Now that the sun has set on the 45th U.S. president, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have inherited a wide set of international issues. None are as easy to fix as the doors and windows of our nation’s Capitol, but they are just as crucial to the house that is American foreign policy. President Biden will reverse course on many of former President Trump’s foreign policy actions, but we cannot let ourselves believe that just ending these “policies” will fix our problems. The United States faces many questions regarding our credibility and hopping into a DeLorean and returning to “how things were in the before time” will not meet the challenges we face today.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States stood as the undisputed king of the mountain. China was relatively weak and Russian power crumbled underneath the weight of its lumbering empire. The international order relied on many things, and one of them was American credibility, but things have changed. Russia and China now challenge the international order, nationalists have undermined Western institutions from within (obvious insinuation), and countries that once were on their way to being democracies have experienced backsliding. Add existential threats in climate change and failed states, welcome to 2021.
Into these challenges stepped Donald Trump. He sifted through popular discontent to find some kernels of truth, such as some of China’s WTO trade violations, and provided an easy answer to the villain. Just tax their imports and hope the tough guy image offsets China squeezing farmers. A kernel of truth? Previous approaches to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula have failed. The answer? Let’s call names, have two summits of little consequence, and then kind of just ignore Kim Jong-Un.
These are emblematic of an administration that latched on to electorate distrust of the American political system and international institutions to weave a nebulous “America first” policy. Of course, said policy resembled more of an ambiguous guideline that appeared to define a win for America and for Trump as more or less the same thing. One result of this perplexing guiding light of a policy is that American credibility has been very damaged. While Trump has increased allies’ financial contributions to NATO, questions about the credibility of our commitment to the alliance introduce more uncertainty into the international system. Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and increased tensions with Tehran without an apparent endgame. From Trump’s actions in Syria to a meaningless agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, we have some strong credibility work ahead.
Enter the Biden administration. The new president has said the United States must return to its role as global leader. Incoming National Security Advisor and Minnesota’s own Jake Sullivan has written how our domestic and international agendas should align. Indeed, this is very true. But considering the volatility of American domestic politics, many states, including some of our allies, have factored into their political calculations moving forward without American leadership. There are questions regarding the credibility of American commitments.
While I snipe at this credibility problem, let’s look at the domestic angle. The right is not alone in its dislike of certain aspects of the international order. The left does not like what it sees as profits over people. Domestically, the left argues for racial, social, and climate justice. They lament Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and deplore Israel’s actions in the occupied territories. If an administration is to weave the domestic and the international, who gets to define the interests? Is it businesses, various activists, workers, or someone else? Furthermore, what happens when interests collide? If climate change is going to be a large part of foreign policy, what happens if that occasionally runs counter to the geopolitical calculus with China?
Can we go back to the way things were in the before times? Well, the long ago before Trump is when the forces of nationalism, discontent, and rage against the machine maturated as people slipped through the cracks. Remember 2008? American interests, like combating climate change, now must be secured in a world where China and Russia challenge the international order and allies have learned to move forward without the United States because of concerns over our credibility. The Biden administration faces profoundly neglected challenges, and unfortunately, we do not get to hop in a DeLorean and come back to these pivotal four years and try again.
Isaac Russell is a legislative staffer in the Minnesota Senate and a recent graduate of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.
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