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Opinion: With Biden, America Is Back — But Not At The Head Of The Table

President-elect Joe Biden introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments last week in Wilmington, Del.
Mark Makela
Getty Images
President-elect Joe Biden introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments last week in Wilmington, Del.

Aaron David Miller (@aarondmiller2), a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, served for more than two decades as a State Department Middle East analyst, adviser and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He's the author ofThe End of Greatness: Why America Can't Have (and Doesn't Want) Another Great President.

Richard Sokolsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, worked in the State Department for six different administrations and was a member of the secretary of state's Office of Policy Planning from 2005 to 2015.

Joe Biden has assembled one of the most experienced and talented national security and foreign policy teams in decades. They grasp that the world has changed and that they can't hit the rewind button to 2016. Most important, they understand that the primary challenge their boss confronts is fixing America's broken house — the key to the success, or failure, of his presidency. If the administration wants to succeed, it will have to establish a more cooperative and less imperial style of leadership, choose its battles wisely for promoting democracy and human rights, and not automatically discard the few things that President Trump got (mostly) right on foreign policy.

Biden has called this the "American century." He has said, "America is back — we're at the head of the table once again," and has noted that "the world does not organize itself." But how does the U.S. lead a world it no longer rules? Not simply by declaration. After four years of Trump's unrelenting attacks on norms and institutions, both domestic and foreign, America is going to have to persuade others that it can lead again.

The incoming administration will also need to persuade the American public that foreign policy matters for more Americans beyond the Washington Beltway. Given deep anxieties over the economy, especially in the midst of a pandemic, the administration will need to identify how foreign policy objectives relate to middle-class concerns, particularly in creating or eliminating well-paying jobs and how to reenergize base industries that anchored local economies.

In the eyes of the world, the new administration will be starting behind the curve. Our democracy has been tarnished; the bungling of the pandemic has hurt our can-do reputation, and the wholesale withdrawal from organizations and agreements has left trust in our reliability in tatters. More nations are willing to push back, as international relations expert Stephen Walt has argued, to tame American power. Indeed, many of our friends in the Asia-Pacific region are going their own way on trade and economic matters. Even some of our European allies seek greater strategic autonomy from the United States. And on some issues, global warming in particular, Europeans — not just America — have earned the right to sit at the head of Biden's table. Simply put, the U.S. is now first among equals on many issues — it can propose but not dispose. It is not, as Richard Nixon once bemoaned, a "pitiful, helpless giant." But it is not always the big dog on the block. Washington would do well to remember, therefore, that no country wants to be seen as caving to U.S. pressure. If the new administration, like its predecessor, continues to reach into the toolbox indiscriminately for sanctions and other coercive instruments to bludgeon and browbeat adversaries into submission, it will discover that neither its allies nor its adversaries are going to comply.

Biden is rightly determined to give the promotion of democracy and human rights a more central role in U.S. policy. This is both necessary and understandable, having watched Trump exchange "love letters" with dictators, kowtow to authoritarians and untether America from its values and principles. There is merit, for example, in the president-elect's proposed "Summit for Democracy" and in calling out authoritarian rulers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Korea, China and Turkey, to name a few. But the downsides of dividing the world into countries that are free and not free are also clear. Achieving most of Biden's top foreign policy priorities will require some cooperation and compromises with unsavory regimes — whether it's climate change and pandemics with China, arms control with Russia or nuclear proliferation with Iran and North Korea. In other words, the administration will need to make some compromise on its values, as all of its predecessors have done in the past, to pursue solutions to problems that can advance U.S. interests.

Thus, the next administration will need to temper its impulse for moral posturing with pragmatism. It should be careful, for example, about creating public red lines and moral litmus tests that make cooperation on vital issues impossible. It should also be mindful that publicly lacerating countries for their undemocratic practices and human rights abuses, while sometimes cathartic, is often counterproductive; conditioning U.S. assistance on a country's willingness to improve its human rights behavior has rarely been successful, and willful autocrats will not change the internal character of their countries in response to American entreaties or pressure.

The urge to undo everything Trump did on foreign policy is understandable. In so many areas, the president was a slave to his base and his vanities rather than a responsible steward of the national interest — and the implementation of many of his decisions was amateurish and irresponsible. Nonetheless, Biden should continue the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, albeit in a more orderly and responsible fashion; give up the ghost that Bashar Assad can be removed from power in Syria and eschew new military interventions, especially in the Middle East, whose problems are beyond America's capacity to repair.

Trump was also right to take a stronger stand on China trade and technology policies. Biden should also give priority to these challenges without Trump's blustering unilateralism. The president-elect also needs to continue Trump's policy of investing in Israeli-Arab state normalization but end his war on the Palestinians and try to catalyze greater Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, however modest.

Biden, his well-deserved reputation for humility notwithstanding, has repeatedly talked about America leading the world — and foreign policy activism is in the DNA of his advisers. They understand that America cannot solve all the world's problems, but — as is the wont of American diplomats — want to fix things.

Still, they need to be careful in their eagerness not to airbrush the obstacles standing in the way and lose sight of the reality that other nations also have agency and vital interests that simply can't be trampled on because America is the indispensable power, exceptional and right, and others must therefore follow its lead. America can still lead and be a force for good in a troubled world. But the architects of its foreign policy need to act with prudence, wisdom and humility, and above all see the world not just the way they want it to be but the way it actually is.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aaron David Miller
Richard Sokolsky