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America’s Advantage and Biden’s Chance_ The Can_ do Power

Ever since then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright memorably called the United States “indispensable” more than two decades ago, both Americans and publics abroad have vigorously debated the proposition. As President Donald Trump’s term closes, foreign observers of the United States are more prone to use a different word: “incompetent.”

The Trump administration’s response to the most urgent problem in the world today—the coronavirus pandemic—has been worse than that of any other nation. This, in turn, has understandably tarnished perceptions of the United States: according to recent Pew Research Center polling conducted in 13 major economic powers, a median of 84 percent of respondents agreed that the United States has done a poor job of handling COVID-19—by far the most damning appraisal received by any major country or institution.

For all the criticism directed at U.S. foreign policy in eras past, foreign leaders and publics largely retained respect for the United States’ willingness to undertake challenging endeavors and its ability to accomplish difficult tasks—a significant but underappreciated cornerstone of American power. Today, the fact that fewer and fewer people identify the United States as capable of solving big problems should be a major concern for those who believe that U.S. leadership must play a central role in tackling climate change and other shared global problems whose solutions demand both expertise and effective coalition building.

China is fumbling the mantle of global leadership, too—with its lethal cover-up of the pandemic, its bullying diplomacy and extraterritorial belligerence, its controversial approach to development, and its ongoing human rights horrors, including the mass internment of its Uighur Muslim population. This reality creates an opportunity for President-elect Joe Biden and his administration.

Some Americans are confident that after four years of Trump, the relief in foreign capitals will be so immense that U.S. leadership on key issues will be readily welcomed. Biden has said that his first foreign policy move will be to call foreign leaders and say, “America’s back: you can count on us,” and he has laid out plans for reversing U.S. withdrawals from international bodies, revoking harmful policies, ending “forever wars,” and restoring alliances. He has also pledged to prioritize the fight against climate change—outside of addressing the pandemic and its fallout, the most urgent problem for every nation in the world.

These moves will garner headlines, but while they are of course necessary, they will not be enough. The new president will have to grapple with the widespread view that in key domains, the United States—home to over 40 percent of all Nobel Prize winners in peace, literature, economics, chemistry, medicine, and physics—does not have the competence to be trusted. Restoring American leadership, accordingly, must include the more basic task of showing that the United States is a capable problem solver once more.

The new administration will rightly give precedence to problem solving at home—ending the pandemic, jump-starting an equitable economic recovery, and reforming fraying democratic institutions. Biden has said he plans to pull the country out of the current crisis by “building back better” in a way that confronts economic inequality, systemic racism, and climate change. Yet major structural changes will take time. The Biden administration should therefore also pursue foreign policy initiatives that can quickly highlight the return of American expertise and competence. Here, Biden should emphasize policies that provide clear, simultaneous benefits at home; meet a critical and felt need abroad; are highly visible; and—the missing ingredient in so many U.S. foreign policy endeavors of late—produce tangible outcomes. This means less rhetorical emphasis on the abstract cause of “the liberal international order” and more practical demonstrations of the United States’ distinctive ability to deliver on issues that matter right now in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Three areas ripe for such leadership are the following: spearheading global COVID-19 vaccine distribution, ramping up educational opportunities in the United States for foreign students, and waging a high-profile fight against corruption at home and abroad.

The United States has a singular capacity to help countries with their strategies for administering a vaccine.Even before the pandemic, global concern was growing about Chinese development practices, pursued most prominently through the massive infrastructure-building drive known as the Belt and Road Initiative, and particularly the steep interest charged on its loans. Sri Lanka’s difficulties servicing its debt on a Chinese-built port infamously ended in a deal that left the development under Beijing’s control.

