The political crisis in Washington has upended the role of the United States as a global leader, a position it has enjoyed since the end of World War II, and which the incoming president must move swiftly and decisively to restore. The crisis culminated last week when President Trump's supporters stormed the Capitol in the worst violation of a government institution since 1812, when Britain attacked Washington and set fire to the White House.
This political crisis came in the wake of America's complete failure to deal with the pandemic, making it top the COVID-19 cases charts worldwide, and after it refused to engage in international efforts to fight the virus.
Many have written about the demise of the US's global role, even before the storming of Congress on January 6, seeing this as the effective end to the monopoly over this role by the US, which now finds itself in competition with several other superpowers.
This may be true, but Biden still has a chance to restore the leadership status of the US, especially given the lack of viable alternatives to fill the position.
Many countries and international organizations have long relied on the US in dealing with international crises, whether political, security or economic, given its economic strength and political clout, as well as its ability to coordinate and bring other countries on board. That made it all the more surprising to see the utter absence of US efforts in the international rallying against the dreaded coronavirus over the last year, something we have not seen in decades. During the 2008 economic crisis, the US worked hard to coordinate international measures and put the global economy back on track, whereas during the current pandemic, it has done little by way of coordinating with other countries and international organizations. On the contrary, it publicly butted heads with the World Health Organization, going so far as to withdraw its membership from the organization. After the US's failure in responding to the pandemic became clear, countries that had historically relied on it turned to other sources for help.
Biden is expected to focus primarily on domestic affairs, but since his election he has repeatedly underscored the connection between internal and foreign affairs, and his determination to strengthen the role and position of the US on the global scene, as confirmed by a number of his advisors.
European allies have complained about frequent clashes with President Trump on defense and foreign policy issues, and his propensity for unilateral solutions. Trade disputes, e.g. US imposition of new tariffs on German and French products, added fuel to the fire, against the background of the dispute between Boeing and Airbus. This protectionist trend included unfair tariffs on aluminum and steel exports from its Gulf partners, and the launch of a trade war against China, without first resorting to the World Trade Organization. These and other actions have greatly eroded US credibility as a global leader.
The health crisis increased the isolation of the US and its alienation from the international scene, and the long, drawn-out election season further soured affairs, especially after Trump's loss and refusal to accept the results. The storming of the Capitol by the president’s supporters dealt a final blow to the US’s international reputation and leadership ability.
What can Biden do to restore the international standing and leadership of the United States, particularly in the Arab Gulf region?
Despite the Trump administration’s many foreign affairs missteps, it achieved several key successes that were overshadowed by the media’s obsession with its failures on other fronts.
Three examples over the past year in particular stand out as successes that the Biden administration would do well to build on.
First, restoring stability in the oil market. In April 2020, Trump succeeded in mediating between Russia and OPEC, reaching an agreement between them that helped stabilize markets and oil prices. Naturally, this move was driven by American interests, as the US is now the largest oil producer in the world. Biden should build upon his predecessor's role if the oil markets were ever to destabilize and prices to fall again.
Second, supporting economic stability in a number of countries affected by the pandemic. The US played an important role, albeit to a lesser extent than during the 2008 crisis, in working with global financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, as well as with the G20 under Saudi Arabia's presidency of the group. The Federal Reserve pumped billions of dollars to increase liquidity which it made available to central banks in several countries affected by the pandemic, thus reducing fluctuations in exchange rates and financial markets.
In order for the US to maintain its financial leadership, the new administration must strengthen the fundamentals of the US economy itself, which have been significantly shaken, driving up unemployment, deepening trade and budget deficits, and yielding a drop in production. Without rebuilding the economy, it will be difficult for the US to assume its leadership role again.
The third and most prominent example is the role of the United States in the Gulf, which was not affected much by its domestic crises. On the contrary, the US has strengthened its military presence and thus its deterrent force against Iran, which has demonstrated its animosity through launching attacks on oil tankers, taunting US forces in the Gulf waters, and smuggling weapons to Houthi militias and others. Since the beginning of the Trump era, the US has defied Iranian provocations in the Gulf, and Tehran has backed off. Although the US did not respond directly to Iran's attack on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia in September 2019, in January 2020 it took out top Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani, who was directly responsible for implementing Tehran's policies in the Gulf, and Iran was unable to retaliate. The US withdrew from the nuclear deal after describing it as insufficient in confronting Iran's actions. It was able to convince most of the other parties of the need to expand the scope of any future negotiations to include the Iranian missile program and its destabilizing activities in the region, and it supported the participation of the countries of the region in those negotiations.
It appears that the incoming Biden administration intends to build on these achievements and address their shortcomings. In an interview with CNN last week, Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that Iran's missile program “should be on the table” if the US returned to those negotiations. He agreed on the need to include neighboring countries in the negotiations as well as expand their scope.
If the new administration can achieve similar accomplishments in other regions of the world, America may be able to regain its leadership role once more.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.