It’s hard to reduce to a word or phrase the trail of destruction that US President Donald Trump leaves behind as he leaves the world stage. And while it would be tempting for allies to write off it as an anomaly, and for opponents to uphold it as a cautionary story of the American experiment, Trump gave the world two special things that together deepen his impression on it.
First, it has charged a global ecosystem of disinformation and fascist conspiracy theories that are increasingly making large swaths of the world’s population immune to the rule of law. Second, he ripped the world’s cops out of sync. Neither will change if President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Wednesday.
Whatever consolation most nations take from Biden’s enthusiastic declaration that “America is back,” fail to grasp the trump-size hole America must dig its way out of. To do this, the United States is being absorbed into its own business or, in the words of a foreign diplomat, “playing with itself” for some time.
This does not mean a continuation of Trump’s “America first” agenda. Biden has spoken eloquently about his desire for the United States to reassert the cloak of international leadership – and he has the chance, through more humble foreign policy, to bring US leadership back to the great transnational challenges that Trump ignored or exacerbated.
But perhaps the biggest victim of America’s global dominance has been the neglect of the dark forces brewing at home. The negative effects of globalization and growing income inequality have weakened the middle class, created fertile soil for Trump’s tribal affiliation to take root, and boiled long-simmering problems of racial injustice.
Any world leader facing the problems Biden inherits – a raging pandemic, a devastated economy, and a violent uprising within its borders – would look inward. Indeed, many countries face the same headwinds. Trump-style demagoguery is flourishing in countries around the world where globalization, income inequality, and migration have alienated the working class and fueled its acceptance of populism – just like in the United States.
Whether it’s the UK’s Brexit, the election of the xenophobic president who became the authoritarian Viktor Orban, or the rise of Trump’s protégé Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, right-wing leaders have exploited the anger of their supporters to gain power grab and hold on. Poland, India, Turkey and the Philippines are all led by populist strong men who ride waves of discontent.
The coronavirus has highlighted and deepened these inequalities and is fueling global social unrest. Easily radicalizing online, dissatisfied citizens become extremist, and violent protests are the order of the day even in established democracies like Germany, COVID-19 restrictions.
Some of these groups are taking inspiration from the events of this month in Washington today and are already discussing plans online.
When I’m a leader in Europe, I don’t think about my disillusionment with Jeffersonian democracy. After watching the most powerful nation essentially suffer a coup attempt, I fear the same tsunami will collapse on my shores. If the United States, with its centuries-old institutions, has proven so vulnerable, how can countries with less institutional baggage weather such a severe storm?
As America reunites with its allies, the best way Washington would be to avoid trying to document the rifts Trump has left domestically and abroad.
Biden has said he advocates a humble foreign policy that ends long, costly, and unpopular interventions abroad in favor of one that benefits the domestic middle class. That must begin with a heightened awareness of America’s domestic political priorities and an acknowledgment that the US public has no appetite for adventurous diplomacy into which the United States fits itself into issues and places far removed from its core interests.
It also calls for a clear assessment of the post-Trump world, America’s role in it and its diminished leadership. It takes humility and patience, unusual qualities in the Beltway. The United States cannot “build back better” and “sit back at the top of the table” at the same time, as Biden has suggested.
For starters, Biden’s foreign minister candidate, Antony Blinken, must replenish the exhausted ranks of a diplomatic corps that was the zero point of Trump’s four-year attack on government institutions and officials.
Four years in which Trump rejected key allies, withdrew from international alliances and failed to comply with institutional agreements have forced the US partners to fend for themselves. The European countries used to be alone in the Trump years and pursue a policy of “strategic autonomy” favored by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Last month, just weeks before Biden took office, the European Union signed a trade deal with China, ignoring clear signals from Biden’s team that it wanted to coordinate China’s most troubled trade practices.
Beijing also reached a trade deal with 14 Asian countries, including key US allies Australia, South Korea and Japan, as well as other nations left by Washington, when Trump left the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Together the block represents 2.2 billion people and 30 percent of global GDP.
Some of Biden’s early steps – re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement and lifting travel bans for several Muslim countries, and reintegrating Iran into nuclear talks – will suggest a return to the kind of moderate US foreign policy allies. But the political rifts so evident in the United States cannot give any nation the confidence that agreements made with Biden will stand up to future administrations.
One profound way Biden can reaffirm U.S. leadership is by mobilizing efforts to address transnational challenges fueling global instability: economic stagnation, the COVID-19 pandemic, the negative effects of climate change, and state breakup, that drive the flow of refugees.
He can also lead a global campaign to curb the spread of disinformation and influence operations that contribute to the unrest. Ending Russian hacking and voting in NATO countries and combating the Chinese propaganda efforts that exert diplomatic and economic influence around the world will do more to restore the United States as a leading democracy than to return it to one outdated diplomatic gamebook that is being ignored The tectonic global shifts are taking place.
The best that the United States can do for the world and for itself is to raise antibodies against the forces that allowed Trump and leaders like him to thrive. With a more humble, pragmatic, and restrained foreign policy, Biden can reinvent American power and transform it – and perhaps the country – for the future.