President-elect Joe Biden is an old acquaintance in international politics. But the state business works differently today than it did when he and Obama left.
As do all serious politicians, Joe Biden published a programmatic article in Foreign Affairs, the central publication of foreign policy, before his election. The headline: “Why America Must Lead Again.” This phrase resonates with the assumption that the U.S. under Donald Trump relinquished global political leadership. That is not completely accurate.
Trump was a disruptive foreign policy maker, a destroyer, but with that stance he was also influential. He established a style that has been copied or reinforced by many great leaders — Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro — which can be described as “illiberal hegemony.” Trump, himself, as an autocrat, lolled on the bed springs of democracy.
Trump’s four years were marked by the abandonment and withdrawal of the U.S. The U.S. government has left the world of treaties and alliances, embraced old enemies and alienated old friends. But Trump’s isolationism also contained an aggressive interventionism, the power of unpredictability. In this respect, the U.S. remained present as a world power. The only thing missing was a coherent strategy, the leadership idea beyond “America First.”
So when Biden announces his return to an American leadership role, he means above all the restoration of predictability. The U.S. will want to rebuild, at least in part, the order that made the past century an “American” one. This includes alliances, rules, contracts — and the necessary pressure when muscles are tensed in the eternal play of forces.
Biden Will Concentrate Fully on China
Whether this succeeds, however, is a completely different question. The new unknown in this equation is now China, whose ambitions have grown significantly in the past four years. China’s breaches of the rules in trade, transparency and human rights, the attempts to ensnare and to insinuate itself all over the world, must be accepted as a challenge by the U.S., but also by Europe. Because in the end it comes down to the question of which rules are played in the world.
Biden will therefore concentrate fully on China in his foreign and economic policy, although the numerous advisers in his environment waiver. Can Beijing be tamed aggressively, for example by changing the status of relations with Taiwan and placing an economic and military ring around China? Or is there a mutually agreed upon solution with the leadership in Beijing, a kind of negotiated peace that gives both sides economic advantage and prevents a possible military conflict?
What is certain is that dealing with China will dominate world politics in the next few years, and thus, also European politics. Because this Europe is made responsible by a Biden government. If the trans-Atlantic alliance is to have a future, then the European part will have to do significantly more for its own security — and will also have to find a common China policy with Washington.
The Most Famous Trans-Atlantic Persona Is Returning, While Europe Is Just Becoming More Independent
It is ironic that the best known trans-Atlantic persona from the U.S. foreign policy establishment is taking the stage at the very moment when the European Union is taking the first steps toward its foreign policy independence. Europe could now be tempted to hide completely in the shadow of American power again and reduce its ambitions. That would be just as foolish as taking the French president’s wishes at face value.
Emmanuel Macron’s “strategic autonomy” for Europe, decoupling from the U.S., can be achieved only at the cost of the collapse of the EU. There will be no autonomy as long as a considerable number of the nation-states of Europe feel more comfortable with American security guarantees than with French ideas of a European superstate.
“The world doesn’t organize itself,” said Antony Blinken, Biden’s most important foreign policy adviser. There is a lot of truth to that. In translation, it means that Biden’s America will again intervene more strongly in global operations. However, the Trump years raised serious questions: How overpowering is the American isolationist desire? How can the power of the president be better controlled? What order does the globe need in the age of the autocrats? Biden comes to a new world as president. His old world no longer exists.