Joe Biden’s foreign foray is all about shoring up democracy – in the US | Henry Farrell


During his first trip abroad as US president last week, Joe Biden kept telling Europe that “the US is back”. Before the G7 meeting, Biden signed a new Atlantic charter with Boris Johnson that agreed to protect democracy and open societies. After Cornwall, he went on to more meetings in Brussels with the European Union, as well as a Nato summit and a head to head with Vladimir Putin in Geneva. Past presidents have viewed the EU as an irrelevant bureaucracy or a sinister threat. Biden described it as an “incredibly strong and vibrant entity”.

In his press conference with Emmanuel Macron, Biden seemed to promise that the US was returning to its normal role in international politics. After Donald Trump, some nostalgic politicians might even hope for a reinvigoration of the so-called rules-based liberal order which has purportedly prevailed since the second world war.

Anyone with such hopes is bound to be disappointed. Despite his rhetoric, Biden isn’t really interested in a return to the status quo, or in reuniting the old band of transatlanticists to tour their greatest hits. The old transatlantic relationship reflected America’s needs after the 1939-45 war. The US didn’t create Nato or shovel money at shattered European economies out of disinterested generosity, but because it wanted to strengthen allies to better face shared threats.

Now, the US’s needs have changed, and so will its actions. Biden genuinely and openly fears that American democracy is in danger. Threats come from outside, because China offers an attractive alternative model, with authoritarianism able to provide reasonable prosperity to its population. But more perniciously, American democracy is under threat from inside. Trump did not accept his election defeat in November and egged on his supporters to attack the US Capitol on 6 January to overturn the result. At the same time, Republicans are using their control of state legislatures to bring through a plethora of laws aimed at making it harder to vote and so cement their own rule.

Biden is rather less keen to discuss the fact that he is relatively powerless to address those internal threats. Thin Democratic majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives, combined with united Republican opposition and the presence of the Senate filibuster, make it nearly impossible to get any legislation passed.

On external matters though, one of the few major areas of bipartisan agreement is distrust of China. This is why the administration and its allies have been able to pass legislation aimed at boosting American research projects, which they can justify as helping the US to compete with China. This shared outlook allows Biden more elbow room for a robust approach to China – and besides, it is much easier for him to act abroad unilaterally than to work on domestic matters through Congress. US presidents have very wide leeway to make foreign policy so long as they don’t try to sign binding treaties.

The result is an approach that combines competition with China, efforts to protect global democracy and measures ultimately intended to shore up some of the gaping vulnerabilities in US domestic politics. Other presidents wanted to spread democracy around the world, whether through free-trade liberalism or through force. The new administration wants to bring democracy back home.

This focus will remake the transatlantic relationship. The guiding mantra of his international team is that they are making “foreign policy for the middle class”. This phrase isn’t nearly as bland as it seems. It implies that the traditional approach to American foreign policy of years past – pressing for free-trade agreements to spread international liberalism – actually hurt ordinary Americans and made them more likely to vote for Trump, with all the dangers for democracy that entailed.

The Biden administration is likely to be far less interested in free-trade agreements than its pre-Trump predecessors, especially when they are costly for American industry. It’s notable that the new Atlantic charter with Britain doesn’t have any reference to the World Trade Organization, and that it talks about “open and fair trade” rather than simply “open trade”. Meanwhile, the president wants to use economic measures such as rebuilding supply chains to minimise dependence on autocracies and prevent China’s access to key technologies. But those efforts are likely to sit awkwardly with WTO rules.

Despite Biden’s outward friendliness this poses a big challenge to the EU, which has in some ways been more committed to rules-based multilateral trade than the US. It may also present difficulties for Johnson’s post-Brexit Britain. A world of existing, stable multilateral rules is much more comfortable for a mid-sized power than a new free-for-all. Economies such as Germany, which have depended heavily on the Chinese market, are also going to face some difficult choices.

Biden’s new enthusiasm for more strict global tax rules also provides some problems for international partners. Again, the reasons are largely domestic: the policy echoes Bernie Sanders’ argument, leading from the left of the Democratic party, that tax havens and easy, anonymous money-flows damage democracy by enabling corruption and kleptocracy. That then becomes awkward for the UK, which has long turned a blind eye to inflows of dirty money and whose overseas territories are among the world’s leading tax havens. It’s also a problem for EU tax havens such as the Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands, and for islands like Cyprus and Malta with banking systems that cater for Russian and Eurasian oligarchs.

While Biden proclaims that America is back on the world stage, truly he is looking homewards, preoccupied with a broken domestic political system and how to fix it. By tackling those vexed international issues of China, trade and tax, Biden hopes in turn to help US democracy to find its way again. If they really want to remake the transatlantic relationship, the UK and Europe are going to have to work together with an administration with a very different understanding of American interests than its predecessors.



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