Judy Asks: Can the United States Regain Its Global Leadership?
Rosa BalfourDirector of Carnegie Europe
Europeans may have fallen out of love with America, but most European governments wish a restoration of its leadership. Should Democratic candidate Joe Biden become the next U.S. president, 2021 will start with reconciliation diplomacy between old transatlantic allies.
Four years of radically revisionist U.S. international policy have emboldened autocrats around the world, prompted foreign adventurism, escalated conflict on Europe’s borders, and sowed division among partners. Despite this, the EU has not overcome its congenital weakness in dealing with geopolitics and needs its old ally.
But there will be no red carpet rolled out for the old transatlantic relationship. Washington’s spotlight will not shine on Europe. U.S. foreign policy will reflect efforts to heal domestic polarization and pivot toward Asia, with China as the overriding preoccupation. The EU’s existential angst over qualified majority voting in foreign policy or summitry symbolism will be met with impatience. This message has been repeatedly delivered by messengers of all stripes. Maturing into an international actor is long overdue.
Europe may not be good at playing geopolitics, but it will not play ball with the United States on all matters—for instance on defense, technology, and trade. And it will want to use its cards as a global leader on climate change and multilateralism. Important readjustments to U.S. leadership and its friendships are to be expected, with learning processes needed on both sides of the Atlantic.
William J. BurnsPresident of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Yes. It will require, however, a reinvention of U.S. foreign policy for a post-primacy era, in which America is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical block.
The United States still has a relatively strong hand to play—not only because of our military and economic leverage, but also because of our capacity for drawing on alliances and partnerships, which still sets us apart from lonelier rivals like China and Russia. America also has enormous capacity for self-repair—our most exceptional national trait, but one that has rarely been tested as it has in recent years.
America’s image and influence have been deeply corroded during the era of U.S. President Donald Trump. A new administration will have to navigate between the twin illusions of restoration and retrenchment. U.S. policymakers will have to work hard to overcome the skepticism of even our closest allies, who worry that America’s political polarization has infected its diplomacy, and that the United States is an increasingly unreliable partner.
U.S. leaders will have to be equally honest about the importance of better connecting foreign policy to domestic renewal, given the growing disconnect between the Washington establishment and many Americans disaffected by overreach abroad and the uneven effects of globalization.
A reinvented and more disciplined U.S. approach to global leadership must reinforce three crucial priorities: helping America’s middle class regain its competitiveness and cushioning it against inevitable external shocks; refashioning America’s organizing role in dealing with many of those looming shocks, from cooperation on global health and economic recovery to the massive challenges posed by climate change and the revolution in technology; and managing competition with China, America’s central geopolitical test in the twenty-first century.
These priorities require a decisive turn away from the blustery unilateralism of Donald Trump and a reinvestment in alliances, especially a reimagined transatlantic alliance. All much easier said than done, but an infinitely more promising alternative to the ruinous path we’re on today.
Rudra ChaudhuriDirector of Carnegie India
What leadership exactly means can no longer be taken for granted. The United States served as the primary architect of a system of norms and rules across global economics, health, and security in the aftermath of World War II. It is now a disrupter.
Whatever the result of the U.S. presidential election on November 3, 2020, some trends are becoming clearer. First, protectionist instincts have been internalized within the United States. This will not be easy to reverse. Second, returning to multilateral leadership, if desired, will take time to realize. Third, the wheels have come off the Sino-American relationship. This will persist.
Yet for India, there is still much to be gained by the United States’ current “block-chained” position in world politics. The United States is central to the future of stability in a free and open Indo-Pacific. The transactional focus on bilateralism opens possibilities for India in multilateral forums like the G20 (which it will preside over in 2022) and at the UN. The United States remains India’s largest trading partner.
In sum, American leadership is still crucial, even if it pushes India to have to continuously hedge its strategic bets.
Paul HaenleDirector of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy
Beijing has dramatically departed from former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s policy of keeping a “low profile” internationally.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has proclaimed that China should “take center stage in the world,” and China is increasingly assuming leadership roles in international organizations, aiming to change norms on internet governance and technology standards while rewriting rules governing human rights.
