Since the final declaration of his victory in the race for the White House, President-elect Joe Biden has been ringing the leaders of the western world. His first call was to his northern neighbour, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, followed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Over the last few weeks, he has been hitting the phones, talking to America’s allies, and in some cases her adversaries. But during each of these calls he made one thing clear, America was back. The President-elect wanted to make clear to the world that in post-Trump America, the United States would stand firmly with its allies around the world in common cause.
This in many ways is reassuring. For as much as Trump achieved on the international stage – from peace the Middle East to the beginnings of a nuclear deal with North Korea, to finally nudging more European member states in the direction of paying their fair share towards NATO – Trump-style diplomacy has often rubbed European politicians up the wrong way. Overall, however his approach did little to shore up confidence in the stability of the Western alliance.
And so, for many in the West, Biden offers a return to an orthodoxy in doing foreign policy. In appointing his cabinet he has appointed what one pundit described as ‘a collection of people who you could call in the middle of the night to do the job and would turn up the next morning with no fuss’. And certainly, Biden’s administration is shaping up to be one made of technocrats and establishment figures. Again, comforting for those in many establishment circles.
The problem however remains, the world has changed drastically since Vice President Biden left office and President Biden returns to it. The last four years have seen major changes in the geopolitical landscape. For a start the United Kingdom, once the reliable defender of American interest in otherwise Ameraphobic Brussels, has left the European Union. Germany is increasingly turning inwards and losing interest in politics outside the EU, while France has set out to carve its own unique foreign policy objectives in its former Empire. Even inside the European Union, East is currently pitched against West when it comes to fundamental values.
Outside Europe things are even less certain. Australia is fighting a one-man cold war against the might of China. And China, which Biden repeatedly stated was not a threat during the election, is working actively to undermine its neighbours in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Internally, the Communist regime is becoming increasingly repressive against minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet – with over a million Uyghurs currently locked up in internment camps. And in Hong Kong democracy is being thrown out in favour of increased central control by proxy from Beijing.
Biden’s calls for a unification of Western Allies has come at a more challenging time than ever. Especially given that not all partners see the same threats as the others. While America recognises that China, Iran and Russia are all equal threats to the world, some countries only see one while others see none. The Western European members of the EU are insistent that working with China, Russia and Iran is the best solution, whilst Eastern European countries see the dangers from all three. Perhaps only the Anglosphere countries stand unified in their position, but they will not be enough to face the challenges that exist in the world today.
So where then could Biden find his unity? The answer is in coalition building. Building around different causes. For example, in facing down Russia, the United States will find far more support in the Baltic, Poland and Ukraine than it will in France or Germany. In tackling climate change ,Berlin and Paris may be more cooperative. In facing the threat from Iran, the answer will be in support from Israel, the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia. And on China the answer is with Japan, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan.
Building such smaller coalitions is the first step towards working towards larger areas of common interest. The West is not as unified as it once was, so any dream of American leadership on all issues must first overcome the reality that many in Europe have been conditioned to turn away from the Atlantic alliance and look towards Brussels instead. Ameraphobia is rife in the EU institutions and it will take a lot more than just a willingness to cooperate to get round it.