President Biden has been on a charm offensive to convince U.S. allies that “America is back.” It’s a message America’s friends and partners are eager to hear, but they remain unconvinced. Biden is implying that the previous four years were a fluke, but America’s allies are tying the Obama and Trump years together as the new normal. To them, Biden is the fluke.
The Trump administration cozied up to enemies and abused, aggravated, and antagonized allies in spectacular fashion, like a four-year explosion that threatened to collapse the American-led international order. But the Obama administration, while less flamboyant, also did its share of damage to America’s key relationships, like a slow rot.
Obama had come to power as a transformational president, campaigning on “nation-building at home.” In 2010, he snubbed the Europeans by becoming the first U.S. president in history to skip the annual U.S.-E.U. summit, rendering the meeting a diplomatic nullity. Thomas Wright, an expert on Euro-American relations, observed that he “had an ‘unromantic’ view of the transatlantic relationship and was focused elsewhere.” He saw America’s allies as “free riders,” going so far to say that they “aggravate” him. Poland and the Czech Republic had broken with France and Germany to support the U.S.-led Iraq War. In return, Obama canceled an agreement negotiated by the Bush administration with them for a missile defense shield. That was a slap in the face.
Obama also complained about the “Washington foreign-policy establishment” and its “fetish of ‘credibility.’” Thanks to Obama’s rejection of that “fetish,” the United States faces a “deepening crisis of credibility in global affairs,” according to a report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
One of Obama’s closest advisers, Ben Rhodes, who allegedly shared a “mind meld” with the president, coined the derisive term “the Blob” for the foreign policy establishment. When he spoke dismissively of “the Blob’s” support of American global order, it wasn’t difficult to think that he was reflecting the president’s view. Other administration officials, like Secretary of State John Kerry, also spoke of toppling the pillars of American foreign policy, including the Monroe Doctrine.
According to Wright, “the prism through which President Obama looked at Europe was shaped by the principle that everyone ought to tend their own garden.” For Obama, Latin America was the business of Latin Americans, Europe the concern of Europeans, and only the United States the purview of Americans. The cost of focusing on domestic policy was offending the countries to which America was bound by mutual security guarantees, common values, trade, cooperation, and friendship.
Obama didn’t mind paying it. Negotiating with Iran, the Obama administration was dismissive, even derisive, of the concerns of America’s traditional allies—even the French worried that the American negotiating position was too soft. He didn’t care much about European worries of the continent remilitarizing. Dozens of allies who had joined the war in Iraq at high costs were barely consulted before the precipitous withdrawal in 2011. (Obama partisans have argued that the State of Forces Agreement that led to the withdrawal had been negotiated by the Bush administration. But that agreement was a placeholder for the next administration’s preferred policy. Obama never showed any interest in renewal, nor did he ever consult with coalition allies on what their preferred policy was.)
What really shook the faith of U.S. allies, however, was Syria. The civil war there led to a refugee crisis that ignited nationalism and terrorist attacks in Europe, changed the dynamics in the Middle East for the worse, empowered Russia, and diminished U.S. credibility after Obama refused to enforce his self-imposed and mindless red line. Jim Mattis, then a retired General, was one of many who received phone calls from allies around the world asking whether they were on their own.
In Libya, the administration had to be convinced to intervene by the Europeans, who have a vested interest in the country due to geographic proximity. That created the “leading from behind” debacle. As soon as Muammar Gaddafi’s regime collapsed, however, Obama withdrew from the country, foolishly thinking that the Europeans, who lacked the necessary resources and domestic political capital, would take care of the problem. The civil war that followed created an outflow of refugees into Europe and an inflow of Russian mercenaries.
In Asia, China contested, claimed, and trespassed on the maritime domain of U.S. allies. In the only instance in which the United States intervened, the Scarborough Shoal crisis, it brokered a diplomatic resolution between the Philippines and China for both sides to withdraw. The Filipinos withdrew, but, in the words of Ely Ratner, an official in the administrations of Obama and Biden, “China, on the other hand, failed to comply with the agreed-upon deadline and retained its maritime vessels at the shoal, where they remain today on near-constant patrol.” The administration’s support in fishing disputes between China and Vietnam and Japan didn’t fare much better.
