By Shlomo Ben-Ami
TEL AVIV – In less than four years, outgoing US President Donald Trump has achieved what, historically, has done only devastating wars: reshaping the global order. With his isolation, his wannabe authoritarianism, and his utter capriciousness, Trump took over the multinationals and multilateral institutions that his predecessors had built from the ashes of World War II and have maintained ever since . What now?
Many hope that when President-elect Joe Biden takes over, liberal international arrangements can be saved, and even renewed. That would certainly be desirable. Unfortunately, it is an unrealistic hope. A post-Trump order appears to be more concerned with returning to the inter-bloc coup in 1945 than to liberal euphoria after the Cold War.
Initially, the Biden administration will be consumed by the daunting tasks of healing the domestic wounds that Trump has caused and correcting America’s critical weaknesses, laid bare by the pandemic. The United States’ recovery from the most divisive presidency in its history will not be swift or painless. American Reform is a prerequisite to restoring its ability to lead globally.
Even if the Biden administration had infinite capacity, there would be no turning back the clock. The status quo ante stemmed from a kind of post-Cold War euphoria, animated by the belief that Western liberal democracy had achieved definitive victory over the rest, and the world had arrived, in Francis Fukuyama’s famous formation, “the end of history. ”
In the 1990s and 2000s, when the United States was an unrivaled economic, military and diplomatic power in the world, the logic of liberal hegemony was compelling. But, in today’s rapidly changing pluralist world, it is no longer. This has been the case for more than a decade, which is why the United States was retreating from global leadership long before Trump took office.
While Trump’s isolation is often portrayed as contradictory, it reflects a strain of American thinking that stretches back to the founding of the country. Had German submarines not been attacked by American submarines in 1917, the US may well have stayed out of the First World War.
Similarly, the US only entered World War II when Japan invaded Pearl Harbor in December 1941. And after the war, U.S. efforts to preserve peace (by deploying troops) and restore prosperity in Europe (by implementing the Marshall Plan) were prompted by a fear of Soviet expansionism, not some sense of moral duty.
It was also in America’s interest that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, of whom Biden in his administration was vice president, and even George W. Bush before him, took steps to reduce the hegemonic project of U.S. foreign policy. Like Trump, Obama and Bush voiced frustration about the inadequate burden-sharing by America’s NATO allies.
The US retreat from hegemony reflects a history that Biden cannot undo: Losing America’s credibility as a result of its long, costly and inconclusive wars in the Middle East, and the 2008 global financial crisis, which highlighted the disadvantage of globalization and lack of orthodoxy neoliberal. . Far from fulfilling the promise of shared prosperity, it became clear, the free market ethos of the last few decades had facilitated the emergence of obscene inequalities and the collapse of the middle class.
This combination of endless war and growing inequality shaped the nationalist backlash that propelled Trump to victory in November 2016. The same frustrations were reflected in the UK Brexit vote that June, France’s Yellow Vest protests in 2018, and until in the age of the emergency COVID-19.
A pandemic would seem like an unmissable opportunity to cooperate. And yet, it has closed borders and competition over future vaccine supplies and doses, not to mention curbside on civil liberties and expanding surveillance capabilities, including in democracies. Simply put, only when we most need global cooperation, has our broken multilateral system driven us back to the bosom of the nation-state.
Thus, it seems that the world is returning to a Westphalian order, where sovereignty overcomes international rules. Trump’s “America First” stance fits neatly within such an order. And while China is pouring out international cooperation in some zones, multilateralism is a fundamentally alien concept to it. He would oppose the revival of a world order based on liberal precepts. Other large nationalist powers (such as Brazil, India, Russia, and Turkey) and smaller ones in Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland) move broadly within the same irregular kingdom.
The Biden administration should aim to lead world democracies in their competition with a growing authoritarian bloc, while maintaining the multilateral institutions and structures most critical to peace. To this end, should he immediately abandon his predecessor’s connivance with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo? An, and replaced its belligerent strategy toward Iran with an effort to reach a durable revised nuclear agreement. Fortunately, he seems to be doing both.
At the same time, the Biden administration will need to treat American alliances more as joint ventures, which the United States ideally leads without dominance. From the allies side, this change has already begun, with European leaders, especially French President Emmanuel Macron, increasingly recognizing the need to take European security into their own hands. The United States should work with an empowered European Union to contain Russia’s revisionism on NATO borders and end its hybrid war on Western democracies.
Similarly, to manage its ongoing strategic conflict with China, the United States will need to work with its Asian allies, such as Japan and South Korea and South Korea. With China almost abandoned its “peaceful rise” strategy, avoiding violent conflicts will be a delicate balancing act.
More broadly, the United States will need to galvanize world liberal democracies to forge a block that can stand up to world writers. This should include efforts to counter decomposition forces within the EU and, potentially, to transform NATO into a broader security alliance of democracies.
Crucially, the two blocks would need to collaborate effectively in key areas of shared interest, such as trade, non-proliferation, climate change and global health. This will require diplomatic skills that Trump could hardly imagine, much less assemble.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.