Imagine for a moment that Joe Biden wins the presidential election. Even as he seeks to put America’s house in order—end the pandemic, rejuvenate the decimated economy, repair the tattered political and social fabric, address the country’s structural inequities—he will need to grapple with the equally difficult task of picking up the pieces of an increasingly broken, even comical, U.S. foreign policy.
He should ask this question of competing major powers: What are the minimum rules of the game upon which we can agree so as to preserve a semblance of order? In particular, he should test Chinese and Russian intentions in order to ascertain what is and is not possible in this new post-post-Cold War world. Can the major powers work together to shore up the international system and improve the effectiveness of its constituent states in performing the basic tasks of governance, at which many failed during the pandemic?
With democratic allies and partners, Biden should explore these questions: How can we restore democracy as a system of government worthy of admiration and emulation? Can the United States band together with like-minded democracies to reconstruct an enduring international order?
This is, in essence, a “two-speed” strategy.
Franklin Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman pursued a similar strategy during and immediately after World War II. In late November, 1943, Roosevelt and Winston Churchill flew secretly from the Cairo Conference in Egypt, across enemy lines, to meet Joseph Stalin in Tehran. The Tehran Conference was Roosevelt’s first personal encounter with the Soviet leader, and the first of what would be three wartime summits among the “Big Three” Allied leaders regarding the conduct of the war and the shape of the postwar settlement. Roosevelt was particularly keen to secure Stalin’s agreement to a “United Nations” to regulate future conflict.
In the summer after Roosevelt’s death in February, 1945, Truman joined Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam. Both Roosevelt and Truman had become increasingly skeptical about Stalin’s motives, but until 1948 Truman continued his predecessor’s efforts to build a new postwar international system together with the Soviets.
Yet even as Roosevelt and Truman kept trying to find common ground with the Soviets, they sought to shore up the Western democracies. Roosevelt’s efforts had begun as early as 1939, with the “cash and carry” legislation authorizing the sale of military equipment to Allied nations, followed two years later by Lend-Lease, then the United States’ direct entry into the war in late 1941. Truman continued the effort after the war with emergency assistance to Greece and Turkey; his announcement of the Truman Doctrine; the creation of the Marshall Plan; the Berlin airlift and, eventually, the formation of NATO.
Stalin ultimately chose his own course, subjugating the East European countries his forces had occupied and transforming them into Soviet satellites. During the period prior to 1948, though, the democracies were able to test Stalin’s intentions, secure his agreement to a set of international institutions and principles that would prove important over the longer term, and devise a structure for administering Germany and Austria. At the same time, they provided aid to their democratic allies so that communism would not spread further west. Whether consciously or not, they were also able to build American public support for what eventually became a policy of containment against their former Soviet ally.
If the next American president is to succeed in meeting today’s extraordinary challenges, he will benefit from the lessons of this “two-speed” strategy.
From Cold War to Confusion
Should Biden win the presidency, he will inherit a world vastly different from the one he faced when he was vice president, let alone when he was chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the United States appeared to be a world power without any clear rival.
Surveying the 20th century at its close, many commentators labeled it “America’s Century.” An emergent United States had tipped the balance in two world wars, then rebuilt Germany and the rest of Europe in ways that helped prevent further wars. It erected a set of international economic institutions that, through cross-border trade and investment, brought unprecedented prosperity to itself and many other parts of the globe. It stood up militarily to the Soviet Union and ultimately prevailed in the Cold War.
But with the Cold War’s end, the United States lost the strategic objective that had long guided its foreign policy, the imperative to contain communism. Without this lodestar, America struggled to redefine its role in world. “[T]he colossus is uncertain,” the Economist put it. Without the competition of another superpower, the United States lost the capability—so indispensable to good diplomacy—to calibrate ends to means.