Demonstrating competence requires an ability to do more than one big thing at once.Can America Recover?The Can-Do PowerAmerica’s Advantage and Biden’s ChanceBy Samantha PowerJanuary/February 2021Mike McQuadeSign in and save to read laterSave to PocketPrint this articleShare on TwitterShare on FacebookSend by emailGet a linkhttps://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-11-20/samantha-power-can-do-powerEver since then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright memorably called the United States “indispensable” more than two decades ago, both Americans and publics abroad have vigorously debated the proposition. Today, as President Donald Trump’s term comes to a close, foreign observers of the United States are more prone to use a different word: “incompetent.”The Trump administration’s response to the most urgent problem in the world today—the coronavirus pandemic—has been worse than that of any other nation. This, in turn, has understandably tarnished perceptions of the United States: according to recent Pew Research Center polling conducted in 13 major economic powers, a median of 84 percent of respondents agreed that the United States has done a poor job of handling COVID-19—by far the most damning appraisal received by any major country or institution. Yet the mishandling of the pandemic is just the latest in a string of lapses in basic competence that have called into question U.S. capabilities among both long-standing allies and countries whose partnership Washington may seek in the years to come. A brand once synonymous with the world-changing creations of Steve Jobs, with feats of strength and ingenuity such as the Berlin airlift and the moon landing, and with the opportunity represented by the Statue of Liberty now projects chaos, polarization, and dysfunction.For all the criticism directed at U.S. foreign policy in eras past, foreign leaders and publics largely retained respect for the United States’ willingness to undertake challenging endeavors and its ability to accomplish difficult tasks—a significant but underappreciated cornerstone of American power. Today, the fact that fewer and fewer people identify the United States as capable of solving big problems should be a major concern for those who believe that U.S. leadership must play a central role in tackling climate change and other shared global problems whose solutions demand both expertise and effective coalition building.What’s more, unlike in the recent past, today the United States has a potent competitor on the world stage, and it is increasingly common to hear people contrast Washington’s debilitating partisanship and gridlock with the ruthless efficiency of Beijing’s authoritarian rule. Yet even as the United States has faltered in highly visible and costly ways, China is fumbling the mantle of global leadership, too—with its lethal cover-up of the pandemic, its bullying diplomacy and extraterritorial belligerence, its controversial approach to development, and its ongoing human rights horrors, including the mass internment of its Uighur Muslim population. This reality creates an opportunity for President-elect Joe Biden and his administration.Some Americans are confident that after four years of Trump, the relief in foreign capitals will be so immense that U.S. leadership on key issues will be readily welcomed. Biden has said that his first foreign policy move will be to call foreign leaders and say, “America’s back: you can count on us,” and he has laid out plans for reversing U.S. withdrawals from international bodies, revoking harmful policies, ending “forever wars,” and restoring alliances. He has also pledged to prioritize the fight against climate change—outside of addressing the pandemic and its fallout, the most urgent problem for every nation in the world.These moves will garner headlines, but while they are of course necessary, they will not be enough. The new president will have to grapple with the widespread view that in key domains, the United States—home to over 40 percent of all Nobel Prize winners in peace, literature, economics, chemistry, medicine, and physics—does not have the competence to be trusted. Restoring American leadership, accordingly, must include the more basic task of showing that the United States is a capable problem solver once more.The new administration will rightly give precedence to problem solving at home—ending the pandemic, jump-starting an equitable economic recovery, and reforming fraying democratic institutions. Biden has said he plans to pull the country out of the current crisis by “building back better” in a way that confronts economic inequality, systemic racism, and climate change. Yet major structural changes will take time. The Biden administration should therefore also pursue foreign policy initiatives that can quickly highlight the return of American expertise and competence. Here, Biden should emphasize policies that provide clear, simultaneous benefits at home; meet a critical and felt need abroad; are highly visible; and—the missing ingredient in so many U.S. foreign policy endeavors of late—produce tangible outcomes. This means less rhetorical emphasis on the abstract cause of “the liberal international order” and more practical demonstrations of the United States’ distinctive ability to deliver on issues that matter right now in the lives of hundreds of millions of people.Three areas ripe for such leadership are the following: spearheading global COVID-19 vaccine distribution, ramping up educational opportunities in the United States for foreign students, and waging a high-profile fight against corruption at home and abroad. By playing to U.S. strengths and taking advantage of the opening that Chinese overreach has created, such initiatives would have a measurable impact on confidence in U.S. competence—a necessary foundation for the persuasion and coalition building needed to advance U.S. interests in the years ahead.AMERICA THE INCOMPETENTDebates among Americans over how the United States should engage with other countries in a post-Trump era have led to valid questions about whether it can conceivably regain the trust needed to lead again. Biden will return the United States to the Paris climate accord, the World Health Organization, and (if the right terms can be secured) the Iran nuclear deal. He has said that his administration will reengage in a variety of international