To many of America’s allies, the major difference between Obama and Trump wasn’t policy but style. In this century, Americans have voted for a president five times, and only twice, in 2004 and 2020, did they choose the more internationalist nominee. Even then, Biden’s internationalism, greater than Trump’s, pales in comparison with Cold War-era standards. Watching from London or Brussels or Jerusalem or Tokyo, it’s reasonable to suspect that Biden’s lyricism about alliances is the outlier amid the larger inward-looking trend.
It also appears that Biden’s rhetoric may not match his actions. His first major foreign policy decision, the forthcoming withdrawal from Afghanistan, came with little regard for and less consultation with the countries that have vested interests there, including the NATO members of the U.S.-led coalition, India—a key partner in the long-term competition with China—and, most importantly, the allied government of Afghanistan. The administration’s ongoing negotiations with Iran, while satisfying many Europeans, has regional partners worried. So far, Biden has been excellent in tone but come short in his deeds.
Whatever Biden’s personal preferences may be, he’s somewhat constrained by his party and general public opinion, both of which favor spending fewer resources abroad and more at home. There hasn’t been a president since George W. Bush who has made the case for doing more overseas (and even Bush didn’t do much of it during his second term), and even longer since a president has articulated a clear role for America in the world.
Americans prioritize domestic policy over foreign policy, and have historically deferred to the president’s judgment on foreign affairs—at least until major blunders. Biden needs to use his platform to revive the spirit of internationalism inside the United States. He needs, in other words, to lead. His rhetoric so far is a necessary but not sufficient step. Harry Truman, in his Truman Doctrine address to Congress, rallied the country to accept the reality of the Cold War—including the deadly and demoralizing Korean War—just after World War II. Ronald Reagan, using his unparalleled communications skills, led the country from the nadir of Vietnam Syndrome and malaise to victory over the Soviet Union by restoring national confidence. Biden can—and must—do the same.
Biden also needs, if he wants his style of foreign policy to survive his presidency, to revive bipartisan Congressional purchase of his policies. Obama’s signature international agreements, only New START has proven durable. That’s no coincidence: Unlike the Iran Deal and the Paris Climate Accords, the administration coordinated the negotiations for New START with Congress, which ratified the agreement as a treaty.
Of course, reassuring allies also has a military component. The American military is still the most powerful fighting force on the planet—but not by the margin it once enjoyed. In most regions of the world, the combined strength of the American and allied militaries is less than that of the shared adversary. The Japanese and South Koreans know this about the East China Sea. The Philipinos and Thais know this about the South China Sea. The Poles and the Baltic States could not be more wary of Russian conventional military superiority in Europe—especially as they watch the ongoing war in Ukraine. When America is weak, its allies are sometimes forced to accommodate their threatening, hostile neighbors, a la “Finlandization.” In this case, beefing up America’s foreign deployments in allied countries helps maintain the alliances—and for relatively cheap.
Russophiles are more influential in Europe than a decade ago, and some have even won power in former Soviet satellites like Hungary and Moldova. In Asia, South Korea’s president has been defiant of U.S. interests to contain China and North Korea, and the alliance is facing some of its greatest obstacles since the Korean War armistice in 1953. More urgently, Japanese-Korean relations, which the United States has traditionally facilitated and soothed, are becoming inflamed. In the Middle East, dismayed by America’s diffidence, Arab partners have taken it upon themselves to contain Iran, creating a moral catastrophe in Yemen that is making the American people question whether they should keep supporting Arab partners.
Former Secretary of State George Shultz compared alliance management with gardening. It takes time, it takes expertise, it takes investment, and it takes tools—not just memoranda and speeches and handshakes at photo ops, but tanks, ships, and aircraft. When done properly, just like a garden, there is harmony. Left to its own devices, it becomes an anarchic jungle.
If Biden wants America’s allies to believe that “America is back,” first he has to convince the American people to want to be back.