In a world seemingly without constraints, successive administrations found themselves pushed and tugged in different directions, which were increasingly reflected in divergent policy choices. Bill Clinton, even while he expanded NATO membership eastward, grappled with the extent to which the United States should serve as the world’s policeman. After 9/11, as U.S. foreign policy lurched from humanitarianism to a war on terror and some George W. Bush advisors were advocating a new American imperialism, Afghanistan and Iraq raised the question of the limits of American power. Barack Obama sought to “pivot” American resources towards Asia but soon discovered, with the Arab Spring and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, that even a superpower cannot pick and choose its battles.
Then Donald Trump became president. If the previous decades had witnessed a gradual loss of coherence in U.S. foreign policy, it now dissolved into chaos. If Trump’s predecessors had at times ignored international law, the moral arguments of allies, and global commitments, none of these constraints were of any interest to him. If there was any logic at all to Trump’s foreign policy choices, it was what Richard Haass has labeled the “Withdrawal Doctrine”—withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and many of the very pillars of the international order.
In relatively short order, the American Century was transformed into the American Circus, a process that Donald Trump no doubt accelerated and from which he benefited but that had begun well beforehand. In the first ring, circus barkers screamed out militaristic bluster, taunting our enemies with the imprecation that America would rain “fire and fury” down upon them. In the second ring, hucksters offered xenophobic cure-alls: 2,000-mile border walls, Muslim bans, an end to humanitarian assistance to “sh**hole countries.” In the third, fortune-tellers dished up paranoid conspiracy theories about the “deep state”—tales of how war heroes, decorated generals, and diplomats had turned on the nation. America’s allies grimaced with alarm at the head-spinning spectacle, while its adversaries gazed on with amusement.
One sign of the times? In late October, 2019, exactly two decades after the Economist’s reference to the United States as a colossus, the magazine’s cover proclaimed, “It’s Putin’s World Now” (though it might more accurately have named China’s President Xi).
Pandemic Under the Big Tent
Circuses are a place for theatrics, illusion, contortionism, fantasy and fabulation. Viruses, on the other hand, follow the immutable laws of biology. Not since the 1925 Scopes case, when William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow debated evolution before a Tennessee jury, has the legitimacy of science been on trial so publicly in the United States. With the virus, science clearly won; and the consequences have been tragic.
At home, the president brought carnage to the American public by failing to heed the advice of his own scientific advisors. The pandemic also laid bare a far older and deeper national malady: the structural economic and social injustices dividing America.
Abroad, the pandemic revealed a tectonic shift in international politics that had been underway for some time. Whether during the Berlin crises, the Middle East peace process, the war in the Balkans, or the Ebola outbreak, the United States since WWII had stood at the forefront in moments of global crisis. This time U.S. leadership was conspicuously absent. If anything, the United States led the race to the bottom with its efforts to secure PPEs and an eventual vaccine for Americans, and Americans only.
When the dust settled, what became evident was a world transformed. The United States was no longer the sole superpower in a unipolar world but now faced a range of competitors, especially China and Russia, in an increasingly multipolar one. Foreign allies worried aloud about whether they could ever again depend on the United States. As Presidents Trump and Xi traded accusations about the coronavirus’s spread, relations between the two countries spiraled downward toward confrontation.
The Way Forward
How might the next American president pick up the pieces of U.S. foreign policy and restore a modicum of order to a fractious world?
If elected in November, Joe Biden will need to be realistic as to what is now possible regarding America’s role in the world. It would be a mistake to try to restore the status quo ante: America’s unipolar moment is over. And while the postwar international order brought unprecedented peace and prosperity for 70 years, that order will need either a major facelift or a thorough reimagining if it is to survive another 70.
