Earlier this month President Joe Biden went to the State Department to pump up a demoralized foreign service corps, and to tell the world: “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.”
That pledge was echoed Tuesday by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who told NPR: “We’ve reengaged with allies and partners around the world. I think I’ve made myself maybe 50 calls already.”
So there’s no doubt the Biden approach is diametrically different from that of the erratic tweeter in chief, who was incapable of strategizing, as he ignored competent experts and whipsawed policy decisions solo.
That doesn’t mean Biden will be a softie, for example on China, as the GOP claims. As Blinken put it, in an NPR interview: “President Trump was right to take a tougher line on some of the egregious things that China has done. But … the way we went about doing it did not produce results.”
The Biden team rightly realizes that curbing Chinese aggression (or Russian meddling) requires a full-court press by Washington together with allied nations in Europe and Asia. But building back those alliances better may be one of the toughest, and most critical, challenges the Biden administration will face.
On the surface that would seem paradoxical. No doubt Blinkenis correct, when he says, in regard to U.S. reengagement: “I found an incredibly receptive audience for that.”
No wonder. No more sneering at Germany or NATO’s relevance, or hinting the United States wouldn’t come to the aid of members if they were attacked, as Biden’s predecessor did, repeatedly. Instead, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III made clear at a virtual NATO defense ministers meeting last week that America was committed to the alliance. And Biden has already reversed the former president’s pledge to cut the 36,000 U.S. troops based in Germany by one-third.
But the Trump presidency has left its negative mark on trust in America’s reliability (as did the Iraq war and the financial crisis before that). And the impact on the transatlantic relationship with fellow democracies in Europe should unsettle Republicans as well as Democrats.
Consider these dire statistics: A new survey issued by the European Council on Foreign Relations, or ECFR, shows that only 10% of those polled, in 10 European Union countries, believe the United States is a “reliable” security partner that will always protect Europe. In other words, most Europeans appear to doubt that NATO would defend a member if Russia tried to seize part of its territory as it did in Ukraine
“Europeans’ attitudes towards the United States have undergone a massive change,” writes the ECFR’s director, Mark Leonard, along with the shrewd Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev. “Majorities in key member states now think the US political system is broken …”
True, two-thirds of those surveyed believe Europe should look after its defense rather than rely primarily on the United States, which is not a bad thing in principle. The problem is that European nations, and their militaries, are too divided and ill-equipped to provide sufficient defense against likely future Russian nibbling tactics or possible future moves by China. A reimagined NATO, including U.S. forces, is best positioned to do that.
But the ECFR survey also shows that “there is deep ambivalence towards the United States in the event of conflict with China or Russia – with many Europeans keen to be neutral in such a scenario.” And a majority believe that China will overtake the United States as the world’s leading superpower within the next decade.
Such broadly shared opinions about U.S. decline amongst the European public undercut plans for strengthening a joint U.S.-European position toward a more aggressive China. “Washington cannot take European alignment against China for granted,” write Leonard and Krastev. “Public opinion will have a bigger effect on the relationship than it once did, and needs to be taken into account.”
The good news is that the Biden administration has put forward another essential foreign-policy premise that speaks to America’s declining image — linking foreign policy to addressing America’s divisions and inequalities at home.
“There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy,” Biden said at the State Department. “Every action we take in our conduct abroad, we must take with American working families in mind. Advancing a foreign policy for the middle class demands urgent focus on our domestic economic renewal.”
This may sound like boilerplate, but the link between U.S. foreign policy and domestic renewal has never been so crucial. The Trump administration’s failure to address racial injustice or curb COVID-19, its attacks on democracy including the Jan. 6 insurrection, and now the Texas power disaster (and Sen. Ted Cruz’s trip to Cancun) have presented the world with a picture of democracy on the rocks.
So the route to reviving our alliances also includes passing a COVID-19 relief package and moving on infrastructure and other measures that demonstrate America is not imploding as China rises. A successful foreign policy abroad will depend on what happens at home.
This was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.