President-elect Joe Biden appears to be framing his foreign policy around three themes: re-engaging with America’s friends and allies, renewing our participation in international organizations and relying more heavily on nonmilitary instruments of power. Considering the challenges posed by China and other countries, as well as transnational threats that range from pandemics to climate change, these are, in my view, the correct priorities. (Though, of course, unparalleled military power must remain the backdrop for America’s relations with the world.)
In each case, however, a return to the pre-Trump status quo will be inadequate to the task. In each, it is necessary to reform, revitalize and restructure the American approach.
Our NATO allies, as well as Japan, South Korea and others, will welcome America’s reaffirmation of its security commitments and its switch to respectful dialogue after the confrontational Trump years. But the new administration ought to insist on our allies doing more on several fronts. President Trump’s pressure on them to spend more on defense was a continuation of a theme across multiple presidencies. That pressure must continue.
But it’s not just on military spending that the new administration needs to take a tough stand with allies. Germany must be held to account not just for its pathetic level of military spending, but also for trading the economic and security interests of Poland and Ukraine for the economic benefits of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline running from Russia to Germany.
Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system against repeated American warnings must have costs. (Recently imposed sanctions are a good start.) And Ankara must also be held to account for its actions in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean and Syria that contravene the interests of other NATO allies and complicate efforts to achieve peace. Actions by member states contrary to the interests of other allies ought not be ignored.
The United States needs to take the lead in NATO, an “alliance of democracies,” to devise consequences for member states — such as Turkey, Hungary and, increasingly, Poland — that move toward (or have fully embraced) authoritarianism. There is no provision in the NATO Charter for removing a member state, but creative diplomacy is possible, including suspension or other punitive steps.
Mr. Biden’s embrace of the international organizations that Mr. Trump has spurned must be accompanied by an agenda for their improvement. Despite their many problems, these organizations serve useful purposes and can be effective conduits for American influence around the world.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union had an elaborate, long-range strategy for seeding its officials throughout the United Nations and associated institutions. China seems to be pursuing a similar strategy today. When we walk away from the World Health Organization and other such organizations, we provide the Chinese with opportunities to dominate them and use them for their own purposes.
The new administration must insist on the far-reaching organizational reform of international organizations (such as the W.H.O.), using all the diplomatic and economic leverage we can muster to make effective reform actually happen. Simply showing up again is not good enough.
Closer to home, as the new administration commits to far greater reliance on nonmilitary tools like conventional diplomacy, development assistance and public diplomacy to protect America’s interests and advance our objectives, it needs to recognize that those tools overall are in serious need of investment and updating. Our national security apparatus — designed in 1947 — needs to be restructured for the 21st century.
The multidimensional competition with China and transnational challenges require the formal involvement of agencies previously not considered part of the national security apparatus and new approaches to achieving true “whole of government” American strategies and operations.
The State Department, our principal nondefense instrument of power, is in dire need of reform, as many senior active and retired foreign service officers attest. In return for meaningful structural and cultural change, the State Department should get the significant additional resources it needs.
In recent years, our international economic tools have centered mainly on punitive measures, such as sanctions and tariffs. We need to be more creative in finding positive economic inducements to persuade other countries to act — or not act — in accordance with our interests. No other country comes even close to the United States in providing humanitarian assistance after disasters, but nearly all other major assistance successes in recent years — such as George W. Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief or the creation of the Millennium Challenge Corporation — were put in place outside the normal bureaucratic structure or processes.
While the United States cannot compete directly with China’s Belt and Road projects and development assistance, we should look for ways to leverage the power of our private sector. American corporations can partner with the United States government in countries around the world that offer both sound investment prospects and opportunities to advance American interests. The creation in 2018 of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation was a good start. President Barack Obama’s 2013 “Power Africa” initiative, which was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and aimed to bring universal electricity access to sub-Saharan Africa, is an example of successful partnering between the private sector and the government.
Finally, America’s strategic communications — our ability to spread our message and influence governments and peoples — are pitifully inadequate and outdated.
In the early 2000s, President Hu Jintao of China committed some $7 billion to vastly expand China’s international media and influence capabilities. By way of contrast, in 1998, Congress abolished the U.S. Information Agency; subsequently, “public diplomacy” was tucked into a corner of the State Department in an organization that today doesn’t even report directly to the secretary of state.
There is no coordination of messaging across the government, and efforts to make better use of social media and other new technologies have been laggard and disjointed. Surely, the country that invented marketing, public relations and the internet can figure out how to recapture primacy in strategic communications.
Misgivings linger abroad about whether American re-engagement (and reliability) will last beyond this new administration — and about the new president’s views on the use of military power. That said, there is considerable relief among most of our allies and friends that Mr. Biden has won the election.
This provides the new president with considerable leverage to revitalize and strengthen alliances and international institutions and to show at home that doing so advances American interests around the world and the well-being of our own citizens. This would be an enduring legacy for the Biden administration.
Robert M. Gates served as Secretary of Defense for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama from 2006 to 2011.
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