foreign interests

Can Biden Make America Lead the Free World Again?

Biden speaking with reporters on the final day of the G7 summit on Sunday.
Biden speaking with reporters on the final day of the G7 summit on Sunday. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden wrapped up the first leg of his first international excursion as president with the closing of the G7 summit in Cornwall on Sunday, and the statements and commitments that came out of the meeting suggest he is having some success getting allies onboard with his foreign policy agenda.

The president’s desire to take a harder line on China’s human-rights abuses, political repression, and labor practices came through in the group’s joint communique, which may have contained softer language than Biden wanted, but still called Beijing out more forcefully than it would have without his influence. The G7 unveiled a plan, known as the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative, to fund infrastructure projects in developing countries, as an alternative to China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative. And the bloc committed to donate 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries over the next year, of which the U.S. will supply 500 million. The G7 finance ministers also agreed to a framework for a 15 percent global minimum tax rate for multinational corporations, which would mitigate the “race to the bottom” that has enabled many large companies to avoid taxes by registering themselves in countries with lower rates.

Yet as much as Biden made his mark on the event, it was colored just as strongly by the absence and memory of his predecessor, Donald Trump.

The overall atmosphere at the summit was one of relief and reunion, like a moderately dysfunctional family welcoming a cousin home from rehab. The G7 leaders took no pains to conceal how glad they were to be doing business with a good old-fashioned institutionalist American president, as opposed to a vainglorious egomaniac with a gratuitous aversion to international cooperation. U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson called Biden “a breath of fresh air.” And German chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t have to stare anyone down.

The core purpose of Biden’s trip abroad is to shore up America’s most fundamental alliances and reassure the club of democracies that Washington can be a reliable ally and leader again. At his post-G7 news conference on Sunday, Biden declared that the U.S. and its allies are “[in a contest with] autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.” This was a deliberate contrast with Trump’s zero-sum view of global politics, in which autocracy and democracy were much less important than nickels and dimes.

Yet, continuing the family in the analogy, the “welcome back, America” mood of the G7 leaders belied an anxiety that their wayward relative could relapse. Biden and his counterparts in the other rich democracies are equally aware of how limited a window he has to recommit the U.S. to global engagement. Trump may be out of the picture for the time being, but the party that remains in thrall to him seems likely to retake Congress next year, and has a decent chance to recapture the White House in 2024, with either Trump or one of his acolytes atop the ticket. Any global initiative to which Biden commits the U.S. could soon be stymied by Republicans in Congress or undone by the next Republican president.

Hence, Biden’s fundamental dilemma in dealing with Europe and other democratic allies is that no matter how personally competent and trustworthy he may be, they can’t trust the American government to uphold these commitments in the long term anymore. For decades, one of the few things Republicans and Democrats could broadly agree on was the importance of global American leadership and democracy promotion. Trump’s view of international partnerships as drains on U.S. coffers, his abandonment of the Iran deal and the Paris climate agreement, his credulous and simpering attitude toward Russian president Vladimir Putin, and his reluctance to commit to NATO’s mutual defense clause opened our allies’ eyes to the possibility that the U.S. might not always be on their side. And as the Trumpified GOP digs into deeply destructive positions like embracing conspiracy theorists, restricting voting rights, and delegitimizing elections when it doesn’t like the results, the problem isn’t just that the U.S. government won’t always be run by Democrats, but that it might not even remain democratic.

As one European official put it in a frank comment to the Washington Post: “Your democracy is in serious trouble.” That is a terrifying notion for what is sometimes called the “free world.” No other democratic country has anything approaching the economic or military might of the U.S. Even if the E.U. repaired its divisions and got its act together, it would not be able to stand up to emboldened authoritarians in Beijing and Moscow effectively without American support — and certainly not if the U.S. were working at cross purposes, as it often was under the Trump administration.

Biden is not naïve about the monumental challenge he faces. But under these constraints, demonstrating the competitiveness and dynamism of the democratic world only gets harder.

During the G7, Biden reportedly could not get countries with major trade ties to China (particularly Germany, Italy, and Japan) onboard with a more explicit stance against Beijing’s human-rights abuses and labor practices. Competing with China will require a broad commitment to a strong framework of global trade rules that put a price on China’s anti-competitive authoritarianism without the blunt and dangerous instrument of trade wars. Can our allies commit to that, knowing that Washington’s approach to China could change suddenly and dramatically in just a few years?

Other G7 plans look good on paper, but remain to be proven. It is not yet clear how the B3W initiative will work or how much money it will raise, and this cuts to the core of Biden’s approach: Can free countries mobilize enough public and private capital to rival China’s state-capitalist model of international development? If not, that will only bolster Chinese president Xi Jinping’s argument to the developing world that democracies can’t deliver. The U.K. and Switzerland, meanwhile, are already looking to wriggle out of the global minimum tax scheme.

The G7 vaccination drive will help hundreds of millions of people get protected against COVID-19 sooner than they otherwise might. Yet it falls well short of what the world needs, and what the bloc could conceivably afford to offer. As the Economist argued in a forceful editorial last week, citing IMF calculations, rich countries could have 70 percent of the world’s population vaccinated by next April with highly effective American- and European-made vaccines for a paltry $50 billion, saving countless lives and generating an additional $9 trillion in global economic growth by 2025. Imagine the geopolitical impact of Western countries promising to manufacture and donate enough vaccines to inoculate the entire world by this time next year, and then delivering on that promise. One billion doses is a big, meaningful investment, but at these prices, why not go all-in on global COVID-19 eradication through vaccination?

Biden’s next stop is the NATO summit in Brussels, where he will reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the Article 5 mutual defense clause, which Trump had undermined. The summit will address the new strategic challenges the alliance is facing from China and Russia, as well as the withdrawal from Afghanistan. NATO is updating its strategic concept for the first time since 2010. It would have done so earlier, but European leaders “didn’t want to open that Pandora’s box during the Trump administration because they didn’t know what the United States would say,” as Dan Hamilton, director of the Global Europe program at the Wilson Center, explained to Voice of America.

Yet here, too, questions remain over the effectiveness and longevity of this renewed U.S. involvement. How can Biden lead a conversation about a new NATO strategy if our allies can’t be sure the U.S. will remain committed to that strategy in 2025?

While in Brussels, Biden will also meet with the presidents of the European Commission and the European Council to discuss U.S.-E.U. cooperation in facing strategic economic challenges. “We will focus on ensuring that market democracies, not China or anyone else, write the 21st-century rules around trade and technology,“ the president wrote last week in a Washington Post op-ed outlining the goals of his trip.

Biden’s final stop will be a one-on-one meeting with Putin in Geneva, where he hopes to leverage the momentum of his meetings with allies to press the Russian leader on contentious matters, including Russian aggression in Ukraine, as well as disinformation, cyberattacks, and election interference. Perhaps wisely, he is refusing to hold a joint press conference with Putin after the meeting, denying the Russian president an opportunity to spin, dissemble, and manipulate the press (or simply outtalk the famously mush-mouthed Biden). The lead-up to this meeting is meant to impress upon Putin that the divisions he managed to sow between the U.S. and European countries during the Trump era are healing. That may not do much to change his behavior, though. After all, Putin knows as well as anyone that U.S. positions can be undermined or reversed with a single election.

As far as the G7, NATO, and E.U. are concerned, having the U.S. back at the table is far better than having it on the other side of the room or not there at all. But at this moment of unprecedented instability, the question remains: How can America lead the free world while continuing to flirt with the idea of no longer being a part of it at all?

Can Biden Make America Lead the Free World Again?