Joe Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential race set off celebrations among supporters of U.S. alliances. A card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment, Biden in temperament and tone is a traditionalist who backs longstanding institutions of global order, those alliances in particular. But if allies and partners are breathing a sigh of relief, they must not ignore important changes that have occurred throughout the world and will continue to unfold. Foreign policy certainties need reassessment and revision. Allies must work in tandem with the Biden administration to prepare those alliances for the challenges of the post-Trump era.
First, the good news. Biden has one of the strongest foreign policy CVs of any incoming president, burnished by his time as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and service as point person on foreign policy for Barack Obama. His thinking about foreign policy is familiar and reassuring. As he explained in a speech last year “America’s security, prosperity, and way of life require the strongest possible network of partners and allies working alongside us.” His foreign policy agenda “will place America back at the head of the table, working with our allies and partners — to mobilize global action on global threats … .”
Every authoritative poll — Gallup, Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, Pew — shows strong public support for continuing U.S. engagement with and leadership in the world. Alliances receive strong backing, with solid majorities agreeing that consultation with allies is valuable and that U.S. decision-making should take their interests into account: Compromise is not a four-letter word. Even larger majorities say that globalization and trade is good for the U.S. Americans understand that their fate is tied to that of the world around them. Enlightened self-interest is still the public’s preference — not unilateralism, nationalism or isolationism
That support is not unalloyed, however. Every explanation of U.S. elections to foreign audiences starts with the reminder that those contests don’t turn on foreign policy. The chief concern of U.S. voters is their wallet, not their passport.
Not matter how enlightened, it is still self-interest. Priorities matter and there is a growing understanding among the U.S. public that their government must be more judicious and selective in the use of its power. This reflects concern about over-extension abroad and neglect at home. A 2019 Pew survey reported that 46% of Americans said that “we should pay less attention to problems overseas and concentrate more on problems here at home.”
“Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class,” a new report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, explores this in depth and it should be required reading for strategists and planners in the Biden administration as well as U.S. allies and partners. The program task force included representatives from a broad cross section of the U.S. foreign policy community and drew on hundreds of interviews from an even broader cross section of citizens in three heartland states, each representing a key but often under-represented constituency in foreign policy discussions: Colorado (the “new economy”), Nebraska (agriculture) and Ohio (manufacturing).
The analysis is rich and the conclusions compelling. For our purposes, the key points are:
- There is continuing support for international engagement along with a concomitant erosion of the foreign policy consensus that has guided U.S. administrations.
- Growing domestic economic burdens have eroded a shared sense of national purpose.
- The U.S. foreign policymaking process must better accommodate the middle class and those who aspire to it to ensure that they too benefit from increased national wealth.
- A U.S. foreign policy that promotes global economic growth and resilience through multilateral cooperation, aligns with the interests of business and workers, and defines security as measures that protect U.S. middle-class households and communities can provide the foundation for a new national consensus.
The unmistakable conclusion is that U.S. foreign policy must change. Enduring success demands that a U.S. president see that domestic needs are better met. Rhetoric will change in a Biden administration, but that simple reality will not. That in turn means that the demand for allies to do more and lighten the U.S. load will continue. Of course, the U.S. can walk and chew gum at the same time — i.e., handle both domestic and global concerns — but resources are limited and the world is changing. Biden’s task is both restoration and adaptation.
Warning bells are no doubt ringing among alliance managers. For them, sharing burdens invariably means paying more for U.S. forces. That is true, but it’s only part of the equation. Allies should see this moment as an opportunity, not just a challenge. They should modernize partnerships with the U.S. — and other allies — to yield a new alliance structure that is better suited to current international security challenges.
From his perch at the U.S. Studies Centre in Sydney, Charles Edel, a historian and former State Department official, suggested that allies look to Australia’s recent efforts in this area. He argues that the country’s new Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan could serve as models for other states as Australia seeks to redress current power trends, acquire more formidable assets and put Chinese forces at greater risk. Edel’s key point is that Australia is updating its defense outlook to reflect new regional realities and to be better able to defend itself; if it does that right, then the alliance will benefit as well. He emphasizes that alliance efforts need to change not only to better sustain U.S. involvement (and win public support) but also to offset a changing — and deteriorating — geopolitical environment.
Japan is tackling some of the items on the Australian agenda — increasing the size of the military, enhancing cyber and space capabilities, developing means to counter hybrid warfare — and contemplating others, such as acquisition of long-range strike options (although that is reportedly not in the revised National Defense Program Guidelines that is expected to be released next month). Central to this evolution is strengthening Japan’s ability to deter and deeper coordination and integration of deterrence capabilities with the United States.
But this is only a start. Japan, like Australia (and other allies) must do more to set priorities for the alliance, identify ways to counter China and develop regional defense mechanisms. Japan should be making a more detailed case for whole-of-government approaches to regional security, focusing on the tools with which it is most comfortable and capable (while not neglecting hard security concerns), and promoting the collective security efforts that are needed to respond to new regional realities.
The bottom line is simple: Burden sharing means much more than footing the bill for U.S. forces.
There is another dimension to this effort. For the two-plus decades that I’ve worked on Northeast Asian security, allied governments have regularly called on the U.S. to make the case for the security partnership to their publics. Not only must that stop — those governments should be selling the alliance to their constituents — but those partners must now do more to remind the U.S. public of their value as well. Fortunately, the U.S. public can be convinced and a quick win for the alliance would pay off handsomely given the new administration’s outlook.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).