A Foreign Policy for the World as It Is

Biden and the Search for a New American Strategy

“America is back.” In the early days of his presidency, Joe Biden repeated those words as a starting point for his foreign policy. The phrase offered a bumper-sticker slogan to pivot away from Donald Trump’s chaotic leadership. It also suggested that the United States could reclaim its self-conception as a virtuous hegemon, that it could make the rules-based international order great again. Yet even though a return to competent normalcy was in order, the Biden administration’s mindset of restoration has occasionally struggled against the currents of our disordered times. An updated conception of U.S. leadership—one tailored to a world that has moved on from American primacy and the eccentricities of American politics—is necessary to minimize enormous risks and pursue new opportunities.

To be sure, Biden’s initial pledge was a balm to many after Trump’s presidency ended in the dual catastrophes of COVID-19 and the January 6 insurrection. Yet two challenges largely beyond the Biden administration’s control shadowed the message of superpower restoration. First was the specter of Trump’s return. Allies watched nervously as the former president maintained his grip on the Republican Party and Washington remained mired in dysfunction. Autocratic adversaries, most notably Russian President Vladimir Putin, bet on Washington’s lack of staying power. New multilateral agreements akin to the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris agreement on climate change, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership were impossible, given the vertiginous swings in U.S. foreign policy.

Second, the old rules-based international order doesn’t really exist anymore. Sure, the laws, structures, and summits remain in place. But core institutions such as the UN Security Council and the World Trade Organization are tied in knots by disagreements among their members. Russia is committed to disrupting U.S.-fortified norms. China is committed to building its own alternative order. On trade and industrial policy, even Washington is moving away from core tenets of post–Cold War globalization. Regional powers such as Brazil, India, Turkey, and the Gulf states pick and choose which partner to plug into depending on the issue. Even the high-water mark for multilateral action in the Biden years—support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia—remains a largely Western initiative. As the old order unravels, these overlapping blocs are competing over what will replace it.

A Biden victory in this fall’s election would offer reassurance that the particular risk of another Trump presidency has passed, but that will not vanquish the forces of disorder. To date, Washington has failed to do the necessary audit of the ways its post–Cold War foreign policy discredited U.S. leadership. The “war on terror” emboldened autocrats, misallocated resources, fueled a global migration crisis, and contributed to an arc of instability from South Asia through North Africa. The free-market prescriptions of the so-called Washington consensus ended in a financial crisis that opened the door to populists railing against out-of-touch elites. The overuse of sanctions led to increased workarounds and global fatigue with Washington’s weaponization of the dollar’s dominance. Over the last two decades, American lectures on democracy have increasingly been tuned out.

Indeed, after Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel and the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, American rhetoric about the rules-based international order has been seen around the world on a split screen of hypocrisy, as Washington has supplied the Israeli government with weapons used to bombard Palestinian civilians with impunity. The war has created a policy challenge for an administration that criticizes Russia for the same indiscriminate tactics that Israel has used in Gaza, a political challenge for a Democratic Party with core constituencies who don’t understand why the president has supported a far-right government that ignores the United States’ advice, and a moral crisis for a country whose foreign policy purports to be driven by universal values. Put simply: Gaza should shock Washington out of the muscle memory that guides too many of its actions.

If Biden does win a second term, he should use it to build on those of his policies that have accounted for shifting global realities, while pivoting away from the political considerations, maximalism, and Western-centric view that have caused his administration to make some of the same mistakes as its predecessors. The stakes are high. Whoever is president in the coming years will have to avoid global war, respond to the escalating climate crisis, and grapple with the rise of new technologies such as artificial intelligence. Meeting the moment requires abandoning a mindset of American primacy and recognizing that the world will be a turbulent place for years to come. Above all, it requires building a bridge to the future—not the past.

