That didn’t take long. Shortly after the echoes of the feel-good song “Kumbaya” died out in Washington last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that all would not be sweetness and light between her country and the administration of the newly inaugurated U.S. President Joe Biden. “Don’t think that from tomorrow there will only be harmony between us,” Merkel harrumphed the day after the inauguration. “There will also be arguments about how best to do things for our two countries.”
Of course, there will continue to be differences between the United States and Germany, as there will be with every other U.S. ally and partner, no matter how important the relationship and no matter how great their relief at seeing the backside of the Trump presidency. The world is evolving, and that is forcing a reassessment of the internal calculations that shape international relations. Fortunately, larger concerns — the national interests — that bind nations remain largely unchanged. How those interests are secured and protected — national strategies and tactics — is what’s in flux. Merkel acknowledged that as well, noting that there will be “much more scope for political agreement” with the new administration than with Trump. “Cooperation (will) rest on a broader foundation of common beliefs.”
Similar sentiment was expressed in most responses to the Biden inauguration. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tweeted, “I look forward to working with you and your team to reinforce our alliance and to realize a Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” a note that sounded a lot like the statement of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who also looks “forward to working closely with President Biden … to make our strong Alliance even stronger and fit for the future.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and even Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai declared that they too were “looking forward to working with the new administration.” The list could go on.
Rest assured, though, that in every one of those cases the aim isn’t cooperation for cooperation’s sake but doing so to promote national interests. No government subordinates itself to another except in the service of some broader purpose — unless the government is so corrupt that decisions reflect personal rather than national interests. Even the most abject surrender is intended to protect the nation by forestalling still worse damage, destruction or loss.
That’s why President Trump’s insistence on an “America First” foreign policy was so pointless. (Its historical antecedent made it offensive to boot.) World leaders didn’t need reminders that they should “put their countries first,” although his annual speeches at the U.N. General Assembly might have been the foreign policy equivalent of Trump’s discovery that “health care was complicated.”
The question is how to secure those interests. Since the end of World War II, Washington has been building international institutions, promoting international rules, laws and norms and then assenting to being bound by that framework, all in the belief that order produced by rules rather than force helped the United States. A recent U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) report explained that the “willingness to establish and play a leading role in maintaining the liberal international order is generally viewed as an act of national self-interest … (that) would strongly serve U.S. security, political and economic objectives.” Toting up the costs, politicians and policymakers concluded that the United States “receives significant security, political and economic benefits, including the maintenance of a favorable balance of power on both a global and regional level, and a leading or dominant role in establishing and operating global institutions and rules for international finance and trade.” Internationalism was the product of enlightened self-interest.
Trump rejected that logic, reasoning that a U.S. readiness to play by the rules was foolish and weak. He preferred unfettered freedom of maneuver: Possessing the world’s largest economy and the world’s most powerful military, the United States would prevail in any standoff with another country. He failed to see how brash unilateralism threatened to deprive the U.S. of partners and principles that protected American interests and helped sustain his country’s leading role in the world.
Biden is a foreign policy traditionalist, although he concedes that partnerships and procedures must be modernized to reflect new realities. The first challenge for the new team, made up of many veterans of the Obama administration, is to resist the instinct to resume where it left off four years ago. While there is a demand for a U.S. presence — remember all those invitations to cooperate — the world has been transformed. The United States can lead but it must earn that position. Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, a Washington think tank, and former director of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department, writes that means “the U.S. needs to do more listening than talking.”
It’s good advice but it must be done carefully. Old habits die hard. Then Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s 1993 “listening” tour of Europe as the Bosnian crisis unfolded was greeted with confusion, which turned to dismay. European governments weren’t used to U.S. passivity and weren’t prepared to muster a muscular response to the conflagration on their doorstep. They fiddled, Yugoslavia burned.
A U.S. readiness to engage Asian partners over the form of its commitment to this region must never appear to question the fact of that commitment. While being prepared to adjust alliance relationships to new regional realities, the administration must underscore the centrality of Asia to U.S. national security interests, emphasizing that they are not negotiable. Negotiations over alliance modernization must not appear transactional. Yes, listen to allies but end each conversation with a reaffirmation of U.S. commitment and resolve.
Finding the sweet spot for Asia policy will be tough for Biden. The administration must reach equilibrium on three axes: the appropriate balance of domestic and foreign policy; the right formula for burden sharing with allies and partners; and a sustainable mix of engagement and competition with China.
Biden and his top advisors acknowledge a need to focus on domestic politics. Slaughter writes that “U.S. power and influence abroad ultimately will depend on (Biden’s) ability to bring the nation together; repair its infrastructure, health and education systems; restore public trust in democracy; and close the yawning gaps of race and class.” Her conclusion echoes that of the Carnegie Endowment report on a foreign policy for the middle class discussed in a November column.
White House spokesperson Jen Psaki confirmed earlier this week that this thinking guides the new administration when she explained the reluctance to reconsider membership in the CPTPP trade deal: “President Biden knows TPP wasn’t perfect and believes we need to make it stronger and better, but at this point … our focus and his focus as it relates to the economy is on doing everything we can to advance working families and the American middle class. And so that will be his focus in the coming months.” This isn’t isolationism or a rejection of international engagement. Rather, it is a judgment about how the Biden team can best exercise international power.
Domestic realities combine with Asian regional dynamics to force the U.S. to reach new arrangements with allies about roles and missions to secure peace and ensure stability. This demands far more than bigger host-nation-support checks. Allies must assume more responsibility and Washington must delegate more authority. Done properly, this process can consolidate the U.S. commitment to the region by deepening integration with allies. Done poorly, it can antagonize partners and raise questions about U.S. resolve.
Then there is China. Allies and partners want the U.S. to lean forward on defense and be ready to prevent Chinese predation, while demanding that Washington not be a source of instability as it does so. Also, any check on Chinese revisionism must not imperil business opportunities with China. The resulting balance between engagement and competition is likely to unsettle as many people as it satisfies.
Getting all three factors right is tricky, and the China challenge is the most difficult of all. The “proper” calibration is invariably in the eye of the beholder. It is essential to recognize, however, that these debates are about the “how” of foreign policy, and not over foundational principles, that guide thinking in Washington and like-minded capitals. That basis for concerted action remains broad and strong.
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).
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