Originally published at the Concorde International Review in November 2020.
In late September 2019, in a world blissfully unacquainted with COVID-19 and social distancing, representatives of the nations of the world gathered in New York City for the 74th Session of the United Nations. A result of the Allies’ victory over the Axis Powers in the Second World War, the United Nations has stood as a beacon for international cooperation and peaceful diplomacy for three-quarters of a century, making it the most successful experiment in global governance in human history. Titans of world leadership and philanthropy have addressed the distinguished body, and today, it was US President Donald Trump’s turn.
In the stately and solemn enclosure of the UN Assembly Hall, Trump fumed at, well, just about everything. Iran was “repressive” and “menacing;” the Taliban was “savage;” activists for open borders were “cruel and evil;” socialism was a “wrecker of nations and destroyer of societies.” National sovereignty, Trump claimed, was the surest path to democracy. “The future does not belong to globalists,” he said, “the future belongs to patriots.” It was a rhetorical “up-yours” to the UN from the leader of the nation most responsible for its very existence, all delivered with a self-satisfied smirk.
From Day One of his presidency, Trump promised a vision of “America First.” In practice, that has produced a foreign policy predicated on unilateralism and transactionalism. Gone are the grand multi-signatory agreements; Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal (JPCOA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the North American Free Trade Agreement—though he did negotiate a “new” trade agreement (the USMCA) to replace NAFTA. He prefers personal diplomacy, cultivating friendly relationships with US adversaries like Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and Kim Jong Un while deriding allies for their lack of reciprocity and obeisance. To Trump, foreign affairs is a zero-sum game; if the United States is not “winning,” then surely it must be “losing.” A life spent as an incompetent businessman does not a master diplomat make.
Yet if his solution of flipping over the game board in a rage and storming off to cry in his room is ineffective, Donald Trump is correct that the liberal world order has grown increasingly imperfect. The United Nations, NATO, and other US-driven organizations were established to provide a unified counterweight to the Soviet Union; they represented a world of liberty, democracy, and free enterprise in contrast to the restrictive and state-centric Soviet model. When the USSR collapsed, the liberal world order was left without an adversary or a clear rationale to underpin their activities. Soon liberalism writ broad became the mission, but there was no clear understanding of how to fulfill it. The expectation that an open-armed embrace of liberalism would eradicate the scourges of authoritarianism and tyranny have proven naïvely optimistic. Global interconnectivity has not led to equitable economic prosperity for all; instead, some have flourished while others have floundered. The morass of UN bureaucracy has made international action increasingly painstaking while institutions like the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization have become battlegrounds for simmering great power conflicts. The unipolar moment has passed; some believe the liberal world order should die with it.
Joe Biden is not one of those people. In an essay for Foreign Affairs, Biden vowed to “once more have America lead the world.” Far from seeing the liberal world order as a relic of a bygone era, Biden believes it holds the key to foreign policy. In his plans published on his campaign website, Biden argues that “working cooperatively with other nations makes [the US] more secure and more successful.” In a world beset by challenges and prone to look inward, Joe Biden—should he win the election this November—offers an opportunity to reinvigorate the bonds of global cooperation. He won’t be able to address all the flaws of the world order–such a task is far beyond the bounds of any leader, and would likely require an equal measure of destruction as well as creation—but he can prove that rumors of the liberal world order’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Confronting the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic must be President Biden’s first point of business. The response to the disease both within the United States and the international community has been abysmal. As of this writing, COVID-19 has taken the lives of more than 200,000 Americans and over a million people worldwide. Even more have to live on with the grief of losing a loved one, seeing empty chairs where they once sat, hearing the ghosts of laughs never laughed, and wishing, longing for just one more embrace—an embrace that was too frequently denied to them due to strict social distancing protocols.
Internationally, nations confronted the pandemic by hunkering down in their foxholes, instituting travel restrictions and hoarding medical supplies. China’s refusal to provide transparent information on SARS-CoV-2 hamstrung the international response from the start, and the underfunded and overtaxed World Health Organization was caught flat-footed at the initial outbreak in Wuhan. Laboratories are racing to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but just how long that development will take—and how effective a vaccine will be—are as yet unknown. Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, warns that nations may practice “vaccine nationalism,” prioritizing their own interests and thus sabotaging any unified global efforts to eradicate COVID-19.
Joe Biden’s COVID-19 plan focuses first on addressing pandemic in the United States—a pandemic which appears headed for a third wave. There is plenty of room for substantive improvement here. The Trump Administration’s response to the pandemic has been mocked, disgraced, and derided, and for good reason. Rather than attacking scientists and promising—against all evidence—that COVID-19 will go away, Joe Biden will emphasize science and health experts in both communication and decision-making regarding the pandemic. Improved messaging will help; so too will Biden’s plans to increase testing capacities, cut costs of COVID-19 treatments, and provide economic relief to families and business impacted by the crisis. The US must get its own house in order before it intends to lead on public health matters on the world stage.
And make no mistake – Joe Biden intends to lead. He means to create a Global Health Emergency Board made up of G7 leaders, public health experts, and influential private and nonprofit sector groups to help organize the medical and economic responses to COVID-19. Biden will also restore US funding to the World Health Organization and direct a more forceful response from the US Agency for International Development. He should also pledge to join the COVAX initiative to help organize the distribution of a future vaccine.
Biden’s international initiatives won’t be a silver bullet to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic, nor will they eliminate the problems of vaccine distribution and medical supply chains. Addressing the fundamental problems of global health governance, particularly within the WTO, will be beyond his capabilities. Biden recognizes, however, that a global public health catastrophe requires global solutions; his efforts to combat COVID-19 are a step in that direction and should go a long way towards mobilizing a more effective international response to the current crisis.
