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How Joe Biden plans to rebuild the West

Joe Biden riding his bicycle in Cape Henlopen State Park on June 3, 2021, in Lewes, Delaware - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Writer and historian MISHA GLENNY on attempts to revive an alliance of democracies to withstand the threats of the modern age

Joe Biden is running out of time. In just 17 months, he faces mid-term elections when the Democrats are almost certain to lose their wafer-thin congressional majority. In that period, he hopes to steer one of the most ambitious presidential programmes since the 1930s through the House and Senate. Hardly surprising, then, that he hasn’t focused much on foreign policy since assuming office.

That is about to change. His first overseas visit which begins this week is a meaty trip to Europe including G7 and Nato summits and a head-to-head with Vladimir Putin. If we believe Biden’s rhetoric, he aspires to be as visionary abroad as he is at home, promising to galvanise “democratic alliances and institutions… against modern-day threats and adversaries”. The power of democracies, he argues, are sufficient to beat China in the new global game.

So far the world hasn’t seen much evidence of that. It’s easy to understand why. Biden is grappling with the reality of a traumatically polarised America, as obvious in Congress as much as anywhere else. He is facing a Republican Party apparently determined to do anything it can, up to and including wrecking democratic institutions, to undermine the president.

But if Biden’s energy and determination at home is anything to go by, then it would be unwise to bet against him having a fundamental even revolutionary impact internationally. He doesn’t have a choice. As the world emerges from the pandemic, the risks to political stability across the world are huge. But it is democracies that currently look especially fragile and Biden needs their support.

The G7 Summit has produced fireworks even before it has begun thanks to Biden persuading his fellow members to adopt a global corporate tax regime. Biden has used American power to override any objections, making it clear that the era of a neo-liberal corporate free-for-all is over. That will appeal to voters at home as well as to European governments who desperately need the additional tax revenues as they recover from the economic impact of Covid.

As an Atlantacist who feels at home in the political culture of Europe, Biden feels both an emotional and political attachment to Europe. But he needs his alliance of democracies to work for more practical reasons: the US’s main focus in the coming four years will be China, just as it was under Trump.

Biden has toned down some of the rhetoric on China and pulled some of the trade sanctions imposed by his predecessor. But in important respects, he continues to pursue a hard-nosed version of the strategic competition policy first devised by his former boss, Barack Obama.

But while he needs Europe’s cooperation for that, the president will find a Europe has that has changed much since he last made an official visit as Obama’s vice president. Most obviously, the open wound of Brexit is still suppurating. It is an unwelcome irritation for which Biden holds Britain responsible.

The US still needs the UK, particularly within the context of Nato. But Britain is considerably less influential since Brexit as London has voluntarily given up its most important political role as a bridge between the US and the EU. Moreover, Boris Johnson is straining Biden’s patience to the limit on Northern Ireland. Here Biden sympathises with the EU and clearly regards Brexit and London as responsible for the problems now facing the region.

The British prime minister will be at his most unctuous when he meets Biden, desperately trying to plead Britain’s case for a trade deal with the US, the Brexiteers’ Holy Grail. But Biden has been clear about this – trade deals are currently a very low priority.

Privately the president’s team has also expressed its distaste for Boris Johnson’s Trumpian tendencies, the apparent assault on democratic checks and balances like the courts, the civil service and public service broadcasting.

Biden will also have noticed Johnson’s willingness to host the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, last month, a man who has crushed media freedom and the independence of the courts, who openly supported Donald Trump and who cultivates close relations with both Moscow and Beijing. Recently, Orban has been regularly infuriating fellow EU leaders by vetoing joint foreign policy initiatives and statements, including one condemning China’s crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.

This hints at how Biden may find the EU less of a predictable partner than it once was. As the worst winds of the pandemic recede, the EU finds itself struggling in treacherous waters, stirred up by some of its own members. Orban, continues to build an alliance of ‘illiberal democracies’. Poland’s governments joined up some time ago and now Slovenia under the populist prime minister, Janez Jansa, has embraced a similar ideology.

