An historic opportunity on an unstable footing: the new US government and the global order


The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is an historic opportunity. They both stand for a political commitment to liberal democracy and a societal commitment to unity instead of division. Democracy instead of autocracy, cooperation instead of divisiveness and nationalism: these are also the most important political fault lines for the shaping of the future global order.

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US President Joe Biden and US Vice-President Kamala Harris

In contrast to Donald Trump, who has wreaked havoc on multilateralism, the new President has known and valued the importance of international partnerships and institutions for decades. While the past years were shaped by a kleptocratic policy on behalf of Trump’s family and their enrichment, there is now a foreign policy that takes the whole of society and the international community into account. And instead of a staffing policy in which the sole criterion was unconditional loyalty to the President, US foreign policy is now in the hands of experienced, professional and internationally extremely well connected actors. 

These changes are as necessary as they are urgent, since the world has never before been so connected and yet so vulnerable as it is today. From the climate crisis to the Covid-19 pandemic, from nuclear proliferation to developments in the digital space: the greatest risks of our time have consequences transnationally and can only be resolved transnationally. That is why it matters so much that the Biden-Harris administration is re-joining the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organisation, and plans to extend the New START treaty and to resume multinational negotiations with Iran. These are encouraging first signals for the future of multilateralism, as the last few years have shown that one cannot sustain a stable multilateral architecture without the United States.

At the same time, the new US government will pivot to its values-based alliances, which have particularly suffered in recent years. Democracy and human rights will be much more than empty soundbites in this regard; they will be important criteria of strategic partnerships with consequences for the relationship of the US with the EU and other liberal democracies – and, conversely, for its relationship with the Russian, Saudi-Arabian or Turkish governments. 

This is a boon for the EU. The European Union needs strong partners for its model of transnational cooperation and liberal democracy. That is why the renewal of its values-based partnership with the US is of such strategic importance – as a space of freedom, transatlantic solidarity and global responsibility. This does not absolve the EU from its task to develop a more independent policy. In the 21st century, a strong EU is the precondition of an effective transatlantic policy. 

This will be all the more important as the success of the cooperative and values-based global policy of the Biden-Harris government is by no means a foregone conclusion. Donald Trump has left his successor a Presidency in tatters. The pandemic has a stranglehold on the country, the economy is unstable. The federal institutions have been greatly weakened. And there is a 20 billion dollar heap of debt which will restrict the new administration’s political room to manoeuvre. Above all else, Biden will have to deal with a dysfunctional domestic political climate. Many Republicans not only deny the legitimacy of his election victory, but are openly attacking the constitutional foundations of the United States. In that sense, some observers consider the attempted coup on January 6th the demarcation point of the end of the American era.

America’s reputation and powers of attraction in the world have taken a massive hit and will not be reinstated overnight. It therefore seems somewhat presumptuous for many in Washington to be talking about the country’s immediate return to global leadership. 

The greatest unknown is to what extent the international community will rely ton the commitments of the incoming US government. The experience that incoming US governments might renege on the treaties and agreements of their predecessors has of course happened before: one remembers George W. Bush and the Kyoto protocol. The Trump-era, however, has made clearer than ever before that the worst-case scenario of political leadership - from a pro-democratic point of view - continues to be a realistic possibility of US politics in the future. It is therefore vitally important that the European Union makes use of the next four years as intensively as it can. Post-Trump, this will take a great deal of political will and bold initiatives on both sides of the Atlantic.

The most important and yet the toughest geopolitical core issue will be the future relationship of the US and the EU with China. Analytically, decision-makers in Brussels and Washington, DC are broadly on the same page. On both sides of the Atlantic, China is seen as an economic competitor, a multilateral cooperation and negotiation partner and a systemic rival. Yet, bringing this analytical triangle to life and working together strategically instead of focusing on short-term unilateral gains, remains the greatest challenge the new US administration and the European Union must face.

This commentary is a translated preprint from the forthcoming edition the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung magazine Böll.Thema (available in German only).