Biden’s unilateral approach bad news for America’s allies
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week made a subtle criticism of the US. He said there is no European security without Europeans, alluding to the bilateral US negotiations with Russia over the fate of Ukraine, which not only did not include Europeans but also did not have any Ukrainian representation, even though it is the subject of contention. One of Joe Biden’s key criticisms of Donald Trump’s foreign policy was that the former president acted in a unilateral manner, but isn’t Biden now behaving exactly the same as his predecessor?
When Biden was elected, Europe breathed a sigh of relief. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo tweeted, “Welcome back America.” She was welcoming Washington’s likely return to the way it used to deal with its allies: On an institutional and multilateral basis. Hidalgo was also welcoming the return of American engagement with Europe after a period of confrontation during the Trump administration. There was so much hope that Biden would undo the damage Trump’s policies caused to the transatlantic alliance. However, America’s European partners are getting increasingly frustrated, as they are now realizing that Biden is as unilateral in his approach to foreign policy as his predecessor, and this selfishness in international affairs is overshadowing the common good of the transatlantic alliance.
This unilateralism is a byproduct of short-sightedness and opportunism. Ultimately, the US has so much to lose by not involving its allies. America’s strength does not primarily stem from its formidable military machine, but from its ability to garner support across the globe. And its alliance with Europe has been the cornerstone of US power projection worldwide. In fact, since the Second World War, transatlantic relations have been at the heart of international politics. This does not seem to be the case anymore. The epicenter is moving to Eurasia, with a likely Russian-Chinese alliance. However, if this is the case, it is really bad news for the West and for the people who aspire to freedom and democracy. The main culprit behind the likelihood of this shift in power is definitely the US and not Europe.
While Trump campaigned on an “America first” platform, Biden said “America is back.” But America today is neither the first nor is it back. It is slowly losing its place on the world stage, driven by an obsessive isolationism that resulted in this unilateral approach. When you simply don’t care what is happening in the world and don’t want to lead, why would you care what your allies think? Actually, when you are not planning to be involved, why do you need allies in the first place?
The most flagrant symptom was last summer’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, which happened without any coordination with any of its allies. “The Americans just left,” one source told me. Washington left its allies to scramble to deal with the repercussions of its hasty decision. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who fell short of directly criticizing the US, said that the withdrawal was an “extremely bitter development. Bitter, dramatic and terrifying.”
While the narrative of the Biden administration stresses democracy, human rights, institutional relations and multilateralism, the reality is totally different. The reality is different simply because the US no longer has a leading interest in world affairs and primacy on the world stage is no longer a goal on its own. The Biden administration is more focused on domestic issues. However, the US should remember that its robust economy and a large part of the prosperity the average American enjoys can be partly attributed to the country’s position on the world stage. For example, the oil concessions US companies benefited from in the Arab Gulf were awarded to “Uncle Sam” for a reason. In addition to the economic element, these countries’ alliances with the US played an important role.
The ideology of isolationism started with Barack Obama, who was catering to a popular mood after Americans grew tired of George W. Bush’s wars. It continued with Trump’s America first approach. However, it is now being taken to new heights by the Biden administration — and this isolationism is driving unilateralism.
US selfishness in international affairs is overshadowing the common good of the transatlantic alliance.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The underlying logic is “we do the minimum to secure our interests and the world needs to take care of itself.” Prior to entering any negotiations with the Russians on Ukraine, Biden made it clear that the military option was not a realistic one for the US. With Ukraine feeling threatened, the US said it would not be sending soldiers to defend its ally. When you have this attitude, how can your allies trust you? More importantly, when negotiating with the Russians, the US has not involved its ally that is under threat or its European partners. This unilateralism shakes the trust of allies and sends a sign of weakness to foes.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin seems very confident. He is facing the American threat of sanctions with his own threat of cutting relations with the US. Where is the respect America can impose on its foes? Today, as the US is also negotiating with Iran in Vienna, the Iranians are refusing to talk directly to Washington. How humiliating is that? You are negotiating with a party who refuses to talk to you.
For the US to regain its prestige on the world stage, it should start by showing a firm commitment to its allies and decisiveness when facing its foes. It should also demonstrate to its allies that its political narrative is not void and that it can be translated into action when needed. Unless the US does that, we will witness the waning of America as a world power, the decline of the West and a serious blow to liberal democracies around the world. If Washington does not want to reach this point, it should start reversing its unilateral approach and begin liaising with its allies on foreign policy matters.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building, a Lebanese nongovernmental organization focused on Track II.