Even before Biden took office, the world was already moving towards multipolarity. During his term President Trump pulled the U.S. from specific global initiatives like the fight against climate change, and hardened Washington's position on issues that ran against the “America First” agenda, like the Chinese 5G infrastructure in Europe, among other consequential moves. In short, Trump either ignored specific issues or presented an uncompromising U.S. position that dismissed America's adversaries like China or Russia.
The truth is, some of Biden’s efforts to bring ‘America back’ did revive U.S. engagement, but many of the initiatives were largely symbolic. Since assuming office, Biden has engaged with Russia over the New Start agreement extension and expressed interest in breaking the deadlock with Tehran over the dead Iranian nuclear deal. His administration also immediately showed willingness to participate in multilateral initiatives, re-joining the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization. While leaders should not dismiss these moves, most American allies and adversaries hold different opinions on many various post-pandemic issues, suggesting that we could continue to drift toward greater multipolarity.
The issues that divide most of the globe into different camps that either side with Washington or Beijing and Moscow include many complicated topics.
Countries consider supranational and non-governmental institutions' roles and how they should interact with sovereign states while migration to both Europe and the Americas continues. The influence of NGOs and political unions directly affects political narratives through social media and Big Tech. China, Russia, and other U.S. adversaries continuously ponder the dominant role of the U.S. dollar in international transactions; all the while, the entire globe considers the proper fiscal and monetary response to the coronavirus pandemic while considering its impacts on climate change and sustainable industry. As the health crisis continues, these same countries must also decide how and from which governments to procure medical equipment and vaccines, as science rapidly develops in sensitive military technologies and telecommunications infrastructure. Lastly, Washington and its allies continue to scrutinize Beijing over its vaccine diplomacy and human rights record. In contrast, the Belt and Road Initiative continues to create new networks throughout a world that only becomes more complex.
It is increasingly more difficult for Washington to create a unified global voice to these international issues. In many instances, America has been slowly retreating from its dominant role in global affairs. For example, the recent European Union - China deal, officially called the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, still strongly favors Beijing. So far, Biden has not said or done much to reverse these trends.
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is another example of a Chinese initiative that overshadowed Washington's previous influence via the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). It is unlikely that a Biden administration could ever rejoin or recreate a new version of the TPP because it would be domestically unpopular to progressive democrats, populists, and republicans alike.
In addition to trade negotiations, Washington has been absent from many recent peace negotiations, including ceasefires in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh, indicating that much of the world has learned to handle issues without American instruction, which was not the case for much of the 20th century. To make matters worse for Washington, China and Russia have only become more active, suggesting that multipolarity is still a possible global outcome.
However, this didn't begin with President Biden, and neither can it be blamed entirely on President Trump. Washington's power, relative to China and Russia, peaked around the 1990s and slowly declined during the Bush and Obama eras. President Trump accelerated a U.S. withdrawal on many fronts and failed to counter Chinese and Russian influence in places like Venezuela. As China elevated its economic and political power and Russia re-emerged after the Yeltsin years, Washington faced more challenges as other smaller countries exercised more agency in forming partnerships.
Biden's declaration that 'America is back' promotes values of democratic liberalism at home and abroad and assumes that Washington's allies will prioritize such values over economic or geopolitical interests. This claim has even become shaky in Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron drifted from American transatlanticism when he encouraged Europe to become a great power to match the "aggressive strategies of major powers" like China, Russia, and the United States. Macron's words further suggest that some European leaders are aware of the globe's drift toward multipolarity and increased competition. The French president also criticized Big Tech, which has become increasingly politically engaged in promoting Biden's administration values. The coronavirus pandemic complicated matters further and allowed China and Russia to increase engagement with Europe on health issues, another opportunity for diminishing America’s influence in the world.
Opposition to Washington binds Beijing and Moscow together. Since the 1990s, Sino-Russian relations have improved, especially after the Washington-led NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Beijing and Moscow forged a united front to block UN resolutions, opposed then-President Slobodan Milošević's indictment by the International Tribunal at The Hague, and persistently opposed American unilateralism, which they claimed threatened state sovereignty and international law. This period of the 1990s reunited China and Russia after their turbulent 20th century of diplomatic relations.
Today, recent meetings between Chinese and Russian officials echo a willingness to diminish reliance on the dollar to offset U.S. sanctions. Over-reliance on the Western-controlled payment system presents risks of post-crisis consequences like after the 2008 global financial crisis. This is particularly true after expanded money printing and quantitative easing efforts to combat the pandemic's economic and financial effects. China has emphasized that European countries considered setting up a payment system to bypass U.S. sanctions on Tehran after Washington withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal. Beijing and Moscow use the same logic when attempting to protect themselves from sanctions. Although the will for a new reserve currency system exists, the dollar will remain supreme. Still, slow steps toward a new global payment network diminish Washington's financial tools to pressure adversaries.
And while the Biden transition team vowed that the U.S. would end unilateralism and forge a united front against Beijing with the EU, Japan, and other allies, this seems somewhat challenging as countries seek to preserve individual interests that contradict America’s instruction. The recent Anchorage summit only further illustrated the difficulties President Biden faces when transforming China's behavior.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan argued that Beijing "threatened the rules-based order that maintains global security" and assaulted "basic values." It is important to note that Blinken and Sullivan only made statements according to President Biden's promotion as his foreign policy positions. They did their job. 'America is back,' means that Washington will return to the pre-Trump era of demanding that countries conduct foreign policy under liberal democratic, U.S.-determined rules. However, if the drift toward multipolarity threatens some smaller European countries' willingness to question their commitments to this order, what makes Washington believe that Beijing will welcome hostile lectures? Chinese officials responded, saying that the United States should "change its image and stop advancing its democracy in the rest of the world." They claim that American democracy has lost credibility and that Beijing will not accept "unwarranted accusations" from Washington. Foreign Minister Wang Yi then firmly stated that "there is no way to strangle China."
If Beijing believes the U.S. is unable to “strangle” China, how can the U.S. hope to stop China’s ambitions? This manifests in increased cooperation between China, Russia, and other more minor regional powers that work together to oppose the U.S.-led world order. The Biden administration must adjust its strategy to re-incentivize engagement with its allies around the world. Given the devastating economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. should encourage greater business engagement and investment to strengthen partnerships. When Washington provides opportunities that overshadow China’s attractive BRI investments and Russia’s energy deals, America will be back.