Op-Ed: How Biden Can Restore U.S. Global Leadership After Trump's Retreat From International Institutions

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  • The trend of relative U.S. global retreat pre-dated the Trump administration, but it accelerated in the past four years.
  • The Biden administration has made as one of its top priorities the reinvigoration of common cause alongside global partners and allies.
  • Reversing current trends, however, needs to begin with an understanding of where the U.S. "no-shows" have been most significant.

Woody Allen once famously said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." No advice is more important for President-elected Joe Biden as he maps his strategy to regain the United States' lost ground and influence around the world.

The trend of relative U.S. global retreat pre-dated the Trump administration, but it accelerated in the past four years. The Biden administration has made as one of its top priorities the reinvigoration of common cause alongside global partners and allies. Reversing current trends, however, needs to begin with an understanding of where the U.S. "no-shows" have been most significant.

This week's announcement of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would be a good place to start. China stood at the center — and the United States watched from the distant sidelines— of the world's largest multilateral trade agreement ever. It brings together countries that account for roughly 30% of the world's economic output and population.

The deal is a fitting bookend for a Trump administration that in its first hours pulled out of negotiations toward a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that would have sealed America's trade ties with 11 other Asian economies – stealing a march on China. Instead, that agreement went ahead among those countries, but without the United States. The Biden administration should begin by studying whether there is an accelerated path to rejoining this group. Yet the phenomenon of relative U.S. withdrawal, known by some scholars as "world without U.S.," goes far beyond trade. Last week, for example, both the United States and Europe were left on the outside looking in as Russia brokered an agreement ending six weeks of bloody conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Whatever one's view of the agreement, and the Armenians appear to have lost the most as matters stand, what struck international diplomats most was President Vladimir Putin's central and unchallenged role. Turkey was the only major country involved, but it wasn't a signatory to the agreement nor is it mentioned in the deal. That said, Ankara's military and diplomatic support contributed to Azerbaijan's victory.

Putin's message to Europe and the world was clear at a time of American political transition and distraction: the United States is no longer a decisive factor in "his region."

"Missing this opportunity and allowing Moscow full rein over how the war ended means Russia now sits with military bases on the territory of all three South Caucuses republics," writes Neil Hauer, a Canadian journalist and analyst working from the South Caucuses. "Any U.S. engagement with Karabakh (under a Biden administration) will thus now start firmly on the back foot, beholden to this unfavorable reality on the ground." 

American diplomats who have invested their careers in the democratic and peaceful development of countries on Russia's borders note the stark contrast between waning U.S. influence now and Washington's central role 25 years ago today in brokering the Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian war.

Many Americans may welcome less Washington engagement in such distant conflicts, even when they don't involve U.S. troops. However, the impression left among allies and adversaries around the world is that Washington has quietly accepted a diminished global role that remains of uncertain shape and ambition.

They point to the recent Abraham Accords, through which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reached peace agreements with Israel, to underscore how much Washington can still shape a better future when it wishes. However, even there the Mideast parties moved forward partly as a security hedge against growing concerns regarding reduced American presence.

The list is a long one of places where partners will want the Biden administration to reassert U.S. influence. The Biden administration on inauguration day is likely to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, but it will move forward on other fronts as well.

First up, U.S. partners will be watching to see if President Biden works more closely in multilateral settings such as the G-7 and the G-20 to better manage global common cause in response to Covid-19, vaccine distribution and ongoing economic shocks. They point to the way America responded to the 2008-2009 global financial crisis as an example of just such leadership.

They'll also watch to see how quickly and with what success the United States will re-engage in multilateral organizations like the United Nations. Whatever Americans may think of the U.N.'s performance, U.S. disengagement has left the door open for China to fill top positions across a number of the most influential U.N. agencies. China now heads four of the 15 specialized U.N. agencies and groups that run the organization's machinery. No other country has more than one.

Most important to address, but also most difficult politically, will be addressing Chinese global economic and trade gains of the sort that this week's RCEP agreement signify.

Nowhere could the United States gain more ground more quickly than in forging  trade and investment agreements with its European and Asian partners, either by joining current agreements or forging new ones. 

What RCEP shows is that China and some of Washington's closest regional partners see that the fastest route to greater prosperity is through trade and liberalizing economic relations. The agreement is expected to add $209 billion to global incomes and $500 billion to global trade by 2030.

That said, both Democratic and Republican members of Congress and their constituencies have grown wary of just the sort of agreements that are most crucial in addressing China's rise.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People's Party, the largest constituency in the European parliament, told the South China Morning Post that the new Asia-Pacific trade deal should be a "wake-up call" for transatlantic common cause.

"We need a reunification of the so-called Western world," he said, "now with Joe Biden as a constructive partner, to face this challenge of China. It's the key question for the upcoming decade."   

Coming back to Woody Allen, 80% of success might be showing up, but it's the final 20% that will be decisive to history. Can President-elect Biden galvanize European and Asian partners around a historic agreement to counter the growing influence of China and authoritarian capitalism?  Or will U.S. politics and disarray among global democracies block this crucial path to global relevance?

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter 

and s ubscribe here  to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.

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