Biden wants America to re-engage with the world. That's a tough sell

Tackling Covid-19 and fixing the economy will complicate his efforts to convince an inward-looking public

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Donald Trump's foreign policy was among the most unorthodox features of his disruptive presidency. Last week, new US President Joe Biden announced at the State Department that "America is back". Perhaps, but it isn't going to be easy.

Mr Biden is trying to revive a bipartisan foreign policy consensus shaped by the Second World War, the Cold War and the post-Cold War era. It emphasised fixed or long-standing alliances; fostering international order based on rules or at least understandings; and trying to balance, when possible, American values with national interests, with the understanding that, over the long run, that adds to the US competitive advantage against undemocratic rivals.

Mr Trump wanted none of it. He cast this as a suckers’ game, with Americans being exploited, especially financially, by putative partners. Instead, he embraced an effectively mercantilist approach, seeking to extract maximum short-term, especially financial, advantage. He had no interest in promoting traditional US values, which he doesn't seem to share.

Moreover, he regarded fixed and long-standing alliances as suspect, burdensome and even destructive. He made no secret of even wanting to withdraw the US from Nato.

Mr Biden campaigned as Mr Trump’s antithesis in many ways. The watchword of his presidency, thus far at least, is the restoration of "regular order", both at home and abroad.

On January 22, new Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin became Mr Biden’s second confirmed cabinet member. He immediately telephoned Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to reiterate Washington's commitment to the alliance. Nato has committed to increasing participation in the missions in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq, in a manner that is yet to be defined. So, there’s positive outreach in both directions.

Yet Nato remains a regrettably representative anachronism.

It was established as an anti-Soviet alliance, but the USSR is long gone. The lack of an ongoing consensus raison d'etre makes the organisation vulnerable to internal discord, with at least one member state, Turkey, pursuing a highly aggressive agenda at the expense of other members' interests and international stability. The absence of a clear mission leaves Nato vulnerable to criticism like Mr Trump's, who treated it as an unprofitable protection racket.

Even if Mr Trump had secured a second term, he probably couldn't have fully withdrawn from or dismantled Nato. But Mr Biden probably won't be able to fully repair the damage done over the past four years, or, even more seriously, paper over the actually existing flaws glaringly exposed by Mr Trump's attitude.

The end of the Cold War not only stripped Nato of its foundational purpose, it yanked away the external threat that informed all post-Second World War iterations of US internationalism and that ensured the unbroken primacy of such policies.

(FILES) In this file photo Russian army RS-24 Yars ballistic missile system moves through Red Square during a military parade, which marks the 75th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Moscow on June 24, 2020. US President Joe Biden's administration on February 3, 2021 extended the New START nuclear treaty with Russia by five years, saying it hoped to prevent an arms race despite rising tensions with Moscow including over its imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. One day before the treaty was set to expire, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was extending New START by the maximum allowed time of five years.
 / AFP / POOL / Pavel Golovkin
Russian army RS-24 Yars ballistic missile system moves through Red Square during a military parade. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was extending New Start by the maximum allowed time of five years. AFP

It took many years and the radical over-extension, informed by neoconservative hubris, of the first George W Bush term, but eventually the absence of a "Soviet menace" led to the re-emergence of isolationism in US foreign policy. It finally arrived in the modified form of Mr Trump's "America First" quasi-mercantile agenda.

That stance remains popular among right-wing Republican voters. And there is an analogous neo-isolationist orientation growing among left-wing Democrats. The two often find themselves incongruously aligned, and they have joined forces in a relatively new Washington foreign policy think tank.

Some aspects of the Trump approach in fact have roots in Barack Obama’s administration. But they developed considerable momentum under Mr Trump.

Not entirely dissimilarly to his predecessor, Mr Biden’s foreign policy promises to secure tangible benefits to ordinary Americans. But, unlike Mr Trump, it intends be seen as delivering them.

In essence, Mr Biden has outlined a modified version of "America First", especially since he has little choice but to focus on American domestic crises. Only a remarkable series of foreign policy successes could fully restore traditional US internationalism, but Mr Biden wants to take it as far as possible.

His opening agenda reflects this emerging paradigm.

The reassertion of values includes objecting strongly to the coup in Myanmar, taking a far stronger rhetorical line with Russia (while simultaneously extending the New Start treaty with Moscow for an additional five years), and reopening US immigration.

The recommitment to multilateralism involves rejoining the World Health Organisation and the Paris climate accord.

Conflict resolution will be a key theme, including a major push already under way to help end the war in Yemen. Many Democrats will support this as a supposed repudiation of Mr Trump and step towards restoring international order, but it is much easier said than done.

The key will be somehow convincing the Houthis to make the political and security commitments necessary to arrive at a political settlement. Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledged in his Senate confirmation testimony that the Houthis are clearly responsible for the conflict, few in Washington seem to comprehend the immense difficulties in trying to negotiate with them.

Rebuilding a nuclear dialogue with Iran is a key priority, but the administration hasn't gone further than hinting at a possible "freeze" whereby both sides do nothing to further violate the nuclear deal. Progress will be much slower and more difficult than many hoped.

Internationalists failed to convince ordinary Americans that they indeed benefit from global engagement

The philosophical core of Mr Biden’s speech was: "There’s no longer a bright line between foreign and domestic policy.”

This sentence reflects his two guiding concepts. First is a return to "regular order" both in the US system and in international relations. Second is the commitment to ensure American "working families" experience the benefits of robust international engagement, effectively his own version of “America First".

It is an overdue recognition that internationalists failed to convince ordinary Americans that they indeed benefit from global engagement. That failure made it possible for Mr Trump and others to paint international commitments as an intolerable burden or worse.

In addition to facing enormous challenges at home, including the coronavirus and economic crises and poisonous political divisions and mistrust, Mr Biden seems to be embracing the task of reconstructing an American consensus for internationalist engagement. It might be his most ambitious undertaking of all.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National