In his essay in Foreign Affairs published before the COVID-19 pandemic, Joe Biden outlined his top priority: to “repair and reinvigorate our own democracy.” He promises to convene a “Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” It may sound like empty talk, but in promoting these values Joe Biden is leaning into the very thing that built the liberal world order in the first place: the power of an idea. Yes, US economic and military clout helped grease the gears, but liberalism, democracy, and free enterprise were once attractive ideas for the peoples of the world. In order for the current world order to survive, they must become so again.
The question of how that can be accomplished proves more problematic. A good starting point—one for which Biden has already signaled his support—is limiting the influence of corporate funding and lobbying on US elections. From there, the reforms to democracy only get more challenging. Biden has criticized gerrymandering and supports the creation of a nonpartisan electoral commission to oversee redistricting, but gerrymandering has been a plague on democracy since Elbridge Gerry lent his name to the practice in 1812 and seems likely to remain so. Expanding the Voting Rights Act would be another obvious method of reform, but here too Biden faces problems. The original legislation was rendered toothless by the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013, and with conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett now on the bench, any expansion of the Voting Rights Act seems unlikely to pass judicial muster. Biden could then try to expand the court, but such a maneuver might be seen as a form of executive overreach.
Internationally, Biden has even fewer options. Naming and shaming democracies backsliding into authoritarianism like Hungary and Poland is a good tactic, but it is unlikely to lead to any significant changes. European leaders have domestic right-wing nationalist parties of their own to worry about, including the French Rassemblement National and the German Alternative für Deutschland. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has turned undermining democracies and their elections his own personal game of bocce ball while Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party give out foreign aid to developing countries like schools distributing literature at college fairs. Preaching the benefits of liberal values directly to the peoples of the world through programs like Voice for America would be one means to fight against the slog of disinformation, but it is unlikely to be a vaccine against democratic disillusionment.
Instead, Joe Biden should direct the nations of the liberal world order towards issues that matter most to the free peoples of the world. He must demonstrate that the world’s democracies are not dead and dying; that they are not geriatric ideas to be ushered off the stage by populists, autocrats, and oligarchs; that they still can be marshalled to solve the big problems facing our planet. And no problem is greater, or potentially more destructive, than climate change.
Combatting Climate Change
Any politician who denies the threat that climate change poses at this point is oblivious, malicious, or a combination of the two. Death Valley, in the United States, saw temperatures of 54.4 degrees Celsius this August – potentially the highest ever recorded in human history. It wasn’t just Death Valley – August 2020 was the third-hottest August on record, according to NOAA. We’ve long since moved into using Greek names for this year’s storm season—the second-most active on record behind only 2005. 24 million people were displaced by climate-related disasters between 2008 and 2018, and the number of “climate refugees” will only rise in the coming years. It’s an economic problem as well as an existential one. In the United States, taxpayers spend ten times more on federal disaster relief than they did in 1990, after adjusting for inflation. In the last ten years, the world has been forced to spend $2.98 trillion to address natural disasters—the costliest stretch on record. Drastic corrective measures are needed to avert further catastrophe.
As with most of Joe Biden’s policy plans, his initiatives to address climate change begin at home. He has pledged to get the United States to net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050. Biden intends to reach this goal by instituting proper enforcement mechanisms to encourage compliance from US corporations. Targeted government spending will also push the United States towards a greener economy by investing heavily in renewable energy sources and eco-friendly infrastructure projects while simultaneously divesting from oil and fossil fuel industries. Whenever possible, Biden should enact these commitments through legislation to ensure that they cannot be simply discarded by future presidents less committed to addressing climate change. In addition to these policies, Biden should also launch public information campaigns using both the apparatuses of government and grassroots social networks to educate the American people on climate change. He won’t be able to puncture the Fox News media ecosystem, but Biden can and should flood the zone with facts to combat the disinformation around the issue.
Like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change is a problem that requires global solutions. Here Biden might be able to make his biggest impact on foreign policy. He has pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords on the first day of his presidency and intends to convene a global climate summit to marshal further commitments from world leaders. Such summitry can help the US and its allies hold each other accountable on their emissions standards and climate pledges. Biden intends to push reforms to the International Monetary Fund and various developmental banks in order to prioritize green energy investment and discourage high-emission projects. Providing “green debt relief” would offer incentives to developing nations, rather than punishments. In particular these initiatives will be directed at countries associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is China and its fellow BRICS countries that will prove the biggest obstacle for Biden’s foreign climate policy. A combination of carrots and sticks will be the best way forward; trade deals and access to foreign markets should be made contingent on curbing emissions and other such measurements. One potential model could be a “carbon customs union” like that proposed by former Federal Reserve Chair (and likely Secretary of the Treasury) Janet Yellen, which incorporates carbon taxing into trade agreements. By working with its democratic allies, the United States can propel climate change initiatives by incentivizing reform rather than punishing dissent. And by producing real positive change on climate reform, Joe Biden can demonstrate that the liberal order can still be marshalled to solve the world’s problems.
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The world order isn’t a perpetual motion machine, destined to churn on endlessly into the far-off horizon. Think of it more like a car—call it the 2020 UN Accord, if you will. The car already has quite a bit of mileage on it and it’s showing its age. The five gears in charge of the engine rarely work in harmony; the steering column still veers wildly to the right at times; and the gas mileage is atrocious, as the car runs and runs and runs without seeming to make any progress.
Donald Trump thinks the car is broken, unsalvageable, beyond repair. Joe Biden thinks that the car is out of gas. He is no mechanic—he won’t be able to repair each and every misfire on the car, and indeed some of those issues may be beyond repair. But by refueling the car and putting his foot on the gas pedal, Biden can show that this car still has more miles to run. That, more than anything, will be his contribution to international relations.