The World Around Us
July 6, 2021
Is America back?

TO QUESTION whether America is back suggests that it had moved away from a place where it would have ordinarily been found. For many decades, America was usually found at the very front of the queue of global leadership in a multiplicity of spheres. America led the liberal international economic and political order; it led in creating and underwriting global norms; and it led in creating, shaping and influencing the institutions of global governance. At times, its efforts did more harm than good, but at other times, without America’s leadership, many problems facing the world would not have been solved.

Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the United States (US) largely reneged on its role as a global leader, as Trump turned inwards under the banner of “America first.” Under Trump, America either challenged or altogether withdrew from more than a dozen international agreements or institutions, including the Paris climate accord, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organisation (WHO). He also questioned the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and threatened to pull out of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

It has therefore come as no surprise that President Joe Biden continues in his attempts to reassure the world that “America is back.” Soon after taking office, President Biden renewed support for the WHO; he cleared the way for the new Director-General of the WTO to be appointed and America joined talks aimed at reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

At the Group of 7 (G-7) Summit a few weeks ago, Biden displayed American diplomacy at its best as he reinserted America at the front of the leadership queue with the kind of charisma largely absent during the Trump years. At the Summit, President Biden announced a number of US-led initiatives, the two most important of which are likely to be the promised US$40+ trillion infrastructure project for the developing world, and the 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to be donated to the rest of the world.

In tone, approach, optics and substance, this feels like a different America from the one that Trump vacated about six months ago. However, is the idea of America being back a gross exaggeration? Is Biden’s America Trump’s America wearing Prada?

Some critics are already referring to Biden’s approach as “Trump’s America First agenda but with a smile — Trumpism without Trump.” For instance, Biden has been accused of pushing Trumpian protectionism in areas such as trade where he has kept his predecessor’s tariffs in place on several Chinese goods. Biden also appears to embrace the notion of zero-sum economic competition between countries, a marked departure from the free-trade philosophy of past presidencies.

At home, cracks seem to be widening in American society along racial and ideological lines. Politically, America is also very much on edge and several observers are worried that American democracy might be in recession, as Republicans in particular, seem bent on eroding the voting rights of millions of voters, namely so-called minority voters.

Writing in Foreign Affairs on July 2, Larry Diamond, a Senior Fellow at Stanford University, imagines a world without American democracy. Diamond warns that “the failure of American democracy would be catastrophic not only for the United States; it would also have profound global consequences at a time when freedom and democracy are already under siege.”

Equally as scary as an undemocratic America is the idea that a Trumpian candidate, albeit one who is more competent than Trump, could potentially be elected to the presidency in the years ahead. Such a president would almost certainly complete the work that Trump started in undoing American credibility around the world and upsetting the global rules and norms which are essential for successful global governance.

America remains the world’s single most consequential country and as such, its actions have global implications. American leadership is still important for the rest of the world. However, this leadership must be constructive and engaging irrespective of whether it is a Republican or Democratic administration. Inconsistent leadership would only confuse the world and push more and more countries away from America’s reach.