Donald Trump's foreign policy has confused America observers. In search of an explanation, the cosmopolitan class warns of a return to American isolationism. The problem with this hypothesis is that the US public disagrees.
The results of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' annual poll of American public opinion on US foreign policy in 2020 could surprise doomsday hunters. A non-partisan 68 percent support the country's active participation in world politics – a slightly higher percentage than during the Cold War. In addition, 68 percent opt for a joint leadership role, while only 24 percent prefer US dominance.
Americans are globalizers. Two thirds believe that globalization will benefit the US. Almost three quarters think international trade is good for the economy, 82 percent agree that it benefits consumers, and 59 percent believe it creates jobs domestically. Support for NATO has remained steady at 73 percent, and 71 percent believe the US should consult key allies before making decisions, even if Washington has to agree to policies that are not its first choice.
So what's the problem? Americans, like citizens of other countries, focus primarily on problems at home. Elected leaders have always had to shape public attitudes in support of a particular foreign policy.
If Joe Biden becomes the next US president, he will face an immense national agenda: an ongoing pandemic and a frayed health system; an unstable economic recovery with the most vulnerable falling behind; Immigration frustrations; calls for climate protection measures; racial tensions. He will lead a broad coalition that may have voted against President Donald Trump, but not necessarily for a Biden program. His team will remember that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both elected to the presidency with Democratic Congresses and high expectations, have faced huge election losses after two years.
Mr Biden's transition planners should remember the advice given by White House Chief of Staff James Baker to Ronald Reagan in 1981. You have three priorities: economic recovery, economic recovery, and economic recovery. In 2021, a Biden government must combine Covid-19 treatments and health counseling with an economic program to rebuild trust, revive trust, and lay a hand on the downcast.
Mr Biden's foreign policy team should draw on the national agenda to produce a complementary international plan. For example, in addition to re-joining the World Health Organization, the US should urge the World Bank and regional development banks to work with WHO and developing countries to help with the logistics, refrigeration, distribution and community health systems needed to vaccinate the vulnerable World Health Organization . The US should start initiatives like that of George W. Bush to counter the HIV-AIDS epidemic, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa. Fighting the wildlife trade would promote the health and safety of the environment.
A Biden foreign policy should also combine domestic climate policy with projects to expand support among developing countries. A soil carbon plan could absorb carbon while supporting African agriculture. Incentives to stop deforestation and encourage new plantings would promote biodiversity. All countries need help with energy efficiency, new technologies and adaptation.
On immigration and visas, US action should go hand in hand with rebuilding a partnership with Mexico and spurring economic growth. Trade policy will be challenging for Mr Biden, but his government could stop the abuse of tariffs. It could open doors to digital, environmental and health products. The US should propose a package to end its bottleneck in the World Trade Organization's appointment system. This could include, for example, more flexible use of temporary safeguards, disciplines for state-owned companies, and options for liberalizers to act together.
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Such an agenda would create a basis for alliance rebuilding. Although the Chicago Council poll found the public supported the international engagement, Republicans and Democrats disagreed over security priorities. Future US foreign policy must face both new and old threats. With more than 220,000 American lives lost to Covid-19, biosecurity needs to be added to pre-existing risks such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism and warfare. The agenda must include cybersecurity, digital protection and technological opportunities.
With a new domestic government rebuilt and alliances revived abroad, the US will be better prepared for the two greatest challenges: the future of free societies and China.
The author is a past President of the World Bank and the author of "American in the World".