One of Biden’s mantras is “Don’t compare me to the Almighty; compare me to the alternative.” As the presidential campaign heats up, it is worth heeding this advice. But to properly outline the dangers of a second Trump term, it is necessary to take Trump’s arguments seriously, despite the unserious form they often take. Much of what Trump says resonates broadly. Americans are tired of wars; indeed, his takeover of the Republican Party would have been impossible without the Iraq war, which discredited the GOP establishment. Americans also no longer trust their elites. Although Trump’s rhetoric about a “deep state” moves quickly into baseless conspiracy theory, it strikes a chord with voters who wonder why so many of the politicians who promised victories in Afghanistan and Iraq were never held to account. And although Trump’s willingness to cut off assistance to Ukraine is abhorrent to many, there is a potent populism to it. How long will the United States spend tens of billions of dollars helping a country whose stated aim—the recapture of all Ukrainian territory—seems unachievable?

Trump has also harnessed a populist backlash to globalization from both the right and the left. Particularly since the 2008 financial crisis, large swaths of the public in democracies have simmered with discontent over widening inequality, deindustrialization, and a perceived loss of control and lack of meaning. It is no wonder that the exemplars of post–Cold War globalization—free trade agreements, the U.S.-Chinese relationship, and the instruments of international economic cooperation itself—have become ripe targets for Trump. When Trump’s more punitive approaches to rivals, such as his trade war with China, didn’t precipitate all the calamities that some had predicted, his taboo-breaking approach appeared to be validated. The United States, it turned out, did have leverage.

But offering a potent critique of problems should not be confused with having the right solutions to them. To begin with, Trump’s own presidency seeded much of the chaos that Biden has faced. Time and again, Trump pursued politically motivated shortcuts that made things worse. To end the war in Afghanistan, he cut a deal with the Taliban over the heads of the Afghan people, setting a timeline for withdrawal that was shorter than the one Biden eventually adopted. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal despite Iranian compliance, unshackling the country’s nuclear program, escalating a proxy war across the Middle East, and sowing doubt across the world about whether the United States keeps its word. By moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, recognizing the annexation of the Golan Heights, and pursuing the Abraham Accords, he cut the Palestinians out of Arab-Israeli normalization and emboldened Israel’s far right, lighting a fuse that detonated in the current war.

Although Trump’s tougher line with China demonstrated the United States’ leverage, it was episodic and uncoordinated with allies. As a result, Beijing was able to cast itself as a more predictable partner to much of the world, while the supply chain disruptions caused by trade disputes and decoupling created new inefficiencies—and drove up costs—in the global economy. Trump’s lurch from confronting to embracing Kim Jong Un enabled the North Korean leader to advance his nuclear and missile programs under reduced pressure. Closer to home, Trump’s recognition of an alternative Venezuelan government under the opposition leader Juan Guaidó managed to strengthen the incumbent Nicolás Maduro’s hold on power. The “maximum pressure” policy toward Venezuela and Cuba, which sought to promote regime change through crippling sanctions and diplomatic isolation, fueled humanitarian crises that have sent hundreds of thousands of people to the United States’ southern border.

A second Trump term would start amid a more volatile global environment than his first, and there would be fewer guardrails constraining a president who would be in command of his party, surrounded by loyalists, and freed from ever having to face voters again. Although there are many risks, three stand out. First, Trump’s blend of strongman nationalism and isolationism could create a permission structure for aggression. A withdrawal of U.S. support for Ukraine—and, perhaps, for NATO itself—would embolden Putin to push deeper into the country. Were Washington to abandon its European allies and promote right-wing nationalism, it could exacerbate political fissures within Europe, emboldening Russian-aligned nationalists in such places as Hungary and Serbia who have echoed Putin in seeking to reunite ethnic populations in neighboring states.

Despite U.S.-Chinese tensions, East Asia has avoided the outright conflict of Europe and the Middle East. But consider the opportunity that a Trump victory would present to North Korea. Fortified by increased Russian technological assistance, Kim could ratchet up military provocations on the Korean Peninsula, believing that he has a friend in the White House. Meanwhile, according to U.S. assessments, China’s military will be ready for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. If Chinese leader Xi Jinping truly wishes to forcibly bring Taiwan under Beijing’s sovereignty, the twilight of a Trump presidency—by which point the United States would likely be alienated from its traditional allies—could present an opening.