Just as Soviet conduct was central to the post-World War II international order, so now are Chinese and Russian intentions. As Roosevelt and Truman did with the Soviets, a President Biden will have to probe Chinese and Russian intentions to determine what is and is not now feasible. Some U.S. foreign policy experts argue that conflict between the U.S. and a rising China is unavoidable. Other experts note that such power shifts do not always produce conflict, as shown by the peaceful transition from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana. Also, China has an enormous stake in the status quo, having grown rich off globalization and become a vital link in global supply chains. It is now the world’s largest exporter (accounting in 2018 for 13% of global exports, approximately 20% of its GDP), suggesting that China often tries to game the rules of the international economic system but has the most to lose should that system collapse. Still other experts question China’s staying power. By centralizing authority, President Xi has eliminated many internal checks and balances, like term limits, that once ensured a measure of accountability. The political system is now more susceptible to collapse.
Similar debates rage over the intentions of Russia, which, as a declining rather than a rising power, may be tempted to forestall that decline by lashing out at other states. Some experts worry that Putin’s next move will be to expand militarily into the Baltic states and further into Ukraine and Georgia. Others maintain that Putin is merely playing a losing hand skillfully by assuming the role of the international gadfly: He has neither the resources nor the appetite to try to reconstitute the former Soviet sphere.
We cannot know who is right because we have no way of definitively knowing Chinese or Russian intentions. A two-speed approach to international order would treat these as propositions to be tested, looking for convergences of interest with China, Russia, and other existing and emerging powers.
In theory, there should be many such convergences. America, China and Russia face common existential dangers. They, along with Canada, are the world’s largest landowners, accounting for about a quarter of its land mass and population. All that real estate should give us shared interests—most fundamentally, in preserving the power of states vis-a-vis non-state actors.
The starting point for forging a new order is to strengthen states’ governing capacity, which has been diminished by globalization and rapid technological change. For all the complaints about the nation-state, it remains the fundamental building block of any form of international order. Arguably, we are more vulnerable to attack by malign non-state actors—terrorists, international crime rings, destructive cyber actors—than by each other. Similarly, global threats like climate change, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, and resource scarcity risk are unlikely to be solved without cooperation by all major powers. And fragile or failing states create conditions that exacerbate all these dangers. Major powers should recognize their shared interest in strengthening, not undermining, the ability of states to govern effectively within their borders.
These three issues—malign non-state actors, global threats, and fragile or failing states—provide an agenda for great-power cooperation. To counter the growing power of malign non-state actors, major powers should reaffirm and recommit to the international law principles of preserving the sovereignty of states, safeguarding their territorial integrity, and ensuring the inviolability of borders. The United States should also press the point with the Chinese and Russians that sovereignty now entails obligations—codified, for example, in the emerging principle of states’ “responsibility to protect” their citizens from mass atrocities.
All three powers have committed acts in recent years that undermine this legal framework. These acts create precedents that smaller states or non-state actors can employ. But the United States, China, and Russia should understand that they are better served by upholding international law than by subverting it.
To deal collectively with global threats, the major powers should also commit to salvaging and seeking to reimagine for a new century the host of international institutions created after World War II. This includes the messy business of deciding how voting rights will be redistributed given changes in the balance of political power
Finally, the major powers should join forces to address the problem of fragile and failing states. As political scientist Francis Fukuyama notes, “The pandemic has been a global political stress test. Countries with capable, legitimate governments will come through relatively well . . . Countries with weak state capacity or poor leadership will be in trouble.” Across the globe, many states are fragile and in danger of failing outright as a result of external shocks like the pandemic, internal civil strife, and weak political and social institutions (or all three). As seen most glaringly in places like Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and El Salvador, state breakdown can have profound consequences for the world at large. Fragile and failing states become breeding grounds for violence, famine, disease, terrorism, and organized crime, while their refugee flows have roiled U.S. and European politics
In theory, the major powers should recognize a shared interest in preventing these states from failing.
Will Beijing or Moscow be willing to sign on to such an agenda, in part or in full? Only time will tell, but the question deserves to be tested. Even if their cooperation is not forthcoming, this is the kind of international order which the United States should seek, with or without the Chinese and Russians.
