“The voter turnout in the USA was historically high in this election — unfortunately also the polarization,” was the delicate way German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put it in a tweet. Non-diplomats were far more blunt. “Even if [Biden] wins, a terrible question looms,” tweeted Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “How could tens of millions of [Americans] reward this lying demagogue [Trump] after everything he’s done? People knew exactly what they were voting for. How deep are America’s democratic convictions, really?”
Fair enough. Though Biden and the foreign policy team he will likely install already have deep relationships with most of the major U.S. allies, they will have to work long and hard to restore trust in the United States’ word and capability for effective cooperation. We won’t return soon, if ever, to the days of Bill Clinton’s “indispensable nation,” or see the international adulation that Barack Obama inspired.
Still, like their American liberal counterparts, policymakers in Europe and other democratic countries could use some perspective. Though he may have his limitations at home, Biden will likely transform U.S. engagement abroad in big and positive ways.
One will come quickly: a restoration of the traditional U.S. international alignment. A Biden administration will quickly rejoin the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization; it will reaffirm U.S. support for NATO. Threats from Washington to impose tariffs on German cars, or withdraw troops from bases in South Korea in the absence of extortionate new payments, will abruptly cease. The bizarre collection of hacks and ideologues Trump has appointed as ambassadors and senior intelligence officials — think: Richard Grenell — will be replaced with professionals — or at least, capable interlocutors.
It’s true that the United States will remain a deeply polarized country, and every Biden international initiative will be portrayed as a treasonous sellout by the remnants of Trumpism. But this is hardly the only democracy wrestling with illiberal populism; almost all are. The difference is that Biden will join that select group of leaders who have managed to gain the upper hand over the modern-day Mussolinis, at least for now, and are searching for strategies to neutralize their poison.
Biden should have a lot to talk about with Emmanuel Macron, the French president who in 2017 managed to defeat the nationalist demagogue Marine Le Pen and has since faced down a tea-party-like populist uprising. Biden and Maas might discuss the strategies of the German government for containing the extremist Alternative for Germany. The same goes for Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who has barely managed to keep his country’s neo-fascists at bay. These and other European Union leaders are struggling with the problem of how to discipline the quasi-authoritarian governments of Poland and Hungary; it will help to have a U.S. president who, unlike Trump, does not prefer them over E.U. leaders in Brussels.
Even more important is Biden’s plan to forge a coalition of democracies to confront the surging global wave of autocracy. The 21st century has reopened the contest of the 20th over the nature of human governance: China is propagating a model of high-tech totalitarianism and selling the gear to implement it. For the past four years, the United States has been on the wrong side of this fight. Trump excused Xi Jinping’s concentration camps and Vladimir Putin’s political murders while heaping abuse on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his de facto stand-in as leader of the free world.
Biden wants to take the job back. “During my first year in office,” he has pledged, “the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy” to “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding and forge a common agenda.” Imagine that: a U.S. president hobnobbing with democratic leaders rather than dictators; sponsoring a multilateral initiative to promote freedom; standing up to Putin and Xi; and using U.S. leverage to free political prisoners and press for greater pluralism in places such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
That may not necessarily restore the prestige and soft power the United States wielded before Trump came along. But it’s reason enough to celebrate what happened in last week’s election, rather than mourn what did not.