On foreign policy, Biden should go big, all at once

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key US ally, spoke with then-Vice President Joe Biden in Berlin in 2013. POOL/PHOTOGRAPHER: POOL/GETTY IMAGES

The world would take note of a decisive turn away from the go-it-alone recklessness of the Trump era.

During the Trump era, the United States has scorned diplomacy and trashed international agreements. Rather than negotiate with rivals, we have confronted them with threats, sanctions, and “maximum pressure.” Can diplomacy make a comeback? Perhaps — but only if Joe Biden acts quickly and boldly. His best hope to impress a shell-shocked world is to go big, all at once.

Biden has already vowed that on his first day in office, he will lift the “Muslim ban” under which citizens of seven mainly Islamic countries are banned from visiting the United States. He should go further. Rather than lob his foreign policy bombshells one at a time, he should dump them together. Each will be greeted with a howl of protest, and it’s better to endure one burst than several in a row.

At the same time Biden lifts the “Muslim ban,” he should take four other steps that would together signal a decisive American return to cooperative diplomacy. All can be taken by proclamation, without approval from Congress or anyone else. All align with policies he has championed in the past. All take us back to the future — back to where we were before Trump came along.

On Jan. 21, Biden should announce that the United States is rejoining the World Health Organization; returning to the nuclear deal with Iran; lifting Trump’s sanctions on Cuba; and returning to the Paris climate-change accord.

None of these steps is radical. They do not address many global challenges, notably relations with Russia and China. Yet making a package of announcements on day one would signal a dramatic turn away from the go-it-alone recklessness of the Trump era. The world would take note.

Taking note, however, is quite different from presuming that the United States will return to its old position of global leadership. That seems unlikely anytime soon. Even if President Biden steers the United States back toward the path of diplomacy, there is every chance that we will careen off it again in four or eight years. The recent election shows how fully our foreign policy is hostage to domestic political pathologies. It forces the world to face a new reality: the terminally unreliable United States.

Trump showed that what one American president promises, the next may ignore. That naturally leads foreign leaders to doubt the value of our word, handshake, signature, or public commitment. No country can now be confident that an agreement with the United States will survive our next internal political spasm. Our new national motto might be “In God We Trust, But Don’t Trust Us.”

As our interest in diplomacy ebbed over the last four years, we intensified confrontations with our perceived enemies. If we are entering a period of conciliation, it may not last long. A future administration may well go back to Trump’s scorched-earth policies, perhaps with even more focused ferocity. That argues for quick action now to confront foreign policy challenges that President Biden can resolve by decree.

If Biden wants to signal the world that the United States is seriously determined to give diplomacy another try, there’s another step he could take: Name a professional diplomat rather than a politician as secretary of state. That would electrify our foreign service, which has been battered and demoralized during the Trump years. It would also symbolize a renewed American determination to shape foreign policy according to prudent self-interest rather than demagogic fantasy.

Pity whoever becomes our next secretary of state! He or she will have to preach a gospel while knowing it is probably untrue: “Forget the madness of the last four years. That was an aberration. America is in steady hands again and will stay that way.” Only a consummate diplomat would dare to try convincing the world that after wreaking so much havoc, the United States has resolved to play by the rules forevermore.

Fortunately, a fine candidate is available for the job. In all the speculation about a new secretary of state, one name stands out: William Burns. Facing the incoming Hurricane Trump in 2016, Burns left the State Department after a 33-year career that brought him to the number-two job in the State Department and a stint as ambassador to Russia. If Biden wants a secretary of state whose stature would instantly bring the shine back to America’s much-tarnished image in the world, Bill Burns is his man. Burns also happens to be a wry observer of foreign cultures: His droll report on a wedding in the Russian republic of Dagestan, featuring warlords, dancers, and a drunken wrestler, tucked into a sweeping account of “deadly serious north Caucasus politics,” became a cult classic after WikiLeaks released it in 2010.

Burns is not the sort to campaign openly for any job. Nonetheless, he might have had himself in mind when he co-authored an essay a few weeks ago asserting that American diplomacy is “badly broken” but “not beyond repair,” and recommending “a great renewal of diplomatic capacity” as the solution.

Over the last four years, the world has lost much confidence the United States. Regaining trust is always difficult. Biden’s best hope is to come into office with a bold first-day agenda and then name our country’s most qualified diplomat to bring us back in from the geopolitical cold.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

Leave a Reply