- Jonathan Marcus
- Defense and Diplomacy Correspondent
Many world leaders, and especially Washington’s allies, will have viewed this week’s events on Capitol Hill with awe and alarm.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was one of the first to respond, tweeting: “Shocking scenes in Washington DC. The outcome of this democratic election must be respected.”
Who could have imagined such a comment, coming from the alliance’s top official, addressed to its main member state?
It’s the kind of thing you’d expect Stoltenberg to tell you to Belarus or Venezuela.
The episode says a lot about Washington’s position in the world after four years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The United States has lost both influence and soft power.
It has pulled out of arms control agreements, the Iran nuclear deal, and a major climate deal.
It has tried to reduce its military confrontations abroad offering few diplomatic alternatives.
Countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have had, to some extent, to guarantee their own security, aware that the attention span of the US president is limited.
Indeed, Donald Trump often seems to view authoritarian leaders as more cordial hosts than the heads of government of many of his Democratic allies.
The attractive forces that made the country a model for would-be Democrats everywhere are clouded, its fissures open to all.
Today, as analyst Ian Bremmer points out: “Politically, the United States is by far the most dysfunctional and divided country of all the advanced industrial democracies in the world.”
This is important because, in recent years, the international system has clearly suffered from Trump’s decision to pursue an America First policy.
Authoritarianism “on the rise”
Authoritarians are on the rise. Both China and Russia feel their influence has been strengthened during the Trump years.
The institutions of the liberal order, such as NATO, the UN and many of their agencies, face different degrees of crisis.
Cyberattacks and so-called gray zone operations – which are close below the threshold of war – are becoming commonplace.
The world faces acute crises such as the pandemic and climate change and, under Trump’s supervision, the United States he has simply not done his duty.
Let’s be clear here. This is not a call for America’s dominance over the world.
Often times, a far-reaching US foreign policy has been as much part of the problem as part of any solution.
But America’s security and defense policy is not in a good place.
The whole fabric of arms control agreements inherited from the Cold War years, from the INF (Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty to the Open Skies Treaty, is unraveling.
Indeed, a last-ditch attempt to renew the latest deal limiting US and Russian arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons, the New Start Treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), will be one of the first items on President-elect Joe Biden’s agenda. .
Arms control is gaining in importance as new and deadly weapons systems such as high-speed hypersonic missiles are developed, not to mention the increasing militarization of space.
The West has to deal with the emergence of a more determined China and the return of a more aggressive Russia.
Euphoria of enemies
So participation, America’s leadership, whatever you want to call it, is essential even to begin to grapple with the underlying issues involved.
All this poses huge problems for the incoming Biden administration.
Washington’s enemies are elated after the assault on the Capitol.
The new president comes to power with China’s economy already reeling from the pandemic, while the United States’ response to covid is seriously failing with massive death rates and uncertainty about the effectiveness of the vaccine launch.
In fact, the pandemic is an issue that President Trump has largely ignored since his electoral defeat.
It is no wonder then that Chinese President Xi Jinping is convinced that this crisis has demonstrated the superiority of his system.
Russia may be more of a nuisance than a strategic competitor to Washington, but the disinformation and hacking operations that marked the Trump years are radically new in scale and impact.
Joe Biden will lead an administration in which many of his agencies are using computer systems that have been penetrated by the Russians.
No one knows yet how deep or permanent this intrusion can be.
Even among friends of the United States, the path of the new administration is unlikely to be smooth.
Of course, the new president will be warmly welcomed by Washington’s allies abroad, especially within the EU and G7 groupings.
Others, like the Saudis, Turks and Israelis, are rapidly triangulating or readjusting their policies, seeking to have a new dialogue with Biden’s team.
But let’s not expect the new US administration’s honeymoon to last long.
Divisions within the Atlantic alliance, for example, can be disguised fairly quickly.
But Biden will make demands on his European partners just as the Trump administration did.
Will also want more defense spending and, in addition, concerted and tough policies towards Iran, China and Russia.
Creating these new policy coalitions will not be as easy as it might seem at first glance.
Look at the recent investment treaty between the European Union and Beijing, something that many in Biden’s incoming team expected to be delayed.
Is that trade agreement really, they ask, the way to respond to China’s repression of democracy in Hong Kong, its harassment of the Uighurs or its economic blackmail directed at Australia?
Not exactly an auspicious start.
A four-year hiatus?
Political differences, trade ties, and Europe’s own desire for a greater degree of strategic autonomy will complicate relations with Washington.
But beyond this, there is another powerful factor that contributes to stress.
It’s all well and good that the Biden administration is placing alliance rebuilding near the top of its foreign policy agenda, but many of those allies aren’t sure Trumpism is gone for good.
It’s not just shock from the assault on the Capitol.
They fear that Biden provide only a four-year hiatus, after which a new form of Trumpism could return to power.
Will some of Washington’s allies avoid taking risks, just in case?
This is a time when US domestic politics has become perhaps the most crucial element in helping guide its approach abroad.
In fact, one could even say that all current politics in the United States of Biden is national.
This applies to two fundamental criteria.
The Importance of Rebuilding the “United States Brand”
Rebuilding American democracy, to make it a more egalitarian and less feverish society, is essential to rebuilding the “United States brand” abroad.
Only if their allies (and enemies) make sure that the US is truly back on a different and consistent path can they have confidence in Washington’s leadership for the future.
But this centrality of domestic politics works both ways.
If President-elect Biden wants to succeed abroad, he needs to win over his divided country to gain support for its foreign policy.
Take China for example. Biden wants to both compete and cooperate with Beijing whenever possible.
Trade policy here is almost more important than the traditional currency used in strategy: warships or bases abroad.
And the foundation of a successful trade policy toward China can only be one that ordinary Americans see as serving their interests, returning jobs and a level playing field in international trade.
Restoring the state of the union may be the single most important factor in supporting any successes Biden achieves abroad.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.