico. The so called ‘travel bans’, suspension of visas and increased brutality inflicted on those apprehended at the borders has resulted in unbearable human suffering.

Undoing the travel ban will help, but the new administration also needs to collaborate with countries in the region to establish mutually beneficial and legal pathways for migration. They should target sectors of the economy where the US could benefit and improve access to seasonal and temporary visas. The US should also comply with international legal commitments on asylum and refugee protection.

Multilateralism at its hardest: ending conflict and sustaining peace

Crucially, and perhaps more controversially, it will be important not to assume that all aspects of Trump’s foreign policy need undoing. While dominated by a rhetoric contrasting the US's self-interest with global cooperation, in practice some progress has been made, including bilaterally. There will be trade-offs. Securing the gains of the past administration will require careful handling to avoid any backsliding at a time of fragile international relations.

The Trump administration has been conspicuous by its absence in addressing some of today’s most intractable conflicts, from Yemen to Syria. Yet some have welcomed a less interventionist US, noting that the Trump administration has been one of the few not to get embroiled in a new foreign conflict. Past presidents, Obama included, have been criticised for their interventionist approaches. But the role of the US in helping to address ongoing conflicts and sustain peace will be critical.

It will require a sober assessment of past interventions spurred by the pursuit of domestic interests, the consequences of which endure today, from Iraq to Afghanistan. Many senior members of the Biden administration have served in foreign policy roles in the past. Hopefully an honest reflection of the US role in external conflicts over the past few decades can help to rethink how it reengages in the multilateral system, so that it enhances collective action to foster peace and security.

Being part of a multilateral world does not mean that the US and all other countries cannot also fulfil their own interests. The two concepts are not a zero-sum game. What is good for the global community is also good for the US. But to be taken seriously as a multilateral friend rather than foe, the US must become an enabler of a new, more accountable and transparent multilateralism. It must be less paralysed by nationalist agendas, supported by more robust institutions and led by a greater respect for global norms.

The US ‘Global Fragility Strategy’, based on legislation passed in 2019 and best practice standards agreed upon by key multilateral institutions, provides an ideal foundation. Contributing to strengthening the peace and security pillars of the UN system and spearheading a reform of the Security Council, including agreeing to the French proposal of the suspension of the power of veto in case of mass atrocities, would provide ideal opportunities to translate ambitions through a reformed multilateral system.

The Biden administration will also need to consider a rapid de-escalation of tensions with Iran.

While a return to the nuclear deal will not be easy, given the deep breach of trust left in its wake, it must prioritise normalising relations by re-establishing the deal signed by all Security Council members, plus Germany and the EU.

This will signal a decisive break with one of the most shocking legacies of the Trump regime, re-cast the US's image in a more compassionate light, and create prospects of greater stability in the region. Only in acknowledging the legacy of previous administrations will the efforts of a new Biden administration be taken seriously.

A new approach to Iran will need to be accompanied by a new approach to Israel and re-configuring engagement in the Middle East at large.

The recognition of Israeli claims to the Syrian Golan Heights and Morocco's similarly controversial claims to the disputed territory of the Western Sahara are in violation of international law. Despite the recent brokering by the US of agreements between Arab states and Israel, to the exclusion of Palestine, the underlying issues that have been festering for decades around the question of two-state solution have not been addressed. Any lasting peace will need to go much further and seriously engage the aspirations of Palestinians.

As Trump leaves office, he leaves behind a very difficult legacy for the Arab region. Going forward, the Biden administration must seek to re-establish trust with the region, stop acting unilaterally in pursuit of its own interests, and engage in multilateral efforts to promote and sustain peace and security.

China: a new era or more of the same?

Iran, China, Russia, North Korea are among some of the more critical international relationships the Biden administration will have to navigate multilaterally and bilaterally in the next few months.

In the case of China, if Biden’s intention is to chart a less combative course for US-China relations, the outgoing Trump administration is not making it easy. Only this week, Trump issued orders for Chinese high-tech, oil giants and aviation companies such as Xiaomi, CNOOC and COMAC, to be added to an investment blacklist.

