The following analysis of the current state of the US in the world is in part based on my five years dealing with Canada-US relations at Global Affairs Canada, first as the Director General for North America and then as the Assistant Deputy Minister, Americas, and on my 6 years over two U.S. administrations serving at our Embassy in Washington.
Any such analysis cannot avoid a brief discussion of the events that took place in Washington on Jan. 6 and what they mean for the U.S. and its allies. As this piece is not about the Canada-U.S. relationship, my references to it will be brief. The focus will be on the challenges that the Biden Administration is facing domestically and in foreign policy terms, including how the U.S. will try to regain its place as a leader within the liberal international order.
While the events in Washington on January 6 were frightening, they were, in some ways, an expected climax to an illiberal, sometimes illegal, and increasingly destructive Donald Trump presidency.
Those who have argued that Trump’s failure to accept the election results, his incitement on January 6, and the actions of his supporters in breaching the Capitol were precisely what can happen when an authoritarian narcissist is elected President, and when the right-wing media and senior members of his Party refuse to rein him in, were correct. And there is no question – calls for the need for unity notwithstanding – that he should have been impeached and convicted for his actions.
However, the suggestion by many in Congress and the media that these actions have seriously damaged America’s reputation abroad misreads how America’s allies and enemies alike have viewed it for years.
That reputation has been in disrepute since Donald Trump became the Republican Party’s nominee and certainly since he was elected. But long before that, Europeans and other allies of the U.S. were having a hard time respecting a country that is by most markers the richest in the world and yet has neither universal health care coverage, nor affordable higher education; a country that stands by while tens of thousands of it citizens and thousands of its children die annually because it has failed to pass gun control legislation and; and a country that, despite a civil war and much-lauded civil rights legislation, continues to systematically discriminate against Black Americans and refuses to atone for their past mistreatment.
To quote Finton O’Toole of the Irish Times, “while America has for centuries inspired love and hatred, hope and fear, envy and contempt, and awe and anger, there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now and that’s a pity.”
The first time I served in Washington (1997-2001), Bill Clinton was President in his second term. Our then Prime Minister, Jean Chretien and Clinton had a warm relationship. They golfed together, talked regularly on the phone, and Clinton flew to Quebec City just prior to Quebec’s second referendum to support his friend and speak in favour of a united Canada. The relationship never went public, of course, because a Canadian prime minister can never be seen to be too close to a U.S. president. At the end of my four years there, we witnessed the Bush vs. Gore “hanging chads” battle for the Presidency. Needless to say, it was resolved more civilly than what the world just witnessed. Overall, the Clinton Administration did a reasonable job of balancing the U.S’ interests and its values. It ended a war in the Balkans, tried hard to bring peace to the Israel-Palestine conflict, and acknowledged its failure to respond to the genocide in Rwanda.
I returned to Washington in 2004 under George W Bush. This was post 9/11 and after Canada had refused to join the U.S. in Iraq. Those were the days when you were either “with the U.S. or agin it” and Canada was firmly in the “agin” camp. We were treated not as trusted allies and the U.S.’ most important trading partner, but rather as second-class citizens.
I witnessed then a more frightened and much uglier America – one that became defined by its unjustified war in Iraq, its prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and the Abu Ghraib tortures. The overarching view then in Washington, and especially at the White House, was one where anti-terrorism trumped the rule of law every time.
Despite these faults and its checkered past, it was still possible to be more optimistic about the U.S. and its role in the world. At the time, I remember telling Canadian audiences – audiences who generally had little time for George Bush, Dick Cheney or Don Rumsfeld – that at least 50% of Americans were Democrats and that many of them were more “liberal” than most Canadians.
Indeed, there always have been two Americas; one was the good America that wanted to spread liberalism and capitalism around the world while benefitting itself and supporting its allies.
It was an America that considered itself “exceptional”. On the one hand, it believed that it had things to teach the world like the value of free elections and a free press, respect for human rights and the rule of law. On the other hand, it was exceptional because the rules-based order – international law and multilateral treaties – only applied to the U.S. when it wanted them to.
Yes, America supported the United Nations but only as long as it retained a veto at the Security Council. Yes, it supported the abolition of land mines and was the campaign’s largest funder, but it wouldn’t join the anti-land mines treaty because the Pentagon didn’t want its hands tied. Yes, the International Criminal Court was a key tool in the global fight against genocide and crimes against humanity and the U.S. was initially supportive of its establishment, but it refused to join unless it could prevent the Court’s reach to American soldiers abroad.
