Biden explained his grand strategy to the General Assembly audience, “Instead of continuing to fight the wars of the past, we are fixing our eyes on devoting our resources to the challenges that hold the keys to our collective future: ending this pandemic; addressing the climate crisis; managing the shifts in global power dynamics; shaping the rules of the world on vital issues like trade, cyber, and emerging technologies; and facing the threat of terrorism as it stands today.”
And how does Biden propose to address these threats? “The United States intends to work with partners and allies to answer these questions,” he said. Indeed, Biden mentioned “allies” eight times and “partner” 16 times in his address. It was a clear theme.
That is all well and good. In reading David Sanger’s write-up of the speech in the New York Times, however, these two sentences caught my eye: “He stayed only a few hours and met only one ally there: Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia. Later in the day, back in Washington, Mr. Biden met Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain.”
How to put this gently — what the heck?! To work with allies and partners, presidents need to demonstrate that they matter — not just with treaties or agreements but face time. Joe Biden continues to not tend to his allies and partners at all. Even with a reduced number of attendees at the General Assembly this year, Biden needs to press the global flesh a bit more.
This is a serious problem! As previously noted, Biden’s grand strategy rests on solid principles, but also a few contradictions. The Biden administration seems determined to ignore questions like, “How will you persuade allies and partners to join in your coalition if you continue to articulate the neo-mercantilist beliefs of your predecessor? Why should countries like Japan or Germany or Chile get tougher with China while finding themselves on the outside looking in at the U.S. market?”
It is not like Biden is inherently bad at this — he had some successes on this front earlier in the year. Still, truculence from U.S. allies keeps surprising Biden administration officials. They were taken aback at British criticism of the Afghanistan withdrawal and French criticism of the AUKUS agreement. Even if it looks like these issues will be papered over for now, continued frictions with U.S. allies and partners will make it hard to build sizeable coalitions.
And let’s be clear, these coalitions will need to be big. Groupings like the Quad and AUKUS will work for some specific issue areas, but the grand challenges of American foreign policy — combating the pandemic, mitigating and adapting to climate change, competing with China — require more allies, not fewer. Unilateral actions have their place in foreign policy, but so does massaging the egos of necessary partners on the global stage.
So here’s my free advice to Joe Biden: Tend to your allies and partners more. I assure you that this will lead to fewer unpleasant surprises for the rest of your term.