Another move was the early declassification (not due for public release until 2043) of the US 2018 Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific, which details the US's intent to defend the "first island chain" nations and regions, including Taiwan. This might be seen as an attempt by the Trump administration to ensure US policy continuity for the region. But it also shows that despite the rhetoric of unilateralism, the administration was pushing a trilateral cooperation approach with Japan, India and Australia and other allies in the South China Sea.

So the question is: does the Biden administration plan to take a less combative approach or continue to frame China as a ‘revisionist power’ seeking to ‘displace the US in the Indo-Pacific’?

During his presidential campaign Biden took a hawkish stance on China, accusing the Trump administration of ‘knuckling under to Beijing’ over China’s lack of transparency on the origins of Covid-19. While hoping for an ‘entente cordiale’ in US-China relations might be too idealistic, the appointment of well-known Asia expert Kurt Campbell to the newly titled position of Indo-Pacific Coordinator at the National Security Council points a more ‘peaceful co-existence with China’.

But what does China think of the incoming president? A recent Global Times editorial noted Biden’s China policy is almost identical to that of the Trump administration, albeit more tactfully stated. But ‘tact’ can go a long way in de-escalating tensions in existing and emerging areas of contention such as the South China Sea, Taiwan and technological advancement, data security and governance.

Chinese official media has already articulated potential opportunities for Chinese exporters from Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid relief package proposal. It is also a readily accepted view in Beijing that de-coupling the world’s largest economies is unrealistic and undesirable for both sides. Multilateral collaboration on issues such as climate change also has potential.

If multilateralism is about pursuing and ensuring common goals through norm-setting, then those norms and values are also open to interpretation. In recent years Beijing has brought considerable diplomatic and financial resources to support its world views and established numerous alternative institutions. Only this week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signalled that China welcomed the US’s return to the international treaties and organisations from which it had withdrawn but called for vigilance ‘against all kinds of "false multilateralism’’.

Going forward, the new Biden administration will of course decide the type of bilateral relationship it wants with China – more of the same or rollback of the Trump era tariffs and restrictions. Most likely it will be a mix of the two. But it is unlikely the US and China will have a shared vision of multilateralism. Instead, the most tactful description either country might use would be one of continued ‘ideological differences co-existing’. How peacefully remains to be seen.

European allies and the “special relationship”

On more familiar grounds the Biden administration can count on some older and stronger allies in Europe. The Von Der Leyen Commission was quick to send clear signals to the President-elect of wanting a stronger partnership. They signaled in its "EU-US agenda for global change”, the European Commission defined four major policy areas to focus on: health response, climate change, trade and tech, and security. They also want a transatlantic dialogue on the responsibility of online platforms and Big Tech, to find global solutions for fair taxation and market distortions in the digital economy.

It is in the Biden administration’s interest to cooperate with their European allies on all these areas. But he will also need to handle separately the US special relationship with the UK, which is of course no longer a member of the club. Biden has recently made it very clear that he intends to act very pragmatically, that he will overcome his critical views on Brexit and work closely with Boris Johnson. In fact, rumour has it that his first official visit abroad may well be to Cornwall, possibly around the G7 in June.

But Brexit will loom large on all aspects of Global Britain, so the Biden administration will need to deploy all of its diplomatic skills and be very equally handed to keep all allies in Europe happy.

The world has moved past a few dominant powers leading global affairs and dictating the global agenda. And it certainly doesn’t need to be caught up in battles of major powers pitted against each other. Rather than the US returning to its place at the head of the table, it can reengage and lead in a different way. It can promote a rethink of multilateralism as a more equal system, a system where all countries have a more equal say and take more equal shares of responsibilities. Robust multilateralism will be needed to enable a recovery from the pandemic which addresses the rampant inequalities both within and between countries. This will help build more equitable and sustainable economies globally.

As humanity has shown both its ingenuity and its destructiveness over the ages, the US can help frame a new multilateralism that is rooted in values that have always been at the heart of successful cooperation – humility, empathy, trust and mutual respect.