Rebuilding a Community of Democracies
On a parallel track, the United States should explore, with democratic allies, ways to increase their already extensive cooperation. The objective should be to create a global balance of power conducive to democracy to serve as a counterweight to autocracy.
The United States will first need to rebuild its credibility with allies. “We are going to have to prove that the United States says what it means and means what it says,” candidate Biden has put it. The United States needs these allies as partners to accomplish what it wants to do in the world; and the world still stands to benefit from U.S. leadership, as the absence of such leadership during the pandemic painfully demonstrated. It is better to have someone drive the train than no one at all, because, as Biden has pointed out, “[t]he world does not organize itself.” But the United States no longer has the resources or public support to power that locomotive on its own.
A next step will be to create coalitions of the willing with democratic allies on key issues—rethinking globalization, catalyzing a green technological revolution, pushing back on the rising authoritarian threat. The European Union has demonstrated with the Schengen border-free zone and the Euro currency bloc how flexible geometry can allow some states to forge ahead with cooperation even when others are reluctant.
Flexibility will be key. After World War II, the United States took the lead in building the institutions of the postwar order. Today no one will consent to the United States dictating the terms of world order, but membership in these international institutions has become too numerous for them to reform themselves. If the United States acts as an agile coalition-builder rather than a dominant superpower, it can assemble like-minded states to reform these bodies and create new ones where needed.
To do so, the United States will have to revise its thinking about burden sharing. President Trump has argued that the terms of U.S. trade deals and its contributions to alliances and international institutions are patently unfair. But we are not dealing with real estate transactions. If we contribute more than our share to the provision of global public goods, we may be mistaken for a sucker but will have greater influence in shaping the way the globe is governed.
While America’s democratic partners can and should “do more,” the United States needs to be flexible in the way it thinks about each country’s contribution. Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, and Denmark are per capita among the world’s largest contributors to Overseas Development Assistance; France, Spain, and Germany continue to contribute significant troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions; and the European Union often uses its leverage as the world’s largest trading bloc to insert human-rights conditions into trade agreements and set global regulatory standards on issues like privacy and carbon emissions. All should count as contributions to the common effort.
The United States also needs to overcome its historic ambivalence about an independent European military capability. For decades, it has wanted European countries to increase their military efforts but responded with alarm whenever they have proposed a common European defense force. The United States needs to accept that Europeans are most likely to increase defense spending if it occurs under a European umbrella and to trust that a more independent European force will generally act in tandem with U.S. interests.
A final step will be to inject more flexibility into the international system. Postwar international institutions helped create unprecedented globalization—more intensive economic and cultural interactions among states—with enormous net benefits to humanity. From 1950 to 2000, U.S. GDP grew on average more than 3.5% per year, with West European growth rates, at least up to 1975, even more robust. Billions of people across the globe were lifted out of poverty. However, not only were these gains unevenly distributed, but the process of globalization diminished the ability of democratic governments to make fully sovereign decisions. Wall Street money managers, multinationals’ CEOs, and unelected bureaucrats in Brussels often wield more decision-making power than elected democratic leaders. Issues that should be subject to democratic deliberation are often decided elsewhere. Where this happens, citizens have rebelled, voting for populist leaders who may offer false promises to “take back the nation.”
We need and benefit from a globalized world open to the free exchange of goods, capital, people, and ideas; but each nation should have the flexibility to decide the extent to which it wants to participate. Citizens of democracies need the freedom to choose the proper balance between state and market, the degree of inequality they are willing to tolerate, how generous or sparse their social safety net should be and, more broadly, what kind of society they want.
Inspired by Roosevelt and Truman, a President Biden would be well served if he pursued such a two-speed approach, probing competitive major powers while partnering with our democratic allies. His history suggests that he has the experience and disposition to execute such a strategy successfully.
Stephen R. Grand is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a board member of Foreign Policy for America.
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