And Joe Biden means it, tethered as he is to a romanticized view of America as the world’s greatest power destined to lead and to do good. The new president will have much going for him. He’s the anti-Trump. And after four years of norm-busting disruption, expectations for Biden are so low that Europeans might be inclined to give him a Nobel Peace Prize for just showing up.
But the world Biden will inherit is a far cry from the one he occupied when he was the vice-president and during the 1990s when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. America’s unipolar moment has long been relegated to the dustbin of history. China, in the Pentagon’s parlance, is a peer competitor. Other powers, both large and small, including Russia, Iran and North Korea, can easily frustrate U.S. ambitions. Rarely has the environment for international cooperation seemed more challenging.
The president-elect has said repeatedly that his primary goal abroad is to put American back at “the head of the table” because “the world won’t organize itself.” But the shape of that table has changed profoundly. A global pandemic has laid bare the limits of globalization and multilateral diplomacy and accelerated the demise of the liberal international order that America created and that sustained its primacy; it has also exacerbated preexisting trends toward renewed geopolitical competition and heightened sensitivities about national sovereignty on issues from border security to the economy and health care. A powerful China and a declining yet still determined Russia have conspired successfully to oppose Pax Americana.
So how can Biden create a foreign policy that is both effective and designed to meet the new world realities he’ll confront? The new administration should focus on three objectives.