As President Joe Biden makes his presidential debut at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, the question is not whether America wants to lead the world any longer, but whether it can.
During his inaugural address, Biden promised that “we will not lead merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” But eight months on, that shining example is looking a little tarnished – even as the US remains the indispensable anchor of Western democracy.
Increasing doubts surround Biden’s self-described foreign policy expertise and his capacity to both quell America’s raging domestic political chaos and to put a superpower’s stamp on a world bristling with challenges to US authority.
Global uncertainty about Biden’s presidency runs deeper than the debate over whether he is pushing a kinder version of ex-President Donald Trump’s “America First” creed, following the chaotic US exit from Afghanistan and a spat with France after the US and United Kingdom subverted their longtime ally’s submarine deal with Australia.
Trump used his UN addresses to lay out his vision of a world of individual sovereign powers individually pursuing self-interest. Biden, for all his current domestic focus, has long been an internationalist committed to US alliances.
But for 70 years following World War II, the United States for the most part offered strength, predictability and strategic certainty. Its might at home translated to power abroad and it bankrolled and bolstered the West against totalitarian threats to democracy, despite periods of domestic political strife.
That ended with Trump’s erratic, temperamental presidency, which put US postwar alliances in Europe and Asia to their greatest test. And while Biden lacks the ex-President’s volcanic character, a new age of friendship with allies did not suddenly dawn with a new leader in the Oval Office. The new President has exacerbated, rather than eradicated, questions about US staying power abroad in defense of its vital national interests. And amid China’s rise, Russia’s power games and emerging threats like cyberwarfare and climate change, America’s reputation as a bulwark against global threats is in doubt.
Doubts over Biden’s vow that ‘America is back’
The United States still has plenty of advantages. Its easy access to capital powers technological innovation. A young, diverse population is a growth engine. Its state-of-the-art military technology has few peers. Millions want a piece of US culture and markets – the fury of European powers over pandemic travel restrictions for vaccinated citizens, which the administration only announced on Monday it would soon lift, proves that.
But America’s fierce political polarization, supercharged by Trump’s presidency, will still undercut Biden’s vows Tuesday that “America is back.”
When he warns that democracy is in peril around the world, Biden will do so from the extraordinary position of being falsely accused by his predecessor of stealing the last election. US presidents usually use the UN to blast coup attempts. Biden is the first to appear before the world body in the wake of a homegrown assault on the world’s most important democracy, following the Capitol Insurrection by Trump supporters on January 6.
Questions about American resolve abroad are only deepened by national divides that are broader now than since the Civil War. And if Trump does not return for the 2024 campaign, many US allies fear one of his acolytes will still win the White House.
An eighth of the way through Biden’s term, the refusal of Trump to accept his defeat and successful attempts by Republican legislatures to suppress voting have only exacerbated concerns that US democracy may be yet to face its greatest threat.
Some of the President’s own decisions may also undercut his speech.
If he chooses to speak out in favor of human rights, including women’s rights – another plank of his foreign policy – his message will be weakened by harsh new Taliban restrictions imposed on women and girls following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Pledges to pursue relentless “over the horizon” military action against terrorists will recall the tragedy of an Afghan family, including seven children, killed in a mistaken drone strike in Kabul. Biden’s vows to restore American alliances look less convincing amid the worst diplomatic showdown with France in decades and after what appeared to perfunctory consultations with allies over leaving Afghanistan.
How Washington could destabilize the world
US economic might is a vital element of Washington’s power. But it could cause chaos within weeks since Republicans are refusing to agree to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, a crisis that could tip the US economy into default and the global economy into crisis.
Biden’s attempts to lead the world in the battle against climate change risk being undone not by Republicans but his own Democratic Party. Splits between moderates and progressives are imperiling spending and infrastructure bills containing billions of dollars for a green economy and climate mitigation. If the US can’t set an example, the UN Climate Summit that will take place in Scotland in November could founder and worsen a coming age of extreme weather.
Biden will speak at the United Nations amid a glaring lack of global leadership on another threat to humanity: the worst pandemic in 100 years. While the US led the way in developing vaccines in super-quick time and has bought hundreds of millions of doses for developing nations, vast areas of the world remain unvaccinated, meaning the pandemic is nowhere near over.
American leadership is undermined by its own struggles with Covid-19. On Monday, it recorded its 675,000th death in the crisis, passing its total in the 1918 flu pandemic, as the virus exposed many of the county’s cultural and political chasms.
“We have lost 100,000 Americans since April or May – almost all of them unvaccinated, almost all of those deaths preventable,” Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Monday.
Foreign policy begins at home
Biden understands that domestic disunity and turmoil weaken the United States abroad. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spelled it out during his first major speech in office in March.
“More than at any other time in my career – maybe in my lifetime – distinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away,” Blinken said. “Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely entwined.”
Both Biden and Blinken believe that for foreign policy to be successful, it must receive buy-in from working- and middle-class Americans. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a clear case of this approach in action, as Biden promised working Americans they’d no longer have to send their kids off to war.
Meanwhile, Biden’s huge $3.5 trillion spending plan, currently in limbo on Capitol Hill, is stuffed with health care, education, home care and other social programs meant to restore American strength – literally, nation building at home. And increasingly, US economic, diplomatic, military and soft power is being trained across multiple sectors on the next great American mission: maintaining an edge over a rising Chinese superpower.
To that end, Biden will host the leaders of Japan, India and Australia in Washington this week, in a summit of so-called Quad powers, in a rare show of continuity with the Trump administration, which pushed the grouping in an unmistakable message to Beijing.
Missteps and oblivion
One surprise of the Biden era has been the ham-handedness of foreign policy management.
The showdown with France was triggered by a US desire to quickly scale up its military posture in Asia in the face of China’s aggressive naval expansion. The deal among the US, UK and Australia – dubbed “AUKUS” – will see a fleet of new nuclear-powered submarines head down under and canceled France’s previous agreement to build conventional boats for Australia.
But in bolstering one alliance, Washington badly damaged another. France saw the deal as a betrayal by its anglophone partners and recalled its ambassadors to Canberra and Washington. While Biden is expected to try to ease tensions in a phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron this week, the estrangement is bound to fuel a belief in Europe that – in its zeal to meet the rising threat from China – the US is turning away from Europe.
It’s hard to believe that there wasn’t a way for the Biden administration to pursue its goals in Asia without insulting a friend in Europe. The chaos of the Afghan withdrawal, which left the US effectively relying on its Taliban enemies of 20 years to secure Kabul’s airport – a scenario that resulted in the deaths of 13 American service personnel and more than 170 others in a suicide bombing – was emblematic of a poorly planned operation, even if the military managed to extract more than 120,000 US citizens and allies. After the withdrawal, Biden barely mentioned the sacrifices of US allies in a war they joined to defend the US after the September 11 attacks.
Ultimately, however, US allies have little choice but to learn how to deal with the Biden team, accept its missteps and adapt to its new foreign policy goals. Because if the US can’t or won’t lead, who will?