- As a former diplomat, I hope Biden can restore America’s reputation to a respectable place.
- There’s a real chance that won’t happen though, and we should be prepared for it.
- Brett Bruen was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He runs the crisis-communications agency Global Situation Room.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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What if Joe Biden is just not able to steer America’s ship of state back to safer waters?
What if, at the end of his term, there was a vigorous, valiant attempt to restore or at least repair America’s international influence after the destructive presidency of Donald Trump but the damage was simply too great and our adversaries had grown too strong?
I ask the question as my expectations are not exceedingly high for the new president. It is not because I am rooting against him. In fact, quite to the contrary. As a former diplomat, I desperately want Biden to rebuild America’s preeminent position in the world. But, my time on the frontlines of conflict and crises – from Iraq to Venezuela – have forced me to approach any effort to reshape the world stage with copious quantities of skepticism and a strong shot of cynicism.
The world is already well into a post-American era. Biden does not change the US’s present predicament, nor for that matter could almost any leader in his position. The United States squandered its credibility and standing on the global stage over the past two decades. There is no recovering them now.
Yet, the new administration enters office with hopes high at home and abroad. Undoubtedly, such lofty aspirations will be disappointed, some even dashed. However, even if Biden is only able to deliver on a small portion of his foreign policy promises, that will still represent progress and help pave the way for greater stability and security.
It may not all go right
Despite the goodwill and grand plans to build our country back better, there remains a very real scenario in which Biden is not able to make much progress. Dare I even say it, our position in the world could worsen. Like President Obama in Syria, he could fail to respond adequately to a major crisis, further eroding confidence in our leadership. Another massive cyber or disinformation attack, like we have repeatedly seen from Russia would certainly weaken the strength of our institutions. An attack our military, with considerable casualties, would also draw into question our readiness and resolve.
I worry that many have failed to account for or accept these and other plausible possibilities. Time and trying will tell, but America’s influence on the world may just be too far gone for it to come back.
What does our country do then? One path would perhaps see a return to Trumpism or some populist politician who has picked up his MAGA mantle. But another four years of America First would be catastrophic. Russia and China would accelerate their aggression, as allies struggled to contain the destabilizing effects of their encroachment on economies, democracies, and a rules-based international order.
Another version of events might see Biden forced to throw in the towel, like President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in pursuit of a second term. The Democrats would likely then look to Vice President Kamala Harris to take the reins. Undoubtedly, she would face considerable challenges trying to recalibrate the policies of an administration in which she played a leading role.
Sensing America’s distraction and diminished position, we could well see countries attempt to seize the moment to secure an advantage. Not just the larger nations, but particularly mid-size and even small ones. North Korea could try to blast its way to sanctions relief. Azerbaijan could attempt to take more territory from Armenia. A full-scale conflict could break out in the Middle East. The list goes on. My warning is that if Biden fails, it may well usher in a period of even more upheaval, truly upending the international order.
Who could step in to save the world? With their own divisions and difficulties, the European Union, the United Kingdom, and other major democracies would struggle to replace the role we once occupied. Others would simply be too small to battle Beijing. In my assessment, it would largely fall on corporations to try and rein in reckless actions and remind countries that conflict comes at considerable cost. It is unlikely that would be enough to dissuade them from a destructive course.
We continue to look out at the prospects of the new Administration through rose colored glasses. I fear that our hopes for its success are also crowding out thoughtful consideration of the case in which they are unable to overcome today’s considerable challenges.
It is time to come to terms with what would need to be prepared and done in that event. The United States might no longer set the global agenda or even get the privilege to stay on international offense. Instead, we need to start figuring out how to play better diplomatic defense. Otherwise, things could get really bad, really quickly for America and its allies.
Brett Bruen was the director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a career American diplomat. He runs the crisis-communications agency Global Situation Room.