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Americans are still internationalists at heart

The writer is a former World Bank president and author of ‘American in the World’

Donald Trump’s foreign policy has bewildered America-watchers. Searching for an explanation, the cosmopolitan class warns of a return to American isolationism. The problem with that hypothesis is that the US public disagrees.

The results of the 2020 annual survey of American public opinion on US foreign policy, from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, may surprise doomsayers. A bipartisan 68 per cent favour the country taking an active part in world affairs — a share a little higher than during the cold war. Moreover, 68 per cent opt for a shared leadership role, compared with only 24 per cent preferring US dominance.

Americans are globalisers. Two-thirds believe globalisation benefits the US. Nearly three-quarters think international trade is good for the economy, 82 per cent agree that it benefits consumers, and 59 per cent believe it creates jobs at home. Support for Nato has stayed steady at 73 per cent, and 71 per cent believe the US should consult with major allies before making decisions, even if Washington needs to agree to policies that are not its first choice.

So what’s the problem? Americans, like citizens of other countries, focus principally on problems at home. Elected leaders have always had to shape inchoate public attitudes into support for specific foreign policies.

If Joe Biden becomes the next US president, he will face an immense domestic agenda: a persistent pandemic and frayed healthcare system; an unsteady economic recovery, with the most vulnerable falling behind; immigration frustrations; calls for action on climate; racial tensions. He will lead a broad coalition that may have voted against President Donald Trump, but not necessarily for a Biden programme. His team will recall that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both elected to the presidency with Democratic Congresses and high expectations, stumbled into big electoral losses after two years.

Mr Biden’s transition planners should memorise the advice White House chief of staff James Baker gave to Ronald Reagan in 1981. You have three priorities, he said, economic recovery, economic recovery, and economic recovery. In 2021, a Biden administration needs to combine Covid-19 treatments and health guidance with an economic programme to rebuild trust, revive confidence and offer a hand to the dejected.

Mr Biden’s foreign policy team should draw upon the domestic agenda to shape a complementary international plan. For example, in addition to rejoining the World Health Organization, the US should urge the World Bank and regional development banks to partner with the WHO and developing countries to assist with the logistics, cold storage, distribution, and community health systems necessary to vaccinate the vulnerable. The US should launch initiatives such as George W Bush’s to counter the HIV-Aids epidemic, malaria and tuberculosis in Africa. A drive against wildlife trafficking would help health and environmental safety.

A Biden foreign policy should also combine domestic climate policies with projects to broaden support among developing countries. A soil carbon plan could absorb carbon while helping African agriculture. Incentives to stop deforestation and encourage new planting would boost 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 boosting economic growth. The politics of trade will be challenging for Mr Biden, but his administration could stop the abuse of tariffs. He could open doors for digital, environmental and health products. The US should propose a package to end its chokehold on the World Trade Organization’s appeals system; it might include, for example, more flexible use of temporary safeguards, disciplines for state-owned enterprises and options for liberalisers to act together.

Swamp notes

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Such an agenda would create a foundation for rebuilding alliances. Although the Chicago Council survey showed public support for international engagement, Republicans and Democrats were at odds over security priorities. A future US foreign policy needs to face both new and old threats. With more than 220,000 American lives lost to Covid-19, biological security must be added to pre-existing risks such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism and warfare. The agenda must include cyber security, digital protections and technological opportunities.

If a new administration rebuilds at home and revitalises alliances abroad, the US will be better prepared to face the two biggest challenges: the future of free societies and China.

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