Second, if given the chance, Trump has made it clear that he would almost certainly roll back American democracy, a move that would reverberate globally. If his first election represented a one-off disruption to the democratic world, his second would more definitively validate an international trend toward ethnonationalism and authoritarian populism. Momentum could swing further in the direction of far-right parties in Europe, performative populists in the Americas, and nepotistic and transactional corruption in Asia and Africa. Consider for a moment the aging roster of strongmen who will likely still be leading other powers—not just Xi and Putin but also Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Ali Khamenei in Iran, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. To say the least, this cast of characters is unlikely to promote respect for democratic norms within borders or conciliation beyond them.

This leads to the third danger. In the coming years, leaders will increasingly be confronted with global problems that can be managed or solved only through cooperation. As the climate crisis worsens, a Trump presidency would make a coordinated international response much harder and validate the backlash against environmental policies that has been building within advanced economies. At the same time, artificial intelligence is poised to take off, creating both valuable opportunities and enormous risks. At a moment when the United States should be turning to diplomacy to avoid wars, establish new norms, and promote greater international cooperation, the country would be led by an “America first” strongman.

In any administration, national security policy is a peculiar mix of long-standing commitments, old political interests, new presidential initiatives, and improvised responses to sudden crises. Navigating the rough currents of the world, the Biden administration has often seemed to embody the contradictions of this dynamic, with one foot in the past, yearning nostalgically for American primacy, and one foot in the future, adjusting to the emerging world as it is.

Through its affirmative agenda, the administration has reacted well to changing realities. Biden linked domestic and foreign policy through his legislative agenda. The CHIPS Act made substantial investments in science and innovation, including the domestic manufacturing of semiconductors. The act worked in parallel with ramped-up export and investment controls on China’s high-tech sector, which have buttressed the United States’ lead in the development of new technologies such as AI and quantum computing. Although this story is more complicated to tell than one about a tariff-based trade war, Biden’s policy is in fact more coherent: revitalize U.S. innovation and advanced manufacturing, disentangle critical supply chains from China, and maintain a lead for U.S. companies in developing new and potentially transformative technologies.

Gaza should shock Washington out of the muscle memory that guides too many of its actions.
Biden’s most significant piece of legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, made enormous investments in clean energy technology. These investments will allow the United States to raise its ambition in meeting climate goals by pushing domestic industry and global markets to shift away from fossil fuels faster. Although this breakthrough enhanced U.S. credibility on climate change, it also created new challenges, as even allies have complained that Washington resorted to subsidies instead of pursuing coordinated cross-border approaches to reduce emissions. In this respect, however, the Biden administration was dealing with the world as it is. Congress cannot pass complex reforms such as putting a price on carbon; what it can do is pass large spending bills that invest in the United States.

Despite tensions over U.S. industrial policy, the Biden administration has effectively reinvested in alliances that frayed under Trump. That effort has tacitly acknowledged that the world now features competing blocs, which makes it harder for the United States to pursue major initiatives by working through large international institutions or with other members of the great-power club. Instead, Washington has prioritized groupings of like-minded countries that are, to use a catch phrase, “fit for purpose.” Collaboration with the United Kingdom and Australia on nuclear submarine technology. New infrastructure and AI initiatives through the G-7. Structured efforts to create more consultation among U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific. This approach involves a dizzying number of parts; one can lose track of the number of regional consultative groups that now exist. But in the context of an unraveled international order, it makes sense to thread together cooperation where possible, while trying to turn new habits of cooperation into enduring arrangements.

