Charlotte Street Partners



Foreign policy cannot be foreign concept for world's "indispensable nation"

Written by Alex Massie
28 July 2020

This is not a moment for illusions. The forthcoming American presidential election may, for once, justify the quadrennial assertion that this time it really, really matters but even as much of the world desperately hopes Joe Biden will succeed Donald Trump as leader of the so-called free world so it would be prudent to recall that, first, foreign affairs will be of little import in this contest and, second, that Biden’s election, if it happens, will reaffirm the wisdom of the old adage that there is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Even so, a Biden presidency would be a signal that the grown-ups are back in charge. A degree of competence can be expected which is merely a means of saying that a Biden presidency would be filled with people possessing some knowledge of, and some interest in, the world beyond America’s shores. 

The absence of foreign policy from this election, save to the extent the candidates compete to prove their toughness on Sino-American relations, is neither a surprise nor a recent development. Bill Clinton’s election campaign in 1992 paid almost no attention to foreign policy. Indeed Clinton criticised George HW Bush, victor of the cold war and the first Gulf war, of prioritising foreign policy at the expense of the ordinary American worker’s interests. But even the 1990s so-called ‘holiday for history’, that moment when the west congratulated itself on its own vindication, proved as temporary as it was illusory. Clinton found himself embroiled in the Balkans and in the Middle East, with varying degrees of success. 

George W Bush, in near complete contrast to his father, arrived in office with almost no foreign policy experience. Indeed, thanks to his family’s friendship with the oilman Bill Gammell, Scotland was the overseas country in which the young Bush had spent the most time and, with all due respect to our own land, this was not much of an introduction to the planet’s foreign policy conundrums. But in 2000, the presence of Dick Cheney as Bush’s running-mate and the ticketing of Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice to high-profile positions in the new administration was seen as a sign that the neophyte president would, in terms of foreign policy at least, be advised by knowledgeable veterans. And then came 9/11 and all that followed it. 

All presidencies are in some ways a reaction to their predecessors. They are an opportunity to rebalance the body politic, correcting past excesses and gently nudging the ship of state on a new course. In that fashion, Barack Obama’s administration was greeted with something close to rapture by much of the international community, a judgement confirmed by the fanciful awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the fledgling president. 

Yet, encumbered by the need to focus on recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, Obama’s foreign policy record would, if judged fairly, receive little more than an ‘incomplete’ grade. There were successes – notably on the deal limiting, in theory, Iran’s nuclear ambitions – but, overall, the record is frustratingly patchy. The ‘reset’ with Russia yielded little and, moreover, did little to deter Russian expansionism in Ukraine while the fabled ‘pivot to Asia’ both disconcerted America’s European allies and failed to curb China’s newly assertive foreign policy posture. 

Except, perhaps, in Moscow, Beijing and Ankara, Donald Trump’s election produced precisely the opposite reaction to Obama’s. The world’s democracies have, on the whole, treated Trump’s presidency as a storm to be weathered. All things must pass and so must the Donald. Nevertheless, the election of an avowedly ‘America First’ president, albeit an unusually ignorant and incurious example of the species, was a reminder that the international system that built much of the modern world rests on shakier foundations than had previously been assumed. It can just about survive four years of Trump but asking it to cope with four more would be a mighty gamble. 

For the truth remains that, as Madeleine Albright once put it, the United States is still the planet’s “indispensable nation”. By this she did not mean the USA was always or necessarily right but, rather, that there are almost no significant international problems that can be solved, or ameliorated, without American involvement and American leadership. This remains the case whether the forum for discussion is the World Trade Organisation or the World Health Organisation. Climate change, too, requires American investment in it – as an idea and a reality – and American leadership. 

The United States’ retreat from the world these past four years is, then, the starting point for a putative Biden administration. The polls suggest, at present, Biden will win in November. His primary mission will be to repair America’s sense of itself; that is a task which begins at home but quickly spreads overseas too. 

Almost without exception, America’s allies need to be reassured the United States is once again serious about playing a leading role in the world. It is not, again, a question of the Americans always being in the right – far less should we make the mistake of confusing the American interest with selflessness – but that without Washington’s leadership what was once called “the west” will be too weak to confront the challenges arraigned against it. 

That means firmness, certainly, but also a renewed spirit of cooperation. Trumpism does not, at root, believe in alliances; indeed Trump assumes an ally is a free-rider, taking advantage of the United States and laughing while it does so. 

And yet a President Biden cannot operate as though the past four years were just a dream or some kind of ghastly mistake about which we shall talk no more and about which we shall do our best to forget. The United States is not immune to the wave of nationalist sentiment apparent all around the world. Indeed, Trump’s self-pitying, revanchist, strain of nationalist was both proof and harbinger of that wave. 

Biden, then, seems likely to ask more of America’s allies, not less, if common challenges are to be met. That means a tougher – more realistic, if you prefer – line on China and, probably, on Moscow too. 

For Britain, I suspect a Biden presidency will offer some tough lessons. Berlin and Brussels will be as important to Washington as London and the prospect of a US-UK free trade deal is, if not remote, then some way down the new administration’s agenda. It might be useful but it will not be urgent. As a middle-ranking power, the UK lacks the weight necessary to make itself an indispensable partner. Here too the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq have been well-learned by the Americans. The UK’s clout is not what it once was and, by leaving the EU, the United Kingdom has diminished itself in American eyes. 

That renders all the usual chatter about the so-called ‘special relationship’ even more spurious than is customarily the case. This may be regrettable – depending on your Brexit mileage – but the Americans have a clear-eyed sense of this relationship that owes increasingly little to sentiment. The UK remains a good friend but one who is a little less useful than it has been in the past. 

Even so, a Biden presidency will re-engage with the world. Washington’s relative decline vis-a-vis China and the emergent east is guaranteed but resetting American foreign policy will also be a reminder that the United States is still relevant, still indispensable, and still a force to be reckoned with. The Trump years, for all their boasting and bombast, have been weak ones; learning from and correcting that will be one of a new administration’s first, and most urgent, tasks. 

About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie

We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.

To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.

Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday. 

We hope you enjoy his work – and do feel free to forward this email on to colleagues and friends you think might be interested. They can subscribe to Beyond the Street and our other regular briefings here

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