There has been much hand-wringing in Brussels about the erosion of democratic norms in parts of the EU but as is so often the case, very little action. Last week, the US State Department issued a stinging rebuke to leading Bulgarian politicians and businessmen (‘mafia’ whispered some at State), imposing sanctions on some of the most powerful members of the government. The silence from Brussels was embarrassing.

If the EU is to become a solid bastion of Biden’s alliance of democracies, it must actually do something to stop the erosion of democratic institutions within its borders. The next country to watch is the Czech Republic where the government and president have recently been applying pressure on Czech Television, by some measure the most impartial and best public broadcasting service in Central Europe. In Hungary and Poland, publicly funded media are now simply mouthpieces for the government. The EU has done nothing in response.

This crisis in European democracy mirrors the threat which Trump and his followers continue to pose in the US. But where Biden is taking the battle to the populists, the Europeans appear timid even cowardly. And it is not restricted to Central Europe. As we have seen in the regional elections in Sachsen-Anhalt, the Alternative für Deutschland remains a mighty force in large parts of Eastern Germany. Support for Marine Le Pen in France and Italy’s populist icon, Matteo Salvini, is surging and the latter is now proposing the formation of a right wing bloc in the European parliament that would bridge the gap between central and western Europe. Steve Bannon’s idea of The Movement, a sort of Black International, is about to assume a concrete form.

To counter this Biden is likely to act pragmatically. First of all, there are areas that everyone can agree on this coming week. Apart from the tax deal, he will be arguing for coordination on two other issues: management of the pandemic and climate change.

A joint approach to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will be an easy sell for Biden who has already underlined his commitment to accelerate cuts to emissions by announcing a ban on oil exploration in Alaska. At least for four years, America’s last great wilderness will be safe from those US fossil fuel companies which have long cast a greedy eye over its mineral resources.

Combatting Covid will prove more difficult. Biden has wrong-footed Europe by supporting the South African and Indian proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property rights to the vaccines to accelerate vaccine production and distribution in developing countries. Not only that, in a rare expression of Sino-US collaboration, China has endorsed the idea too.

The EU can usually be relied on to stand up for multilateral strategies to global problems. Not this time. To the outside world, the EU’s counter-proposal makes it look dangerously like a lap dog of Big Pharma. In a unforgiving assault on the EU position, Human Rights’ Watch accused the Commission of outright mendacity, calling the policy “inaccurate, misleading and misguided”. So far the Commission appears willing to absorb the significant public relations hit that its position has attracted. If Biden persuades a change of heart that will be another major foreign policy victory. It will also embarrass Boris Johnson whose decision to cut Britain’s overseas aid budget has been greeted by widespread derision both at home and abroad.

The meeting with Putin could be as important as the G7 and Nato summits. Biden has serious complaints to lay at the Russian president’s door: cyber attacks; Belarus and Ukraine; and the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny to name but three.

But although tough on rhetoric, Biden probably sees little value in ramping up tensions with Russia which, unlike China, does not have the economic or military power to rank as a ‘strategic competitor’. Indeed, by accommodating some of Russia’s international demands, Biden might even be seeking to loosen China’s growing embrace of Russia.

It is hard to underestimate the significance of Biden’s recent announcement that the US would not impose sanctions to block the completion of the Nordstream2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. This signals both to Berlin and to Moscow that the US will resist the temptation to play the hawk with Russia. Biden is also hoping to make progress with Putin on the renewal of arms control mechanisms.

If Biden is able to at least quieten Vladimir Putin and secure European backing for his alliance of democracies, then he can focus his main energy on China. Calibrating exactly how to handle the US’s major rival on the world stage is itself incredibly complicated. China and the US are still locked into a high degree of mutual interdependence economically: the great majority of iPhones are still assembled in China, for example, and China is close to overtaking both Mexico and Canada as the largest exporter to the US.

Biden’s alliance comprises a motley bunch of insecure democracies, including his own. But the president understands how profound a historical moment the post-pandemic period will be and if he is unable to instil discipline and vision then the next decade could be even worse than the last.

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