Most notably, Biden’s reinvestment in European alliances paid off when Washington was able to swiftly mobilize support for Ukraine in 2022. This task was made easier by the administration’s innovative release of intelligence on Russia’s intentions to invade, an overdue reform of the way that Washington manages information. Although the war has reached a tenuous stalemate, the effort to fortify transatlantic institutions continues to advance. NATO has grown in size, relevance, and resourcing. European Union institutions have taken a more proactive role in foreign policy, most notably in coordinating support for Ukraine and accelerating its candidacy for EU membership. For all the understandable consternation about Washington’s struggle to pass a recent aid bill for Ukraine, Europe’s focus on its own institutions and capabilities was long overdue.

Yet there are three important ways in which the Biden administration has yet to recalibrate its approach to the world of post-American primacy. The first has to do with American politics. On several issues that engender controversy in Congress, the administration has constrained or distorted its options by preemptively deferring to outdated hard-liners. Even as Trump has demonstrated how the left-right axis has been scrambled on foreign policy, Biden at times feels trapped in the national security politics of the immediate post-9/11 era. Yet what once allowed a politician to appear tough to appease hawks in Washington was rarely good policy; now, it is no longer necessarily good politics.

In Latin America, the Biden administration was slow to pivot away from Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaigns on Venezuela and Cuba. Biden maintained, for example, the avalanche of sanctions that Trump imposed on Cuba, including the cynical return of that country to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism just before leaving office, in January 2021. The result has been an acute humanitarian crisis in which U.S. sanctions exacerbated shortages of basic staples such as food and fuel, contributing to widespread suffering and migration. In the Middle East, the administration failed to move swiftly to reenter the politically contested Iran nuclear deal, opting instead to pursue what Biden called a “longer and stronger” agreement, even though Trump was the one who violated the deal’s terms. Instead, the administration embraced Trump’s Abraham Accords as central to its Middle East policy while reverting to confrontation with Iran. This effectively embraced Netanyahu’s preferred course: a shift away from pursuing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and toward an open-ended proxy war with Tehran.

Anyone who has worked at the nexus of U.S. politics and national security knows that avoiding friction with anti-Cuban and pro-Israeli hard-liners in Congress can feel like the path of least resistance. But that logic has turned into a trap. After October 7, Biden decided to pursue a strategy of fully embracing Netanyahu—insisting (for a time) that any criticism would be issued in private and that U.S. military assistance would not be conditioned on the actions of the Israeli government. This engendered immediate goodwill in Israel, but it preemptively eliminated U.S. leverage. It also overlooked the far-right nature of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, which offered warning signs about the indiscriminate way in which it planned to prosecute its military campaign, as Israeli officials cut off food and water flowing into Gaza within days of Hamas’s attack. In the months that followed, the administration has been trying to catch up to a deteriorating situation, evolving from a strategy of embracing Netanyahu, to one of issuing rhetorical demands that were largely ignored, to one of partial restrictions on offensive military assistance. Ironically, by being mindful of the political risks of breaking with Netanyahu, Biden invited greater political risks from within the Democratic coalition and around the world.

The temptation to succumb to Washington’s outdated instincts has contributed to a second liability: the pursuit of maximalist objectives. The administration has shown some prudence in this area. Even as competition ramped up with China, Biden has worked over the last year to rebuild lines of communication with Beijing and has largely avoided provocative pronouncements on Taiwan. And even as he committed the United States to helping Ukraine defend itself, Biden set the objective of avoiding a direct war between the United States and Russia (although his rhetoric did drift into endorsing regime change in Moscow). The bigger challenge has at times come from outside the administration, as some supporters of Ukraine indulged in a premature triumphalism that raised impossible expectations for last year’s Ukrainian counteroffensive. Paradoxically, this impulse ended up hurting Ukraine: when the campaign inevitably came up short, it made the broader U.S. policy toward Ukraine look like a failure. Sustaining support for Ukraine will require greater transparency about what is achievable in the near term and an openness to negotiations in the medium term.

