America’s ‘Return’ Might Not Be Enough to Revive the West

The United States is “back,” proclaims U.S. President Joe Biden, seemingly as often as he can. The coming week will show if the same is true of the West. At successive summits of the G-7, NATO and the European Union, Biden and fellow leaders will confront a dual task: reviving the community of advanced market democracies and showing that the West is capable of resolving today’s complex transnational challenges.

Biden’s election in November heartened the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and understandably so. The new president promised to pick up the mantle of global leadership that Trump had cast aside and make the West once again the core of an open, rules-based world order. The aberrant Trump years might then recede into the past, eventually viewed as a bizarre interregnum between two “normal” periods of U.S. internationalism.

Unfortunately, this simple Restoration scenario collides with four inconvenient truths. First, the Western-led order was on its heels well before Trump, knocked off balance by rising geopolitical competition from China and Russia; a shrinking collective share of global GDP among the member states of the high-income Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; and public disillusionment with globalization, particularly after the financial crisis. These weaknesses remain. Second, the Trump era cast doubt on U.S. global staying power, encouraging close allies in Europe and Asia to hedge their bets against a suddenly capricious America. Such misgivings persist, despite Biden’s reassurances. Third, the Trump presidency demolished what little remained of the bipartisan internationalist consensus. Democrats and Republicans now inhabit different foreign policy planets. Finally, it is unclear if inherited Western institutions can adapt to today’s global challenges, whether climate change, cyberwarfare, pandemic disease or economic dislocation.

Biden and his counterparts have an opportunity to prove skeptics wrong this week. Beyond reaffirming Western solidarity, they must announce concrete steps to defend democracy at home and abroad; revive and humanize globalization; bolster collective defense; and address transnational challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and global warming. Here is a preview of the main issues at play in the upcoming summits.

From June 11-13, the leaders of the G-7—which comprises the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan—will meet in Cornwall, England. Under Trump, annual summits of the big market democracies resembled a dysfunctional family reunion, complete with a crotchety American uncle. This year’s gathering in the resort town of Carbis Bay should be more congenial. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as the host, has chosen four priorities under the rubric of “Building Back Better”: pandemic recovery and resilience, climate change and biodiversity, free and fair trade, and championing shared values. Collectively, the topics show how far the G-7 has evolved from its original, narrow focus on macroeconomic coordination.

The gathered leaders will seek to expand global access to vaccines, which have been administered overwhelmingly in wealthy countries, discuss the possibility of “COVID passports” and consider a proposed new global treaty on pandemics. They will also reaffirm their emissions reduction targets in advance of the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow in November, as well as endorse the target of zero global biodiversity loss by 2030. They will pledge to revive global trade liberalization, in anticipation of the 12th World Trade Organization ministerial meeting later this year, while promising to take into account the impact of globalization on citizens’ lives. Finally, they will pledge to defend democratic values against freedom’s enemies, at home and abroad.

The United States is “back,” proclaims U.S. President Joe Biden, seemingly as often as he can. The coming week will show if the same is true of the West.

The Cornwall summit will provide an early test for Johnson’s wager that a “Global Britain” can arise from Brexit’s ashes. It will also allow observers to gauge the G-7’s political cohesion and global relevance in an ideologically diverse, multipolar world. In the hopes of bolstering the grouping’s global reach, London has invited four other democracies—Australia, South Korea, India and South Africa—to attend alongside its core members; the EU is considered a “non-enumerated” member as well. At present, G-7 nations show little appetite for permanently expanding the group’s membership—for instance, by creating a “Democratic 10,” or D-10, as some strategists propose. Still, pressure to do so will surely build if the G-7’s relations with China and Russia continue to deteriorate. Biden, who describes the competition between democracy and authoritarianism as a defining struggle of our time, must be prepared for this contingency.

From Cornwall, Biden travels to Brussels on June 14 for a summit with other NATO leaders, who will greet him warmly after four years of Trump’s abuse. Still, the agenda is daunting and the political context complex. A year and a half after French President Emmanuel Macron dismissed it as “brain dead,” the alliance is slated to adopt an updated strategic concept intended to reorient NATO away from classic collective defense toward a more global geopolitical role, as well as toward new threats like cyberconflict and climate change.

Immediate practical challenges and internal political tensions may complicate these aspirations, though. High on the agenda is negotiating an orderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, following Biden’s unilateral pledge to remove all U.S. troops by Sept. 11, a schedule that has since been accelerated and is now expected to be completed by July. The U.S. move rattled American allies and raises questions about how Afghan security forces will be funded when NATO’s longest overseas mission ends. Beyond Afghanistan, the alliance will struggle to forge a common position on China, with several allies wary of Washington’s desire to enlist them in its strategic competition with Beijing. The allies should find more common ground when it comes to Russia, whose defense minister two weeks ago announced that Moscow would position 20 new military units along its western border.

Finally, NATO will need to address two challenges to alliance solidarity. The first is how to respond to the continued development of stand-alone EU defense capabilities, which the U.S. and some allies have long worried could detract from NATO’s cohesion—a suspicion reinforced by French invocation of the concept of “strategic autonomy.” Given the long-standing U.S. desire for European allies to invest more in defense, it is time for Washington to show flexibility on this issue, as a new Center for American Progress report recommends and I have argued. The second tricky matter is Turkey, which under the autocratic rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has insisted on purchasing Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missiles despite allied entreaties and, more recently, has diluted NATO’s response to Belarus’ hijacking of a Ryanair flight—a brazen act of state piracy that contradicts any notion of a rules-based international order. Despite its strategic location, it may be time to revisit Turkey’s status as a NATO ally.

Biden ends his European adventure with two final summits—with EU leaders in Brussels on June 15 and with Vladimir Putin, nemesis of the West, in Geneva on June 16. Back in December 2020, the European Commission drafted “A New U.S.-EU Agenda for Global Change,” perceiving a once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance a joint trans-Atlantic approach to world order. Since then, tensions over trade, taxation and COVID-19 vaccines have clouded that vision. The two sides will try to put those difficulties behind them by reaffirming—according to a leaked draft communique—“the importance of the EU-U.S. partnership as an anchor for peace, security and stability around the world.”

If all goes as planned, Biden should arrive in Geneva with something that neither Putin nor for that matter Chinese President Xi Jinping will ever have: a solid network of allies committed to a shared vision of the world—and with the collective resources to back it up.

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