forums and initiatives that Trump abandoned, such as the UN Human Rights Council and the Global Compact for Migration. He has vowed to end the destructive policies of the Trump administration, such as the travel ban on Muslim-majority nations, the slashing of U.S. refugee numbers to historic lows, family separations at the southern border, the berating of allies, and the embrace of authoritarian leaders. And he has promised to draw on the deep ties he has built over four decades of work in foreign policy to convince countries in Asia and Europe that Washington can once again be counted on as an ally.These steps may show the United States to be a more willing and honest partner, but they will not be sufficient to address reasonable concerns about whether it is a competent one. Over the past three years, according to Gallup polls, approval of U.S. leadership across more than 130 countries has dropped precipitously. And in the last year alone, Pew’s polling has shown favorable views of the United States dropping by double-digit margins and hitting record lows in Australia, Canada, France, Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom—which Pew attributes primarily to the view that the United States has done a poor job of handling the pandemic.Beyond the statistics, examples of diminished faith in U.S. competence have accumulated. After Trump began endorsing malaria medications as COVID-19 treatments, health authorities in Africa—including the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the continent’s primary public health institution—had to scramble to dissuade people from taking them. A Norwegian university encouraged its students to return home from countries “with poorly developed health services and infrastructure . . . for example the USA.” A journalist on Bosnia’s 24-hour cable news channel N1 observed of the United States: “The vice president is wearing a mask, while the president doesn’t. Some staffers wear them; some don’t. Everybody acts as they please. As time passes, the White House begins to look more and more like the Balkans.”Biden will have to grapple with the widespread view that the United States does not have the competence to be trusted.The pandemic may be the most important event of our lifetimes, and it will not be easy to alter impressions of the United States’ inability to execute an effective response on behalf of its own citizens, never mind with an eye to the well-being of those in other countries. Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament, summed up how the United States has come to be seen in Europe: “The shining city on the hill is not as shining as it used to be.”In 2009, the last time Biden entered the executive branch, those of us who were part of the Obama administration confronted analogous concerns stemming from the disastrous Iraq war and the United States’ responsibility for the global financial crisis. President Barack Obama took steps similar to those Biden has promised: moving to rejoin UN bodies and pay UN dues, banning unethical practices such as torture, repairing the damage to alliances caused by the invasion of Iraq, and proclaiming, “We are ready to lead once more.” But while these moves were necessary and helpful in generating international goodwill, my own impression—as someone who served through all eight years of that administration—is that the United States’ stock didn’t hit its peak until 2014–15, when confidence in U.S. leadership was boosted by a succession of visible results.In that period, Obama mobilized over 62 countries to eradicate the Ebola virus in West Africa, deploying health-care workers, building Ebola treatment units, and dispatching labs to carry out rapid testing. U.S. nuclear experts negotiated innovative ideas for blocking Iran’s pathways to a nuclear weapon, and U.S. diplomats rallied the support of China, Russia, and other major powers to back a deal built on those ideas. U.S. scientists and diplomats leveraged immense national climate expertise and political capital to secure an agreement in Paris that included commitments to reduce emissions and take other steps to mitigate climate change from almost every country in the world. By the end of 2015, while walking the halls of the UN as the U.S. ambassador and interacting with my counterparts, I encountered a palpably higher level of faith in the United States and eagerness to partner with us than two years prior.Perceptions of U.S. foreign policy as unreliable and erratic are of course far more entrenched now that the world has seen such a radical turn from Obama to Trump. Moreover, the strong electoral showing for Trump and the backing he got from prominent Republicans in his attempts to deny Biden’s victory will only deepen concerns that perceived improvements in U.S. foreign policy will prove fleeting. Nonetheless, there is still much one can learn from the past: each of these Obama-era initiatives relied on more than just the diplomacy that Biden and other Democrats have rightly pledged to restore. They required—and showcased—immense operational know-how and the deployment of economic, technical, and intelligence resources few other countries have at their disposal. Most important, they delivered clear results, on issues then of central concern to publics in both the United States and abroad.CHINESE OVERREACH?For all the concerns that China would take advantage of the United States’ retreat from the world stage, the record of the last few years has not inspired a surge in faith in China as an alternative global leader. China’s rise to global power over the past decade has been perhaps the most consistent storyline in the world, but Gallup polling has found that China’s global approval rating—a median of 32 percent among over 130 countries—has hardly budged in ten years. The same Pew polling that has shown the United States’ substantial favorability deficits has also indicated that majorities in those countries surveyed hold unfavorable views of China, too, and in many cases, those views are only getting worse. In the United Kingdom, disapproval of China was under 40 percent five years ago; today, it is almost 75 percent—a trend also evident in Australia, Canada, Germany, and South Korea. Doubts about how China has handled the pandemic remain high: a median of 61 percent of those surveyed agreed that Beijing did a bad job of dealing with the outbreak (only the United States got worse