Biden’s realism will drive competition among US allies

The US president appears determined to remove sentiment from foreign policy, instead combining minilateralism and multilateralism to achieve his objectives.

Expert comment Published 23 September 2021 Updated 24 September 2021 2 minute READ

Joe Biden’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was certainly powerful, proclaiming the world is at ‘an inflection point in history’, underscoring the urgency of challenges which ‘hold the keys to our collective future’, stating democracy is ‘everywhere’ and remains the best tool to ‘unleash our full human potential’, and rejecting allegations that the US is seeking a Cold War.

But as he approaches the final quarter of his first year as US president, Biden’s sheer determination to deliver on his own foreign policy priorities is apparent, as are the implications of them for the closest partners of the US. Chief among these is that the US will act to defend itself in partnership with allies but only, as the president said, ‘whenever possible’.

Biden’s speech came hard on the heels of a summer of disruptions as the US moved decisively to deliver a long-promised reorientation of its global commitments. Just weeks after the dramatic exit from Afghanistan came the AUKUS announcement, as the US, Australia, and the UK forged a new strategic partnership which includes a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia to secure its position in the South China Sea.

Pragmatism, determination, and realism

These moves are all wakeup calls for America’s closest democratic partners as each telegraphs the future direction of US policy by showing America will not be slowed by sentimental attachments – instead it will be hard-nosed pragmatism, sheer determination, and clear-headed realism that drives policy, even in the effort to drive forward an agenda defined by liberal values.

As he approaches the final quarter of his first year as US president, Biden’s sheer determination to deliver on his own foreign policy priorities is apparent

America’s European partners were caught off-guard by this, left uncertain as to whether the US simply failed to consult or decided to ask for forgiveness rather than permission, while the rest of the world watched to see if a transatlantic rift would become the headline story, distracting from more urgent challenges.

The recent moves also stoked anxiety in Europe about its ranking in the hierarchy of America’s partners, and Biden’s UNGA speech will not have allayed those fears. He listed partners essential in meeting the most pressing global challenges and, although NATO and the European Union (EU) came first, there was barely a pause before he moved on to namecheck the Quad and ASEAN as America’s key regional partners in Asia.

But such a forceful execution of the US policy agenda should not be a surprise to anyone who has been listening. Biden’s foreign policy priorities have long been crystal clear – to focus America’s power and its diplomacy towards the Indo-Pacific, to protect democracy and human rights but not with military force, and to work collectively to address the major global challenges, especially climate, health security, and technological change – all with one eye on improving the plight of American workers.

His sense of urgency is compounded by challenges at home as he faces intense challenge within his own party as he seeks to pass a $3.5 trillion budget and an infrastructure plan which will secure his domestic agenda. COVID-19 continues to rage across the country and the president’s poll ratings have dropped.

For now at least, diplomacy may have prevented the summer’s transatlantic rifts spilling over into more lasting division. AUKUS distracted and diverted attention away from the backlash which unfolded in the UK parliament after the seemingly abrupt and politically destabilizing US-led exit from Afghanistan. And a phone call between Biden and French president Emmanuel Macron which included a promise of US support for France’s counterterrorism operations in the Sahel has helped steer US-France relations in a better direction.

Biden’s speech came hard on the heels of a summer of disruptions as the US moved decisively to deliver a long-promised reorientation of its global commitments

In addition, the UK is emerging as an equally pragmatic partner, as its prime minister Boris Johnson wisely parked any serious pressure on the US president for a US-UK free trade deal, instead stressing Britain’s willingness to deploy hard power and deliver global public goods.

In return, Biden’s announcement that he will double the US commitment to climate finance and rally the developed world to achieve the $100 billion target for climate initiatives across the developing world is a strong sign of America’s support of the UK in the lead up to COP26. Any concern Germany and Europe could displace Britain have been temporarily allayed.

Misplaced concerns

More broadly, concerns among many in Europe that the Biden administration would prioritize Asia over Europe is misplaced. AUKUS simply signals that the US is highly pragmatic and may choose deals on a case by case basis among its partners – in this case, working with partners which can knit together these two critical regions.

The recent failures to consult with partners did surface allegations that Biden is continuing Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, but this is a far cry from a world where autocratic rivals and strongmen came top of the list for America’s preferred partners.

The US embrace of minilateralism sits alongside a renewed commitment to multiple multilateral and regional institutions, and Biden hopes this combination and agility will enable him to deliver his agenda, and at speed. But it will also create ongoing insecurity and competition among the US’s closest friends.