Gaza also showcases the danger of maximalist aims. Israel’s stated objective of destroying Hamas has never been achievable. Since Hamas would never announce its own surrender, pursuing this goal would require a perpetual Israeli occupation of Gaza or the mass displacement of its people. That outcome may be what some Israeli officials really want, as evidenced by right-wing ministers’ own statements. It is certainly what many people around the world, horrified by the campaign in Gaza, believe the Israeli government really wants. These critics wonder why Washington would support such a campaign, even as its own rhetoric opposes it. Instead of seeking to moderate Israel’s unsustainable course, Washington needs to use its leverage to press for negotiated agreements, Palestinian state building, and a conception of Israeli security that is not beholden to expansionism or permanent occupation.

Indeed, too many prescriptions sound good in Washington but fail to account for simple realities. Even with the United States’ military advantage, China will develop advanced technologies and maintain its claim over Taiwan. Even with sustained U.S. support, Ukraine will have to live next to a large, nationalist, nuclear-armed Russia. Even with its military dominance, Israel cannot eliminate the Palestinian demand for self-determination. If Washington allows foreign policy to be driven by zero-sum maximalist demands, it risks a choice between open-ended conflict and embarrassment.

This leads to the third way in which Washington must change its approach. Too often, the United States has appeared unable or unwilling to see itself through the eyes of most of the world’s population, particularly people in the global South who feel that the international order is not designed for their benefit. The Biden administration has made laudable efforts to change this perception—for instance, delivering COVID-19 vaccines across the developing world, mediating conflicts from Ethiopia to Sudan, and sending food aid to places hit hard by shortages exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Yet the overuse of sanctions, along with the prioritization of Ukraine and other U.S. geopolitical interests, misreads the room. To build better ties with developing countries, Washington needs to consistently prioritize the issues they care about: investment, technology, and clean energy.

Once again, Gaza interacts with this challenge. To be blunt: for much of the world, it appears that Washington doesn’t value the lives of Palestinian children as much as it values the lives of Israelis or Ukrainians. Unconditional military aid to Israel, questioning the Palestinian death toll, vetoing cease-fire resolutions at the UN Security Council, and criticizing investigations into alleged Israeli war crimes may all feel like autopilot in Washington—but that’s precisely the problem. Much of the world now hears U.S. rhetoric about human rights and the rule of law as cynical rather than aspirational, particularly when it fails to wrestle with double standards. Total consistency is unattainable in foreign policy. But by listening and responding to more diverse voices from around the world, Washington could begin to build a reservoir of goodwill.

In its more affirmative agenda, the Biden administration is repositioning the United States for a changing world by focusing on the resilience of its own democracy and economy while rebooting alliances in Europe and Asia. To extend that regeneration into something more global and lasting, it should abandon the pursuit of primacy while embracing an agenda that can resonate with more of the world’s governments and people.

As was the case in the Cold War, the most important foreign policy achievement will simply be avoiding World War III. Washington must recognize that all three fault lines of global conflict today—Russia-Ukraine, Iran-Israel, and China-Taiwan—run across territories just beyond the reach of U.S. treaty obligations. In other words, these are not areas where the American people have been prepared to go to war directly. With little public support and no legal obligation to do that, Washington should not count on bluffing or military buildups alone to resolve these issues; instead, it will have to focus relentlessly on diplomacy, buttressed by reassurance to frontline partners that there are alternative pathways to achieving security.

Avoiding friction with anti-Cuban and pro-Israeli hard-liners in Congress can feel like the path of least resistance.
In Ukraine, the United States and Europe should focus on protecting and investing in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government—drawing Ukraine into European institutions, sustaining its economy, and fortifying it for lengthy negotiations with Moscow so that time works in Kyiv’s favor. In the Middle East, Washington should join with Arab and European partners to work directly with Palestinians on the development of new leadership and toward the recognition of a Palestinian state, while supporting Israel’s security. Regional de-escalation with Iran should, as it did during the Obama administration, begin with negotiated restrictions on its nuclear program. In Taiwan, the United States should try to preserve the status quo by investing in Taiwanese military capabilities while avoiding saber rattling, by structuring engagement with Beijing to avoid miscalculation, and by mobilizing international support for a negotiated, peaceful resolution to Taiwan’s status.

