It will be difficult for Biden to overturn Angela Merkel’s verdict in Aachen. Even if he reinstates the course of cooperative multilateralism and collective action, the United States has ceased to be a reliable leader.
In his first speech as president-elect of the United States, just as in an article published in Foreign Affairs a few months prior, Joe Biden proposed reinstating the global leadership of his country and rebuilding its damaged network of allies. Can he do it?
During the final year of the presidency of George W. Bush, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote a seminal work entitled “Second Chance.” In the book, he questioned whether or not a second chance would be granted, after the unilateralist arrogance of a Bush administration that had fractured the legitimacy of the country’s global leadership.
In his view, the combined impact of the global political emergence of a diverse array of states and the technological leap had triggered an acceleration of the historical process. Consequently, “What once took centuries now takes a decade; what took a decade now happens in a single year.” Such being the state of play, the dominance of a global power was now subjected to unprecedented pressures of adaptation, change and rapid decline.
However, Brzezinski believed that despite the profound erosion suffered by its global leadership and the challenges posed by the acceleration of the historical process, a second chance for the United States was still possible, contingent upon the absence of another rival for global dominance. Nevertheless, any potential recovery from the erosion suffered would present enormous difficulties. Only a clear consistency of purpose, sustained over time, would permit the restoration of the international credibility and legitimacy of the United States. That being so, Brzezinski warned that the new opportunity could not afford to be wasted, as there would not be a third.
In the eight years following the departure of Bush, Barack Obama firmly set his course along the path of multilateral cooperation and collective action as the mechanisms for rebuilding U.S. dominance. On doing so, they appeared to follow the stipulation of Richard Haass with respect to the nature of influence. For Haass, power in itself is not especially useful; what really counts is the potential to turn said power into influence. Furthermore, power alone is a simple measure of potential; the role of a successful foreign policy is to transform this potential into tangible influence. Thus, following this approach, all indicators appeared to show that the U.S. was on course to materialize its second chance.
Disappointingly for Washington, Obama was succeeded by an aficionado of crude power: crude, and by extension, profoundly inefficient. After taking a sledgehammer to the privileges of power, Donald Trump revived the worst excesses of the Bush administration. Even further, he was able to add a propensity for isolationism to Bush’s arrogant unilateralism not seen in the United States since the years preceding World War II. In May 2018, when Angela Merkel declared in Aachen that it was no longer possible to rely on the United States, she was echoing a prevailing mood among the principal allies of the U.S.
Is a third chance possible? Could Biden give it a concrete form? With great difficulty. Both structural and contextual reasons oppose it. Structurally, the United States has transformed into a deeply polarized society, with a susceptibility to excesses and back-and-forth politics resulting from this. Moreover, while the outbursts of the Bush era were the result of a school of thought that reigned supreme in the foreign policy of that government, outbursts in the Trump era are the expression of a mindset shared by nearly half of the country’s population. How is it possible to rely on the global leadership of a nation in which an overwhelming percentage of its society proudly displays a selfish and arrogant nationalism?
Contextually, Biden, for his part, is the incarnation of a transition presidency. By having to begin his term at 78 years of age, a reelection bid looks like a difficult prospect. Therefore, there is no guarantee possible in terms of the consistency of the course. In four years’ time, things could return to where they are being left at present; Trump might well follow the example of Grover Cleveland, who, having lost his campaign for reelection in 1888, launched a bid for presidency and was elected for a new term in 1892. Even if this does not happen, it will make little difference. Trump has completely taken over the Republican Party, and his narrative of victimization will only serve to enhance his status as one of its great members. The Republican presidential nomination in 2024 will almost certainly be decided by the inclination of his supporters.
It will be difficult for Biden to overturn Merkel’s verdict in Aachen. Even if he reinstates the course of cooperative multilateralism and collective action, the United States has ceased to be a reliable leader. Besides this, the arrival of a new cock to the roost upsets the precondition highlighted by Brzezinski for the country to capitalize on its extra chance: the absence of a rival to the United States’ leadership.