Sikandar Bakht Abbasi
From the past many years, or particularly since disintegration of the Soviet Union, America has seen itself as the leader of the free world. Its reputation in leading the globalized world through multilateral diplomacy has surged trust among countries regarding its common approach of equitable economic growth. From the road to independence, towards westward expansion and consequently to territorial empire building, the pre-eminence of the US in accomplishing unique missions integrated its prestige as well as global confidence in making the world ‘safe for democracy’. But its reputation has reached a 20-year low particularly among rich countries that always looked towards the US in times of crisis.
The storming of the US Capitol Hill by pro-Trump supporters marked the climax of four years, in which the democratic norms of America ranging from equal rights to racial justice have been deeply undermined. Divisiveness reigned in the entire tenure of Trumpism. The siege of the Capitol was incited by the only president to have been impeached twice. Of all the democratic norms Trump violated, none was as damaging to America’s reputation as his refusal to transfer power in a peaceful manner. The leader of the dwindling free world used every treacherous means at his disposal to upend the result of the elections that he lost. This was one thing that the US will have to confront in the succeeding years whenever it tries to reassert its role as global beacon of democracy. Thus, the challenge now confronting Joe Biden’s administration is immense. How can he repair America’s tarnished reputation and restore its prolonged role as a global leader?
There is a real sense among Democrats that any action for the restoration will begin at home by addressing the issues of unemployment and racial inequality. Addressing such domestic challenges will be the foremost priority of Biden including the great challenge of ‘Covid-19’ in order to be stronger and be admired abroad. In early 2020, when the pandemic was battering the entire globe, the world looked toward America for leadership. But instead of taking that role, Trump retreated by dismissing the seriousness of the virus. More than 430,000 Americans have already died in addition to 25 million infected cases, which hurt its global standing of being incapable of containing the spread of the virus. In order to add more salt to the injury, Trump formally announced that it was pulling out of the World Health Organization(WHO), the decision which was reversed by Biden on the first day of his office.
Besides the pandemic, there are other foreign policy challenges that invoke sincere efforts such as to tackle the China issue. Biden is fully acquainted with the growing challenge China poses to American power. He will also be going harder on China but prosecuting the campaign of sanctions more rationally than aggressively. The underlying reality of tariffs on Chinese goods will remain intact to leverage on future negotiations. That leverage will be useful when it comes to a global threat of climate change. America and China are the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases. This is the issue which Biden will have to take assertively to reaffirm America’s global standing. Trump dismantled several regulations that were aimed at reducing carbon emissions. So, bringing America back into the Paris Accord for leading the world on climate change will be another tougher task for Biden’s presidency. This includes setting the target of reaching net-zero by 2050 and bringing China on board to make collective efforts for dealing with this inevitable threat.
And then there is Russia, the emboldening power. On this front, what his first challenge was to extend the last reaming nuclear arms-control treaty, START. Providentially, both the countries agreed to extend the treaty by five years following a phone call between Biden and Putin. Such an extension was indispensable for the maintenance of trust between the two nuclear superpowers, though it doesn’t take other nuclear-powered countries, say China, into account to mitigate the threat of nuclear proliferation. But avoiding the nuclear issue completely by throwing the new START treaty into wind would have been hugely problematic. With one eye on the treaty with Russia, Biden will also be looking to another deal, the Iran nuclear deal, from which Trump withdrew in 2018. Going back to this deal is a challenge, as Iran has already ramped up its nuclear activities. So bringing back the things where they were is not going to be easy. Since other European powers as well as China are also involved in this nuclear negotiation, this will be a test of ability for Biden administration to work along with other powers and achieve some kind of a result.
It is propitious to witness that many of Trump’s ‘America-first’ policies were already retreated through executive orders including revoking travel ban on Muslim counties and re-engaging with WHO. By encapsulating, these steps will definitely cement Biden’s presidency in America’s history as a champion of multilateralism. The inheritance of poisonous legacy of Trump’s America will certainly take some time to heal the divided nation. If the US Senate succeeds in convicting Trump of inciting an insurrection, it will somehow signal to the rest of the world that the US system of check and balance works on everyone. Nevertheless, the images of unilateralism, racial inequality and skepticism on dealing with global issues Trump left will continue to challenge America’s global role.
—The writer is MPhil Research Scholar, University of Karachi.