Biden and multilateralism: Can the United States lead?

Written By: Wajahat Qazi Source: WION
Place: New Delhi Published: Nov 10, 2020, 07.11 PM(IST)

File photo: US President Joe Biden Photograph:( AFP )

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At best, Biden can restore relations with Europe by making NATO the centrepiece of American engagement with the EU reset.

Those who hope and yearn for a fuller return to multilateralism under a Biden administration are likely to be disappointed. 2020 is not 1945; nor is it 2016.  

The world we inhabit has undergone profound structural and even conceptual changes. It cannot be subsumed under any policy straitjacket.  What would then a combination of the Biden presidency mean for multilateralism and world order?

The concept and practice of multilateralism took a hit with America’s ‘unipolar moment’ when an aberrant interlude in the history of international relations meant an almost absolute concentration of power in the United States. 

This was used by the neo-cons to reshape the political order of the Middle East in the beginning of the 21st century to disastrous effect. 

But the hit to multilateralism was not only a top-down affair where a unipole by opting for a unilateralist foreign policy, undermining international institutions in the process; it was also a bottom-up phenomenon. The world had and was changing dramatically. The pace of change was more acute in the period of 1980’s to the end of the 20th century.

The post-1945 normative consensus that undergirded world order was not keeping pace with the stupendous changes panning out with great alacrity. Th result was world disorders and from a normative standpoint a  world at odds with itself.

Moreover, nationalism and identity politics were making a comeback in many parts of the world. It was in this milieu that Donald Trump riding a populist wave in the United States assumed the highest office in and of the United States. What had remained of multilateralism, Trump badgered it with his ‘insurgent assaults in an attempt to rejig international relations and remake it in his own image. 

The structural complements to this assault was Brexit- the exit of the United Kingdom from the EU. Multilateralism as a practice and concept was only practised in the European Union which remained, because of its nature- a compendium of regimes and norms- stoically multilateral despite various and variegated assaults and pressures.

 It is under these conditions that Biden arrives. Will, the question is, he go whole hog multilateralist and embed the United States in a multilateral doctrine and approach?

 No. He won’t. Actually he cannot. The reason is that the world has changed and so has the United States. At best, Biden can restore relations with Europe by making NATO the centrepiece of American engagement with the EU reset but only somewhat relations with China and in all likelihood, opt for offshore balancing in the wider middle east. 

But, with reference to Iran he might renegotiate the terms of the US-Iran nuclear deal that Trump had abrogated. All in all, then there will no major or significant foreign policy breakthroughs.

While the world may welcome this respite from turbulence and back to the ‘old normal’ stability but this nostalgic yearning-  a somewhat pale echo of the multilateralism of yore- would be a wrong one.

The reason is that the world has changed. Because of the profound structural and conceptual changes in international relations and politics, political economy and economics, the return of identity politics and nationalism among other factors, the world and its politics needs a new and dynamic normative review that builds upon the old and creates a synthesis that speaks to the needs and demands of the contemporary world. Can or will Biden be up to the task?

Unlikely is the answer. Save for climate change, Biden’s foreign policy will neither be a revolutionary one nor the kind which will be pathbreaking.

Yes, in some issue areas there will be a recourse to multilateralism but it will be of a mellowed or a tepid variety. Short of accretions, the world needs a new normative consensus to deal with new, emergent and old issues alike.

Failing this, any foreign policy would amount to tinkering on the margins. Can the United States under Biden create this new normative consensus, underpinned by a  multilateralism with the country atop this order? The answer while iffy calls for a leadership paradigm that is bold, beautiful and revolutionary. More of the same will not do.

Will Biden be up to to the task, so to speak? The president-elect of the United States is said to have vast foreign policy experience that he can bring to bear on the United States' outward orientation and posture.

But, given that brave new world that humanity sits over, it is not the only experience that is needed but innovation and out of the box thinking. Can Biden integrate experience with a novel approach? The answer to this question will determine if the United States can lead in the 21st century.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer)

Wajahat Qazi

Wajahat Qazi is particularly interested in politics, global security and political economy. He is a wanderer and fancies himself to be a wannabe writer.
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