China’s growing influence could pose fundamental challenges to the current rules-based order, one that has underpinned the international system since the end of World War II. As Beijing continues to develop, it will pose an even greater challenge to the United States and the global governance system. Yet the Trump administration has ceded the playing field to China by abdicating global leadership and neglecting to work with like-minded countries around the world, all while sowing division at home.
Given China’s ambitious agenda at home and abroad as well as the more uncertain geopolitical environment, whoever is in the White House come January will need to reassert America’s global leadership role.
In dealing with China, Washington should move away from saber-rattling and shift to a problem-solving approach that better manages or resolves the growing challenges we face. It will require American officials to recognize the significant challenge posed by a more competitive U.S.-China relationship, despite the need for continued cooperation on transnational issues like climate change and global pandemics.
Key to any successful U.S. policy will be repairing and strengthening the United States domestically while asserting a vision for a reinvigorated global order that is welcomed abroad.
Peter KellnerVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe
Short answer: not until Donald Trump leaves the White House.
To flesh that out from a UK standpoint: Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a good personal relationship with Trump. If Biden wins in November, Johnson will need to act with care to get as close as possible to the new president.
However, by any objective test, Trump’s global stance has been out of line with that of Europe generally, including that of the UK. These differences range from the general—Trump’s disdain for international norms, rules, and institutions—to the specific.
In the UK, all main parties are committed to the Paris Agreement on climate change, to maintaining the strength and role of NATO, and to reviving the agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons. The UK increased its funding of the World Health Organization to help fill the gap left by the cut in U.S. funding that Trump ordered. Biden seems sympathetic to British—and, for that matter, European—concerns on all these points.
While the short-term agenda is clear, a longer-term issue remains. A large part of the respect for U.S. global leadership has flowed from the consistency of its commitment to its global role, going back to such initiatives as the Marshall Plan, which did so much to revive Europe’s shattered economies after World War II.
Rebuilding trust will take time—at the very least, time for it to become clear, if it ever does, that the Trump era was a one-off aberration and not an overture to occasional Trump-style policies by future U.S. presidents.
Dmitri TreninDirector of the Carnegie Moscow Center
U.S. leadership stood at its highest at the end of World War II when Americans became the prime designers of universal institutions such as the UN system, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. With the advent of the Cold War, U.S. leadership constructed the modern political West based on shared values, principles, and hierarchy.
The end of the Cold War—proclaimed victory due to the self-destruction of the opponent—by contrast, brought triumphalism and its concomitant complacency. It ushered in a Pax Americana, while also ensuring that that age would be brief.
Currently, with nationalism rising everywhere, the United States, no longer unchallenged, seems to focus more on remaining the dominant power than on working for the common good.
In Russia, few people would vote for U.S. global leadership. The notion itself is commonly believed to mean U.S. global dominance in disguise. The United States, however, can still bring its many allies closer together to oppose its adversaries: China, Russia, and Iran. It is less likely, however, that the United States will lead an overhaul of Western countries’ politico-economic systems, which are in need of major repair.
Leading on global healthcare, climate action, and strategic stability appears to be out of reach for Washington. Thus, U.S. leadership of the West can only be regained partially; global leadership is too much for any single country.
Maha YahyaDirector of the Carnegie Middle East Center
Global political and economic power structures have shifted significantly with the rise of China, a more militarized Russia, and the shift in economic production toward the rest.
In this context, the United States is more likely to push for or maintain a leadership based on redefined strategic interests built around a series of red lines, intervening when these red lines risk being transgressed. These include a nuclear Iran, the stability of global oil prices, terrorism, and Israel’s security.
However, this will not be enough.
The global erosion in liberal values—no matter how imperfectly they were applied in the Middle East—came when both former U.S. president Barack Obama and then Trump gave those values less attention in their process of scuttling Pax Americana. This opened the door to a laissez-faire attitude to foreign policy and a consequential threat to the international structures that have kept the peace since World War II.
States are advancing their interests depending on the specific opportunities provided in specific contexts and largely outside the regulations of international-order institutions. The Middle East today is witness to Russia’s growing military role, the increasing interference of regional powers in each other’s affairs, expanding proxy conflicts, a rise in authoritarianism, and political leaderships that repress their own citizens with impunity.
The security fallout as regional powers seek a more balanced modus vivendi could potentially destabilize the international order even further and may lead to a regional/global conflict. The ripple effects of such destabilization will not remain in the Middle East.