Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 28 November 2020



Joe Biden says America is back. Back to what?

President-elect Joe Biden on Nov. 25.
President-elect Joe Biden on Nov. 25. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
November 28, 2020 at 5:26 a.m. GMT+8

“America is back,” said President-elect Joe Biden as he announced key members of his foreign policy team. Those three seemingly simple words in fact require a lot of unpacking: back to what?

Trump-era foreign policy has certainly been a departure from seven decades of bipartisan consensus among leaders in government, business and philanthropy. The generation that felt itself dragged into two catastrophic world wars concluded that only the United States had the economic and military muscle to establish and maintain a more stable order. They understood that the long-term interests of Americans were best served by the gradual expansion of peace and prosperity worldwide.

This stance toward the world has always bred suspicion and resentment among those who, like President Trump, tend to believe that every transaction necessarily involves either “winning” or “losing.” By their logic, the wealth of other nations must reflect, at some level, a “loss” for the United States, because the money is in their pockets, not ours. Taken to an appalling extreme, Trump anathematized NATO as some sort of bad deal for our country. “The one that benefits, really, the least is the United States,” he said last year, adding: “We’re helping Europe.” In fact, the unprecedentedly stable Western alliance has been indispensable to U.S. power and wealth for Trump’s entire lifetime.

As former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden is deeply steeped in the traditional win-win view of America’s role in the world, and his team reflects that conviction. The United States, in his view, can never have too many friends, and the success of our friends is good for us, too. He is like the homeowner who understands that a safe neighborhood raises everyone’s home values.

To the extent that Biden takes the country “back” to the expansive, internationalist approach, he will benefit the national interest. But it would be a mistake to turn the clock “back” to 2016. Post-Cold War foreign policy was off track in some important ways. Trump’s radical reboot has positioned Biden to start from a new place and build something better.

Start with China. In hindsight, it’s clear that the United States gave too much and demanded too little in facilitating Beijing’s economic rise. The bipartisan consensus took as an article of faith the idea that prosperity and freedom would go hand in hand. Instead, the ruling Communist Party has grown richer — and more repressive, too. From Uighur concentration camps in Western China to the crackdown on Hong Kong in the east, Beijing is proposing an alternative to the human-rights-oriented American order. And China’s escalating conflict with Australia, a stalwart U.S. ally, is a head-on challenge to our influence across the Pacific rim.

The Biden administration should maintain Trump’s insistence that China fulfill its responsibilities and play by the rules — but do it smarter. That means restarting the Trans-Pacific Partnership of enhanced trade with our many friends in China’s neighborhood. We won’t be pushed by a repressive communist regime into abandoning longtime partners or surrendering zones of influence.

In the Middle East, Trump recognized the opportunities presented by the United States’ rise to energy independence. No longer hamstrung by our addiction to Arab oil, the United States has begun to rethink the possibilities in this seemingly impossible region. The recognition of Israel by the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reflects a sober understanding that endless conflict stands in the way of urgently needed economic diversification across North Africa.

Team Biden should press ahead with this breakthrough rather than go back. In doing so, however, the new administration should end the mollycoddling of Saudi Arabia’s reckless Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Modernization, yes; wars and assassinations, no. That’s not too much for the West to ask of MBS. As to Iran, Biden should take a long, reflective pause before undoing Trump’s policy — not because Trump was careful about withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal (he was rash), but because U.S. interests are damaged by a ping-ponging partisan approach to such a delicate matter of long-term importance.

Finally, Biden should not go “back” on Trump’s engagement with our nearest neighbors. Having renegotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement, the current administration leaves the country pointed toward shared prosperity. The goal should be to extend this development all the way to Tierra del Fuego, knitting the Americas into a hemisphere of happiness. No wall can stem mass migrations to the United States, but give people good jobs in peaceful communities and most will prefer to stay home.

Resolute regarding China, flexible in the Middle East, bullish on development of the Americas: These three themes constitute the best of Trump’s unconventional, sometimes dangerous, foreign policy. As Biden restores the United States to its rightful place in the world order — the friend of freedom and the scourge of tyrants — on these fronts, he should push ahead.

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