During some periods, immediately following WWII and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for example, the U.S. played a very positive role. Its successes included supporting in key ways the UN system writ large, Bretton Woods, NATO, the IMF and the World Bank. It helped to re-build Japan and Germany with the Marshall Plan, and supported the creation of a united Europe. And when the wall fell, it supported the countries of the former Soviet Union in their efforts to join NATO and the EU.
However, in sharp contrast to the myth of America as the “City upon a Hill” and beacon of hope, there has always been a different America – one that most American politicians and diplomats choose to ignore when they are extolling their country’s virtues.
This is an America that tried to convince the world that there was a difference in quality between “authoritarians”, for example, General Pinochet in Chile, whom they supported, and “totalitarians” like Fidel Castro in Cuba, whom they opposed; an America that engineered or supported coups and attempted coups in places like Guatemala, Iran, Chile and Cuba; a country that propped up illegitimate military regimes in Argentina, Brazil and South Viet Nam; and an America that invaded Iraq on false premises and lit a fire there that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths; the expansion of ISIS’ role; and an empowered Iran.
And what about Canada’s place in the US’ world view? We, of course, are the lucky neighbour; the other North American partner in NATO and the junior member in the G-7. We are protected militarily by the U.S. and benefit massively by having America as our most important trading and investment partner. These are enormous advantages, and few countries are as lucky as we are to have such a benign neighbour.
But having the US as a neighbour also has its drawbacks. It’s far too easy to have a big brother on your southern border. We have entered into multiple trade agreements with Europe, Latin America and Asia, all in an effort to diversify our trade, but our businessmen and women generally don’t take advantage of them. We still do approximately 75% of our trade in goods with the U.S., the same percentage as when I first served in Washington in 1997.
In addition, our innovation and joint venture ecosystems are smaller and less energetic than they should be. We lag behind other similar-sized economies in entrepreneurship and productivity. We have more trade barriers within Canada than with the U.S. and, too often, we follow the US in a race to the bottom in lowering taxes, in de-regulating our economy, and in failing to deal with tax evasion and money laundering.
So, with that past and more recent history as his backdrop, what domestic and foreign policy challenges is Joe Biden facing going forward.
While attacking Covid and jump-starting the economy are enormous challenges, and climate change, cyber threats and immigration are not far behind, the President highlighted his most difficult domestic challenge during his inauguration, i.e., addressing the gaping polarization that currently infects the U.S. and restoring the truth as the basis for an ongoing conversation among Americans. Needless to say, with approximately 74 million Americans having voted for Donald Trump last November, this is no easy task.
Turning to the foreign policy front, it will take time for the President to address the many issues his predecessor left behind.
During his four years in office, Donald Trump undercut America’s influence by abdicating U.S. global leadership, marginalizing international institutions and adopting a cynical and highly transactional approach to global affairs.
He abandoned the Iran nuclear deal and failed to secure a better one. He failed to limit North Korea’s nuclear program, negotiate arms control with Russia, or contain China’s economic and territorial ambitions. He exacerbated U.S. relations with Latin America by re-imposing bruising sanctions on Cuba, clumsily sanctioning Venezuela, befriending a fellow populist and Cvid-19 denier, Jair Bolsinaro, in Brazil and largely ignoring the rest of the continent. He disparaged Africa and befriended authoritarians and dictators in Asia.
Joe Biden grabbed some early and easy foreign policy wins by rejoining the WHO and the Paris Climate Agreement. He will remove the Trump imposed obstacles at the WTO and has overhauled the National Security Council by establishing new senior positions on global health, democracy and human rights, and cyber and emerging technologies, all signalling a sweeping shift in priorities from his predecessor.
Patching up with allies in Europe, Japan and Australia, won’t be hard in the first instance but real trust in America likely will be wanting initially and will have to be earned over time. After all, former allies have just witnessed dramatic and unsettling shifts in policy and approaches from Clinton to Bush to Obama and Trump. Whom shall they trust and for how long?
It was wrong and a tone-deaf for Biden to say, while introducing his foreign policy team, that the US was “back” – good luck and I hope he does a better job than Justin Trudeau – and that the US will again take its place at “the head of the table”. For a whole host of reasons, it will be much better if that table is round unless and until the U.S. proves that it has the moral and political authority and the staying power to justify being at its head again.