ratings).Beijing’s combative actions over the last year have compounded the unease. China has stepped up its aggressiveness around Taiwan, in the South China Sea, on its border with India, and in Hong Kong. When Australia called for an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, China responded by imposing a punishing 80 percent tariff on barley, a key Australian export. Fijian officials watched in horror as Chinese diplomats showed up, uninvited, to a reception celebrating Taiwan and beat up a Taiwanese diplomat who tried to keep them from entering. After the Netherlands changed the name of its trade-oriented diplomatic mission in Taiwan to Netherlands Office Taipei, reflecting a broadening of the bilateral relationship beyond economics, China threatened to cancel shipments of medical supplies for fighting the coronavirus.China’s bullying is already driving a backlash. As illustrated by the Pew polling, Beijing’s threats helped cause Dutch distrust of Chinese President Xi Jinping to rise by 17 percentage points in one year. In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now seeking new powers aimed at diminishing Chinese influence in the country. Canada’s defense minister has decried the imprisonment of two innocent Canadians, in retaliation for the arrest in Canada of a Chinese executive, as “hostage diplomacy.” During the early months of the pandemic, the French Foreign Ministry publicly rebuked the Chinese ambassador in Paris after his embassy accused France of leaving elderly people to “die from starvation and disease” in nursing homes. India banned over 100 Chinese-made mobile apps in response to months of border tensions that have led to the deaths of more than 20 Indian soldiers.The United States has a singular capacity to help countries with their strategies for administering a vaccine.Even before the pandemic, global concern was growing about Chinese development practices, pursued most prominently through the massive infrastructure-building drive known as the Belt and Road Initiative, and particularly the steep interest charged on its loans. Sri Lanka’s difficulties servicing its debt on a Chinese-built port infamously ended in a deal that left the development under Beijing’s control. When the Malaysian prime minister canceled billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese-financed infrastructure projects approved by his predecessor, he explained, “It’s all about pouring in too much money which we cannot afford, we cannot repay. . . . With that debt, if we are not careful, we can become bankrupt.” After Tanzania’s president canceled deals his predecessor had made with China, he similarly observed that only a “madman” would accept the terms that had been negotiated. In Nigeria, politicians have demanded an official investigation into China’s lending practices after rumors spread last summer that Beijing might begin seizing the country’s assets. In Zambia, a former commerce minister has asked the Constitutional Court to rule on the legality of the country’s secretive loan deals, which have left the country owing a quarter of its debt to China.There is debate about whether Beijing is pursuing a deliberate strategy of “debt-trap diplomacy,” and it is complicated to pinpoint just how much China is owed by developing countries. But a 2019 study estimated that the 50 biggest recipients of Chinese lending then had debts with China worth about 15 percent of their GDPs, on average, up from less than one percent in 2005. Meanwhile, Chinese infrastructure development has lost some of its luster because of concerns over transparency, environmental degradation, and the flood of Chinese workers who have taken jobs that locals believed would be available to them. Public opposition to Belt and Road projects has surfaced even in countries that impose strict restrictions on voicing dissent, including Kazakhstan, Laos, and Myanmar.Many countries naturally still see significant opportunity in deeper ties with China. Yet over the last four years, opinions on Beijing’s leadership have soured in critical areas. And for Biden, that provides an opening. But to fully seize it, the new administration must restore the United States’ reputation for competence.HOUR OF NEEDDemonstrating competence requires an ability to do more than one big thing at once—as the Obama administration did during the financial crisis, rescuing the American economy while also galvanizing the G-20 to provide over $1 trillion in stimulus for other struggling countries, thus helping keep the global economy intact. The United States can reenter all the deals and international organizations it wants, but the biggest gains in influence will come by demonstrating its ability to deliver in many countries’ hour of greatest need.Beginning with the issue on which the United States’ reputation has suffered the most—the pandemic—the Biden administration can spearhead global vaccine distribution in a way that reminds the world of what the United States can uniquely do. Under any president other than Trump, the government would already be racing not just to produce a vaccine for domestic consumption; it would also be leading the world in developing a blueprint for vaccine distribution globally. Trump has shown no interest in vaccines reaching other countries. Along with initiating the United States’ withdrawal from the World Health Organization, he proudly rejected participation in COVAX, a 184-nation initiative that is aiming to make two billion vaccine doses available worldwide, mainly to high-risk populations and frontline health-care workers, by the end of 2021.The United States is well positioned to vaccinate Americans when a safe and effective vaccine is available. The U.S. government has already purchased 800 million doses for the country’s population of 328 million from companies hustling to develop a viable vaccine. But beginning to vaccinate Americans alone will not be enough to guarantee American well-being; the global pandemic will not fully end, nor will the U.S. economy fully recover, while COVID-19 is still raging elsewhere. China’s attempt to convince the world that it is a “responsible great power” through helping other countries gain access to vaccines should provide an additional impetus for Republicans to get onboard with supporting a global effort, even in an immensely difficult budget environment.

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