Hawks will inevitably attack diplomacy on each of these issues with tired charges of appeasement, but consider the alternative of seeking the total defeat of Russia, regime change in Iran, and Taiwanese independence. Can Washington, or the world, risk a drift into global conflagration? Moreover, the reality is that sanctions and military aid alone will not stop war from spreading or somehow cause the governments of Russia, Iran, and China to collapse. Better outcomes, including within those countries, will be more attainable if Washington takes a longer view. Ultimately, the health of the United States’ own political model and society is a more powerful force for change than purely punitive measures. Indeed, one lesson that is lost on today’s hawks is that the civil rights movement did far more to win the Cold War than the war in Vietnam did.

None of this will be easy, and success is not preordained, since unreliable adversaries also have agency. But given the stakes, it is worth exploring how a world of competing superpower blocs could be knitted into coexistence and negotiation on issues that cannot be dealt with in isolation. For instance, AI presents one area in which nascent dialogue between Washington and Beijing should evolve into the pursuit of shared international norms. Laudable U.S. efforts to pursue collaborative research on AI safety with like-minded countries will inevitably have to expand to further include China in higher-level and more consequential talks. These efforts should seek agreement on the mitigation of extreme harms, from the use of AI in developing nuclear and biological weapons to the arrival of artificial general intelligence, an advanced form of AI that risks surpassing human capacities and controls. At the same time, as AI moves out into the world, the United States can use its leadership to work with countries that are eager to harness the technology for positive ends, particularly in the developing world. The United States could offer incentives for countries to cooperate with Washington on both AI safety and affirmative uses of new technologies.

A similar dynamic is required on clean energy. If there is a second Biden administration, most of its efforts to combat climate change will likely shift from domestic action to international cooperation, particularly if there is divided government in Washington. As the United States works to secure supply chains for critical minerals used for clean energy, it will need to avoid constantly working at cross-purposes with Beijing. At the same time, it has an opportunity—through “de-risking” supply chains, forging public-private partnerships, and starting multilateral initiatives—to invest more in parts of Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia that have not always been an attractive destination for American capital. In a sense, the Inflation Reduction Act has to be globalized.

Finally, the United States should focus its support for democracy on the health of existing open societies and offering lifelines to besieged civil society groups around the world. As someone who has made the case for putting support for democracy at the center of U.S. foreign policy, I must acknowledge that the calcification of the democratic recession in much of the world requires Washington to recalibrate. Instead of framing the battle between democracy and autocracy as a confrontation with a handful of geopolitical adversaries, policymakers in democracies must recognize that it is first and foremost a clash of values that must be won within their own societies. From that self-corrective vantage point, the United States should methodically invest in the building blocks of democratic ecosystems: anticorruption and accountability initiatives, independent journalism, civil society, digital literacy campaigns, and counter-disinformation efforts. The willingness to share sensitive information, on display in the run-up to war in Ukraine, should be applied to other cases where human rights can be defended through transparency. Outside government, democratic movements and political parties across the world should become more invested in one another’s success, mirroring what the far right has done over the last decade by sharing best practices, holding regular meetings, and forming transnational coalitions.

Ultimately, the most important thing that America can do in the world is detoxify its own democracy, which is the main reason a Trump victory would be so dangerous. In the United States, as elsewhere, people are craving a renewed sense of belonging, meaning, and solidarity. These are not concepts that usually find their way into foreign policy discussions, but if officials do not take that longing seriously, they risk fueling the brand of nationalism that leads to autocracy and conflict. The simple and repeated affirmation that all human life matters equally, and that people everywhere are entitled to live with dignity, should be America’s basic proposition to the world—a story it must commit to in word and deed.

Check Also

Putin’s New War Economy

Why Soviet-Style Military Spending—and State Intervention—Won’t Save Russia In Russia, the tradition of making fun …