In reversing 'America First,' Biden needs a multilateral strategy
© Getty Images

On Day One of his presidency, President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden adds to vote margin over Trump after Milwaukee County recount Krebs says allegations of foreign interference in 2020 election 'farcical'  New DOJ rule could allow executions by electrocution, firing squad MORE will begin altering the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy with a flurry of executive actions. But Biden cannot simply issue unilateral executive actions that reverse Trump’s “America First” policies. He must put forth a vision for active U.S. global leadership and provide American diplomats with resources to carry it out.

The world is a different place than it was four years ago. Brexit and the election of Trump in 2016 showed that populism and nationalism remain powerful political forces. There has been a 14-year decline in democratic norms and institutions around the world. The refugee crisis and COVID-19 forced nation-states to throw up barriers. Moreover, Biden’s pursuit of multilateral engagement will be hampered by the Trump administration’s draconian cuts to diplomacy and foreign assistance.

Then there is the question of whether to trust the U.S. It is not clear whether European allies will have the same confidence in the U.S. as they did in the past. Biden’s margin of victory could total 5 million votes and even though he won 51 percent of the popular vote, 47 percent still voted for Trump. A divided U.S. could lead the E.U. to move closer to China by further embracing the One Belt, One Road initiative and allowing Huawei to build its 5G infrastructure.

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, Biden’s election is likely to mitigate the loss of U.S. soft power and improve America’s image among allies and partners. Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, crackdowns on peaceful protesters and failure to contain COVID-19 made the U.S. a less attractive nation around the world. Under Trump, the U.S. came dangerously close to becoming just another illiberal state.

Trump’s failure to concede the 2020 election shows how much democratic norms and institutions have eroded over the last four years. When Republican sycophants rally behind a defeated president who refuses to come to terms with his own electoral defeat, they make the authoritarian argument that only Republicans are allowed to win the presidency. Trump’s rejection by the voters weakens the link between U.S. foreign policy and autocratic states and rulers. U.S. allies in Europe are breathing a sigh of relief.

Biden will overturn Trump’s Muslim travel ban, reimpose Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and push for U.S. cooperation in the COVAX regime, a global collaborative effort developing COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics. Biden will work toward U.S. reentry into the World Health Organization (WHO), Paris Climate Accords, the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty and the Iran nuclear deal. But Biden’s best efforts might not be enough for the Iranian regime to accept U.S. reentry.

Biden will also target Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinScarborough says he'll never return to Republican Party after GOP supported Trump Will Biden choose a values-based or transactional foreign policy? Russian vessel threatens to ram US warship in disputed waters in Sea of Japan MORE and his oligarchs by bringing back Russia hawks from the Obama administration. This includes retaliatory measures against Russia’s hybrid attacks on U.S. elections. The Biden administration will also reassert America’s longstanding support for NATO and E.U. integration.

The emerging China-Russia partnership will be the most important challenge for Biden. Trump’s repeated attacks on elections, civil society, the rule of law, and immigrants pushed China and Russia closer to one another in the common opposition to a U.S.-led world. Trump’s baseless claims that Biden stole the election from him resonate in Russian state media. And given that the two are not equal powers, Biden must be careful not to conflate a declining power like Russia with a rising power like China.

ADVERTISEMENT

Regarding China, Biden will face mounting pressure to put human rights and democracy back into America’s approach. This means addressing China’s national security laws that forcibly detained Uighurs and cracked down on Hong Kong. So, the incoming Biden administration must know when to cooperate with China on economic issues and when to call it out on human rights abuses.

As Biden’s national security aide Anthony J. Blinken stated, “Whether we like it or not, the world simply does not organize itself.” If Biden is serious about tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and economic inequality, then he needs to elevate diplomacy, cooperation, and multilateral engagement with allies and partners to the forefront of U.S. foreign policy.

Biden can utilize America’s tremendous hard and soft power resources as force multipliers to broaden the definition of security to include social spaces. Biden can reinvent multilateralism in a way that enables the U.S. to tackle transnational problems in the global commons.

Chris Dolan is a professor of politics and global studies at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.