There’s no mistaking the relief in Western chancelleries at the imminent change of guard in Washington. Out goes policy by tweet, in comes patient consensus-building in UN committees, a renewed commitment to NATO and Asian allies and doubtless an active presence at all the big global conferences. Forgive my cynicism if, as a former diplomat, I detect the most relief coming from the foreign policy industry, which has felt underemployed during the Trump years is now looking for an uptick in business.
Amid the jubilation, it’s worth observing that his delivery on the promise of “no more wars” and recent successes in the Middle East are real and would be more widely lauded if anyone other than Donald J Trump were responsible for them. Whisper it, but less activism might just be a good thing.
To be sure, the change is not without its benefits. Trump’s penchant for springing surprises on supposed allies was hardly conducive to effective teamwork. A fresh approach under Biden should certainly allow for some quick wins. Domestic policy changes and support for multilateral action on health as well as on climate change in the run up to COP26 could both make a decisive difference, emboldening allies and making it harder for recalcitrants to hide.
But the Trump paradox points to a potential Biden paradox. How will a commitment to multilateralism and working with allies sit with pent up enthusiasm for liberal interventionism? In his first remarks after being named as Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Tony Blinken talked eloquently of his pride in the US’ role in standing up for liberal values around the world. This may sound very commendable around the (virtual) dinner tables of the Beltway or North London, but it will be much harder now (even) than in 1999 or 2003 or 2011 to summon up international support for coercive intervention.
At home – in the US, but also in Europe – voters are tired, have domestic priorities and haven’t forgotten the costly foreign policy failures of past years. Trump was right (and not alone, see James Sheehan’s “The Monopoly of Violence: Why Europeans Hate Going to War”) that Europeans have little appetite for military spending. They are unlikely again to contemplate coercion as the solution in their own neighbourhood and have little capacity for it beyond.
If the Biden Administration remains committed to both collaboration and intervention, irresistible force will before long meet immovable objects. An equally important tension is likely to emerge between the desire to work through allies and an increasing fastidiousness about who should be respectable enough. Not even all EU member states are likely to meet the high standards of today’s liberal minds, and what about India and Turkey? Without them, what kind of alliance is there? Purity isn’t on the table, but the rhetoric of American foreign policy renewal risks creating expectations which raise the stakes and influence realities on the ground. If you’re in an unstable part of the world and think the US cavalry may come to the rescue, you start taking risks which may prove unwise.
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Whatever our expectations, we may come to see the sense of relief at a Biden foreign policy as premature. But for the UK, there is no option but to wish for success. Any sensible British Government has to be aligned with the US, not on everything, but on most matters of geopolitical importance. Sitting out the dance is never wise: it is not clear that the Europeans got much practical value from the last four years of distancing themselves from Washington.
The real challenge for all of us is how to pursue foreign policy in a world which, notwithstanding the wishes of some in the new Administration, will become more multipolar not less. We are all absolutely entitled to defend our own interests actively, But we cannot seriously expect that we can bring everyone else to be like us. If force becomes less credible, expect more use of economic and other sanctions: springing surprises on allies may be out, but business is fair game.
Our record on this isn’t great. Rivals are usually able to turn even “smart” sanctions to their advantage, and the collateral damage is often high. However clever we think we are strategically, at the tactical level – which is where sanctions are applied – the autocrat on the ground usually has the upper hand.
It’s not a return to the “good old days” of liberal intervention that we need, but a more sophisticated approach to strengthening our influence where it matters. I’m not convinced that this is going to be achieved by the now conventional post-Cold War “soft power” tools favoured by the foreign policy establishment, which often involve finding the people wearing the smartest clothes and speaking the best English and throwing money at them for questionable “nation building” projects. If you think that’s smart, just look at how US and British liberals’ attempts at influencing their own fellow citizens have gone over the past few years.
Perhaps it’s time for a return to traditional diplomacy: less idealism, more realism. A quiet British word in the ear, anyone? Or is the prospect of business as usual too seductive?
David Landsman is a former British Ambassador to Greece.