F.For four years, Donald J. Trump has thrown both US enemies and allies off balance with his “America first” approach to world politics. For a world that had grown accustomed to the US as a rule maker rather than a rule breaker of the international order, Trump’s embrace of “What have you been doing for us lately?” International relations were understandably shocking. But it also served to open up new frontiers in US foreign policy. Only someone with Trump’s disregard for protocol could have engaged the North Koreans as quickly as he; Only someone with Trump’s willingness to quickly bring military and economic power to fruition could reshape the Middle East’s balance of power so quickly in favor of Israel – and thus also of the United States.
There is an argument in favor of applying Trump’s approach – one-sided, tactical, and much more likely to use US power in a short and limited time – in our increasingly “G-Zero” world, where global leadership is lacking. In such a dysfunctional world, it is attractive to secure profits whenever you can get them and move on to the next challenge. Trump will step down on January 20 with more foreign policy successes than his critics want to attribute to him precisely because of this approach. He will also step down after failing to fundamentally address critical long-term challenges facing the US such as the rise of China and the ongoing threat of climate change.
President-elect Joe Biden’s return to Washington also marks a return to a more traditional foreign policy, in line with Biden’s personal focus: multilateral, strategic, and much more reluctant to use U.S. military power when it matters. The U.S. has the asymmetrical advantage. Challenges such as climate and China – diverse, complex, and affecting all sectors of society – require a concerted effort among like-minded allies to turn the consensus-building Biden into a U.S. president better placed to lead the indictment. But this reluctance to use US power means that the US is unlikely to reap the same short-term rewards as it did under Trump. It’s also worth noting that since the end of World War II, being an avowed multilateralist has never been more difficult.
Not that it’s bad news for Biden on the international front. Following Trump as president means Biden can continue to withdraw U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq with minimal political setback at home. It also means he can continue to push China forward with more sanctions while phrasing his actions in more traditional diplomatic speeches, bringing on U.S. allies in the process. That return to diplomatic normalcy alone will pay off for Biden – expect to hear from dozens of supportive allies in the months ahead as a Biden-led U.S. reaffirms its commitments to the United Nations, NATO, the Paris Agreement, and the World Health Organization.
But when it comes to the big global problems, Biden will find firsthand that he is dealing with the same world Trump is in – a world where the appetite for global collaboration is limited. That was fine with Trump because he was by no means inclined to go that route as he relied on U.S. military and economic might to come to power through his preferred results. For President Biden who values international coordination and collaboration, however, this is a unique and existential challenge. He now has four years to find out.
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