It was tempting for me to react to Gideon Rachman’s column in yesterday’s Financial Times by noting, “At least he got it half right.” But this essay on Joe Biden’s determination to put U.S. foreign policy back on a globalist course isn’t even noteworthy by that modest standard.
For Rachman’s observation that a Biden administration is likely to find its goal of American global leadership much more difficult than expected to restore, and his conclusion that therefore the United States will have no choice to advance and protect its interests but to work via international institutions it can’t dominate and hope for the best, has been standard globalist fare for decades – as I’ve explained most recently and comprehensively here.
The crucial globalist mistake Rachman repeats entails what President Trump and his too-ragged pursuit of an America First strategy grasped in its essentials – that although the United States is far from strong (or wealthy, or wise) enough to achieve the central globalist goal of ensuring American security and prosperity by creating a fundamentally benign international environment, it is plenty strong and wealthy enough to achieve its essential interests through its own devices. The key is preserving and enhancing enough of that strength and wealth to maximize the odds of surviving and prospering in a world certain to remain dangerous or at least unstable.
To phrase this conclusion in globalist terms: The United States doesn’t need “global leadership” in the first place. It simply needs the capacity to take care of however it defines its own business.
An added virtue of this America First-y approach – success requires a lot less wisdom than globalism. That’s because (a) this strategy seeks to control what the nation can plausibly hope to control (its own affairs) instead of what it can’t plausibly hope to control (the affairs of everyone else); and (b) the United States’ favored (largely isolated) geographic position, its natural wealth, and its still formidable industrial and technoogical prowess endow it with a strong basis for withstanding and even thriving amid global turmoil that most other countries can only envy.
As I’ve also noted (in that National Interest article linked above) and elsewhere, the America First approach is needed even when working through those international institutions seems to be the nation’s best bet for coping with problems or maximizing opportunities. For as globalists (including Rachman in part) invariably miss is that the decision to foster “international cooperation” could even hope to be an automatic guarantee of favorable or even acceptable outcomes only if an objectively optimal solution for all concerned is already available and identifiable either by one or a group of the national governments involved, or by commonly accepted experts. Write me if you see any of these developments coming any time soon – even on a (rhetorically) widely agreed on worldwide “existential threat” like global warming.
In other words, for the foreseeable future, international institutions will be arenas of politics, not festivals of one-worldism, and international cooperation will have content. And if American leaders’ persuasive skills don’t suffice, for the best possible odds of mastering these politics and securing outcomes reflecting their country’s own distinctive interests and priorities, they’ll need to recognize that the former exist to begin with, and bring to bear the power (in all of its dimensions) needed to prevail satisfactorily. To cite a concept even globalists sometimes use, Washington will need to build and maintain and negotiate from “situations of strength.” But they’ll need to realize that these advantages are just as important in dealing with long-time allies and relatively benign neutrals as with adversaries like China and Russia.
The half of this cluster of issues Rachman gets right also includes his understanding that the American people will probably like the return to globalist-style multilateralism and cooperation even less than a Biden administration. But this insight isn’t exceptional, either, as his ultimate explanation for this resentment seems to be a neanderthal attachment to sovereignty by an electorate long viewed by globalists as too ignorant and unrealistic to acknowledge their superior wisdom.
And since, as Rachman correctly points out, Biden’s globalism is not only staunch, but pretty clueless itself, the nation will need considerable luck if his term in office avoids the debacles that so many of his pre-Trump predecessors created.