As business and political leaders flocked to the World Economic Summit in Davos this weekend, they could hardly help noting that Biden administration foreign policy is going global and kicking into high gear. In the past week alone, President Biden met with Southeast Asian leaders at a special Washington summit, talked with the Swedish and Finnish prime ministers about joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, shepherded $40 billion in aid for Ukraine through Congress, and embarked on a trip to South Korea and Japan. The Asian trip will culminate in a Tokyo meeting of the Quad, where leaders from India, Australia, Japan and the U.S. will discuss their deepening cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.
Meanwhile, the State Department is planning the 2022 Summit of the Americas, a meeting of Western Hemisphere leaders scheduled for Los Angeles in June even as American diplomats work to shore up relations with such key Middle East allies as Saudi Arabia ahead of a presidential visit to the Middle East.
This is not activism for activism’s sake. The intensification of the American foreign-policy agenda reflects a perception that the international political and economic system American presidents have labored to build since the time of Franklin Roosevelt has fallen into a deep crisis. The President’s team seems to grasp the gravity of the situation. The question is whether they have developed a workable plan.
The war in Ukraine is only one indicator pointing toward what begins to look like a great unraveling of the tapestry of world order that Americans and their allies have been weaving since 1945. The eruption of the greatest war in Europe for the last 70 years and a rising potential for a NATO-Russian nuclear standoff comes as military tensions rise across the Indo-Pacific. Military budgets are increasing around the world.
At the same time, the economic underpinnings of world peace are showing signs of strain. The economic ties between China and the West are fraying. Protectionism is gaining ground in the U.S and around the world. Last week President
ordered China’s communist elite to divest their foreign-based assets, a move aimed at limiting the power of future Western sanctions and at tightening Mr. Xi’s control over wealthy Chinese.
China’s apparent transition to long-term slower growth upends many assumptions behind corporate spending and investment plans around the world even as markets keep a nervous eye on the health of long-pampered Chinese real estate companies. A deadly combination of rising inflation and interest rates with food and fertilizer shortages due largely to the war in Ukraine threatens to ignite political unrest in many countries.
Global disruption is on the minds of those in Davos this week for the first full meeting of the World Economic Forum since 2020. The 2021 meeting was canceled during the pandemic, and the Omicron wave forced postponement of this year’s meeting from January to May. CEOs who based their strategic planning on globalization must adjust to a world growing less seamless with every passing day. Political leaders who expected to steer their countries through the quiet waters of the end of history are instead raising defense spending and reviewing their military alliances.
Many traditional American allies welcome the new U.S. activism and share White House hopes that a revived alliance of democracies can calm the troubled geopolitical waters. But the president’s low poll numbers undermine confidence in the continuity of American foreign policy and foreign observers see little to celebrate in the administration’s economic agenda.
President Biden and many of his advisers appear to believe that the strength of the American world system depends on the global appeal of American values, and that the best way to protect the American order is to double down on democracy promotion, the strengthening of international institutions and the defense of human rights. Foreigners, for the most part, are more pragmatic and often judge the American system based on its ability to deliver economic gains.
Wilsonians like to say that such values as democracy and freedom are universal, and foreign admiration for the principles of American foreign policy is the key to U.S. international popularity and success. The sad truth is that money often matters more. The opportunities that easy access to American markets offered people all over the world did more to legitimize the American international system in many eyes than global admiration for our high moral character and noble ideals.
The faltering American commitment to trade liberalization, a blundering energy policy and the administration’s history of blindness to inflation have substantially diminished international confidence in the administration’s capacity for economic leadership. Abroad as well as at home, “It’s the economy, stupid!” is a good slogan for Presidents to keep in mind.
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Appeared in the May 24, 2022, print edition.