In September 2003, I moved from Afghanistan to Iraq, where I would spend a year and a half establishing new electoral institutions and helping Iraqi authorities manage their first elections. The job was demanding, and the environment was difficult—each of the hotels that housed us were eventually attacked—leaving little time or energy for anything else. Other than work, my main activity was to obsessively track U.S. politics. I had slow internet connections to read the papers and new guerrilla political analysts like the Mystery Pollster blogger. I could trade information with journalists or officials visiting from home. Without access to U.S. television news, I could get the orthogonal takes of international television coverage—which was equally obsessed with the 2004 U.S. election—at least, when unreliable satellite connections allowed.
Starting with the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, I was repeatedly frustrated by the foreign policy debates. It seemed to me that all of the candidates thought they could have former president Bill Clinton’s third term: sure, they would have the unique challenges of the post-9/11 world, but they seemed to believe they would also have the tools of uncontested, immediate post–Cold War U.S. power.
From where I sat at the ragged edge of the wars mongered by former president George W. Bush’s administration, that power seemed fanciful. The alliances that had won the Cold War and managed the crisis in Yugoslavia were strained or fractured. The marvel of U.S. military power was busily showing the limits of its capacity to deal with asymmetric warfare. The absurdity of the Iraq War; the slow failure in Afghanistan; and the horrors of Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, and torture had undermined Washington’s claim to leadership. The diplomats, government officials, journalists, and others I worked with from around the world simply did not see America the same way anymore, which I thought would imply new constraints on our policies.
But I was wrong. Five years later, then president Barack Obama resumed traditional roles of U.S. leadership in the world. By this, I do not mean that either the United States or the Obama administration escaped the debts of terrible earlier decisions. The current mess in the Middle East, for example, is still largely attributable to the Iraq War. Rather, Obama was able to set agendas and priorities and be the most important voice among the leaders of mostly Western, liberal, wealthy powers.
Today, as in 2004, many of us have a sense that the new era ushered in by President Donald Trump has changed the United States and the world’s perceptions of the country in irreversible ways. But it is worth examining why I was wrong before and whether we all might be drawing similarly false conclusions now.
Resuming U.S. Leadership Last Time
What allowed Obama to bring U.S. global leadership back from (past) the brink? I see five factors that mattered.
First, the world understood the Bush administration’s crises to be exogenous. Washington’s reaction to 9/11 was stumbling and self-defeating, but it was still a reaction—not forgivable, but at least explicable after America’s long-standing sense of invulnerability had been punctured. Trump’s radical policy departures are entirely different—wild and impossible to explain without reference to dark theories of autocratic consolidation or, as Trump’s former director of national intelligence Dan Coats dreaded, a fear that Trump is beholden to a foreign power.
Second, as a result of 9/11, the Bush experience felt unique. But now two of our last three presidents, despite losing the popular vote, embarked on radical and hotly partisan courses of governance. Any foreign analyst of U.S. politics now needs to create wide allowances for policy departures that cannot be easily predicted on the basis of democratic politics.
Third, and closely related to the first two, Obama was elected in 2008, not 2004. In the interim, the Bush administration had changed, especially after the Republicans’ 2006 midterm congressional losses, the replacement of then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, and the general decline of vice president Dick Cheney’s policy influence. The second Bush term was just much more normal than the first, allowing other countries some confidence that the first term was an aberration sparked by 9/11 and not a new normal of unpredictability.
Fourth, Obama was a remarkable political communicator who, as demonstrated by his Berlin speech during the 2008 campaign, was able to appeal over the heads of foreign governments and directly to foreign publics. Especially among U.S. democratic partners, his influence simply could not be ignored. Former vice president and current Democratic nominee Joe Biden is also a gifted and persuasive politician, but more than soaring oratorical skills, he brings a wealth of productive professional relationships with governments around the world.
Fifth, Obama took office in the heat of the global financial crisis. He was willing to assert leadership in cleaning up the economic consequences of the crisis—and while the causes of that crisis lie mainly in failed U.S. policy decisions, the international community still had little inclination to refuse U.S. leadership on a technically and politically challenging set of catastrophes.
Reassessing U.S. Leadership This Time
I have spent a lot of time over the last several years thinking about these different conditions. While I have suspected that they pointed to a different future role for the United States in the world, I have never been quite sure. The last difference, though, convinces me that we need to prepare ourselves for a global demotion without much nostalgia.
If Biden takes the presidency in January 2021, he will also do so amid a global crisis: the coronavirus pandemic. But the world will already be a year into that crisis, and far from establishing a capacity for leadership, the United States is an object of international pity or even horror. U.S. citizens are barred from travelling to most countries, and the country is self-isolated from the global vaccine response coordinated through the World Health Organization. In the Great Recession, core U.S. institutions like the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department’s civil service proved to be both effective and irreplaceable to the global response. Today, the bitter truth is that America’s beleaguered public health institutions, like the previously gold-standard Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are now mired in political manipulation and technical failures.
So, with humility rooted in being wrong on a similar question once before, I believe the United States is likely to confront a dramatically different welcome in the world—even if Biden reverses Trump’s most offensive, aggressive, or failed policies.
The Biden team should watch signals carefully, alive to the possibility that U.S. allies, partners, and adversaries are, somewhat surprisingly, looking for traditional forms of U.S. leadership. But it should also be prepared not to assert U.S. leadership in areas where it is unnecessary or unwelcome.
This doesn’t have to be bad news. U.S. leadership is not a goal in and of itself. It can be a tool to advance U.S. interests, but it can also be a burden if maintained as an end rather than as a means. The Trump administration’s chaotic, accelerating withdrawal from America’s historic roles into an “America Alone” pose has been damaging. But if we are honest with ourselves, much of the butcher’s bill U.S. democracy and institutions of government are paying now come instead from older, failed, and ill-considered efforts at leadership abroad.
To build a foreign policy that meets its ultimate purpose of supporting our renewal at home, a potential Biden administration will need to be disciplined, choosing more areas to collaborate or follow others’ lead and fewer that demand more direct leadership from Washington.
The United States needs to retake its seat at the table without imagining that it must be—or can anymore be—always in the chair.