Of course, America will be welcomed back into the fold by NATO members who Trump regularly dissed for not fulfilling their financial obligations.
Biden has also begun to reverse Trump’s embarrassing and still unexplained acquiescence to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Putin violated arms control treaties, international law, the sovereignty of its neighbours, and the integrity of elections in the United States and Europe. He propped up despots in Libya, Syria, Belarus and Venezuela, assassinated Russia’s enemies on European soil and, most recently, engineered one of the most devastating hacks of the US government and US businesses ever.
The Biden administration and G-7 foreign ministers have already criticized Putin for the arrest and jailing of Alexei Navalny, something Trump never would have done. More positively, Biden and Putin have agreed to extend the New Start arms control treaty, one of the only bilateral arms control agreements still in force.
China, for its part, will be a more difficult challenge. Under its leader for life, Xi Jinping, China has been moving on a variety of fronts, often with allies like Russia and India, to contest various aspects of the liberal international order. It continues to expand its economic reach and political alliances via its Belt and Road Initiative by investing billions in infrastructure projects worldwide. And its aggressive activities in Hong Kong, the South China Sea and harsher tone vis a vis Taiwan are sending shock waves throughout the region and beyond.
It has forged a series of new trade, political and security agreements with various combinations of countries including, the BRICS. It created the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) signed by 15 nations across the Asia-Pacific region, the “New Development Bank” and the China-run Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
At the UN, China, Russia and other authoritarian states have been promoting new norms that privilege national sovereignty over individual rights. Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, China is committing human rights abuses on a wide scale and quashing any and all dissent.
The Biden team’s approach to China will have to be multidimensional. On issues such as climate change and non-proliferation, the U.S. and its allies will want to cooperate with China if it can. Other issues, including Taiwan and the South China Sea, may require a more aggressive stance. And in responding to China’s unfair trade practices or dealing with the treatment of its Uighur population, the U.S. should join with others in coalitions of the willing.
Turning to the Middle East, Iran’s current leadership is ready to re-engage and re-enter the Iran nuclear deal with the P-5 plus one on its previous terms. Biden will face pressure from a variety of sources, including Republicans in Congress, Israel and Saudi Arabia, to add more Iranian obligations relating to ballistic missiles and terrorism to any deal. Given the upcoming elections in Iran, Biden will have to move quickly or risk facing a more conservative set of Iranian interlocutors.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict will be a two-stage effort. Biden will begin by re-inserting balance into the US’ position by re-opening its Consulate in Jerusalem and allowing the Palestinians to re-open their office in Washington. It will re-start funding both to UNRWA and humanitarian organizations and it will make clear that it supports a negotiated two-state solution with an emphasis on “negotiated”. It is not yet clear whether and how it will oppose settlement expansion, which the Trump Administration encouraged and which continues to threaten a two-state outcome. However, re-engaging in any comprehensive push for a two-state solution will depend on changes in the current leadership in the region.
Finally, Biden will be governed in his actions both domestically and abroad by the realization that the unbridled globalization and deregulated capitalism of the past three decades, is no longer a viable option. Indeed, he and his foreign policy team have made it clear that his will be a foreign policy for the “middle class” – one that is sustainable and that benefits American citizens.
The question for the future is whether he will ultimately be viewed as a 21st century Franklin Roosevelt who fundamentally changed the course of American society for the better or as Barak Obama 2.0 – a President with great intentions but limited successes in transforming America.
Jon Allen (LL.B., University of Western Ontario, 1976; LL.M., International Law, University of London School of Economics, 1977) is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Canadian International Council, a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, and a Senior Fellow at Glendon College, York University. He is engaged in research and writing on tax havens, Spanish and Israeli-Palestinian issues and populism.
Born in Winnipeg in 1950, Allen joined the then Department of External Affairs in 1981. In addition to postings abroad in Mexico City (1983-85), New Delhi (1989-92) and Washington (1997-2001), Mr. Allen spent his early career in the Legal Bureau where he represented Canada in disputes under the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and worked in the areas of human rights, humanitarian and environmental law. Mr. Allen held the positions of Director General, North America Bureau (2001-2004), Minister (Political Affairs) at the Embassy of Canada in Washington (2004-2006) and Assistant Deputy Minister, Americas (2010-2012). From 2006 to 2010, he was Ambassador of Canada to Israel. From 2012 to 2016 he was Ambassador to Spain and Andorra. From December 2012 to July 2014, he was Chargé d’affaires a.i. to the Holy See.