Opinion: Joe Biden cannot restore the neoliberal world order Trump shattered to pieces

TEL AVIV, Israel (Project Syndicate) – In less than four years, outgoing President Donald Trump has achieved what historically only devastating wars have done: reshaping the world order.

With his isolationism, budding authoritarianism, and utter whims, Trump gleefully took a sledgehammer to the international institutions and multilateral organizations that his predecessors had built on the ashes of World War II and maintained ever since. And now?


Far from delivering on the promise of widely shared prosperity, it became clear that the free market ethics of recent decades had facilitated the emergence of obscene inequalities and the collapse of the middle class.

Many hope that when President-elect Joe Biden takes over, liberal international arrangements can be saved, if not renewed. It would certainly be desirable. Unfortunately, this is an unrealistic hope. A post-Trump order appears to be more about a return to the inter-bloc competition of 1945 than to post-Cold War liberal euphoria.

No turning back

For starters, the Biden administration will be consumed with the daunting tasks of healing the domestic wounds Trump has inflicted and correcting America’s critical weaknesses exposed by the pandemic. The exit of the United States from the most contentious presidency in its history will be neither quick nor painless. Reforming America is a prerequisite for restoring its capacity for global leadership.

Far from delivering on the promise of widely shared prosperity, it became clear that the free market ethics of recent decades had facilitated the emergence of obscene inequalities and the collapse of the middle class.

Even if the Biden administration had infinite capacity, there would be no turning back. The status quo ante was born out of a sort of post-Cold War euphoria, driven by the belief that Western liberal democracy had achieved a definitive victory over the rest, and that the world had achieved, in Francis Fukuyamathe famous formulation of the “end of the story”.

In the 1990s and 2000s, when the United States was the world’s unparalleled economic, military and diplomatic powerhouse, the logic of liberal hegemony was compelling. But, in today’s rapidly changing multipolar world, that is no longer the case. This has been true for over a decade, which is why the United States was retreating from world leadership long before Trump came to power.

Although Trump’s isolationism is often described as abnormal, it reflects a tension in American thought that dates back to the founding of the country. If German submarines had not attacked American merchant ships in 1917, the United States might well have stayed out of World War I.


The United States will need to galvanize the liberal democracies of the world to forge a bloc capable of standing up to the authoritarians of the world.

Likewise, it was not until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 that the United States entered World War II. And after the war, American efforts to preserve the peace (by deploying troops) and restore prosperity in Europe (by implementing the Marshall Plan) were motivated by fear of Soviet expansion, not a sense of the moral duty.

Hegemony is history

It was also in the interest of the United States that Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, in whose administration Biden was vice president, and even George W. Bush before him, took steps to reduce the hegemonic project of American foreign policy. Like Trump, both Obama and Bush have expressed frustration at the inadequate burden-sharing by U.S. NATO allies.

America’s withdrawal from hegemony reflects a story Biden cannot undo: America’s loss of credibility due to its long, costly, and inconclusive wars in the Middle East, and the 2008 global financial crisis, which revealed the drawbacks of globalization and the shortcomings of neoliberal orthodoxy.

Far from delivering on the promise of widely shared prosperity, it became clear that the free market ethics of recent decades had facilitated the emergence of obscene inequalities and the collapse of the middle class.

This combination of endless war and growing inequality fueled the nationalist backlash that propelled Trump to victory in November 2016. The same frustrations were reflected in the UK’s Brexit vote in June, the French protests of the Yellow vests in 2018 and even the COVID-19 crisis.

A pandemic appears to be an unavoidable opportunity for cooperation. Yet it has faced border closures and competition for supplies and future doses of vaccines, not to mention restrictions on civil liberties and expanding surveillance capacity, including in democracies. Simply put, at a time when we need global cooperation most, our broken multilateral system has brought us back to the nation-state.

Each for himself

Thus, the world seems to be returning to a Westphalian order, in which sovereignty prevails over international rules. Trump’s “America First” stance fits perfectly into such an order.

And while China touts international cooperation in some areas, multilateralism is a fundamentally alien concept. He would oppose the rebirth of a world order based on liberal precepts. Other great nationalist powers (like Brazil, India, Russia and Turkey) and the smaller ones in Eastern Europe (Hungary and Poland) move largely in the same illiberal domain.

The Biden administration should aspire to lead the world’s democracies in their competition with a growing authoritarian bloc, while supporting the multilateral institutions and structures most essential to peace. To that end, he should immediately abandon his predecessor’s connivance with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and replace his bellicose strategy towards Iran with an effort to reach a revised and lasting nuclear deal. Fortunately, he seems ready to do both.

At the same time, the Biden administration will need to treat American alliances more as collective enterprises, which the United States ideally runs without dominating. On the side of the allies, this shift has already started, with European leaders, in particular the French president. Emmanuel Macron, more and more recognize the need to take the security of Europe in hand. The United States should work with an empowered European Union to contain Russian revisionism at NATO borders and end its hybrid war against Western democracies.

Likewise, to manage its current strategic confrontation with China, the United States will have to work with its Asian allies, like the rearmed Japan and South Korea. With China all but abandoned its “peaceful rise” strategy, avoiding violent conflict will be a delicate balancing act.

More broadly, the United States will have to galvanize the liberal democracies of the world to forge a bloc capable of standing up to the authoritarians of the world. This should include efforts to counter the forces of disintegration within the EU and, possibly, to transform NATO into a broader security alliance of democracies.

Basically, the two blocs should also cooperate effectively in key areas of common interest, such as trade, non-proliferation, climate change and global health. It will require diplomatic skills that Trump could hardly imagine, let alone mobilized.

This comment was posted with permission from Project unionJoe Biden’s World Order.

Shlomo Ben-Ami, former Israeli foreign minister, is vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace. He is the author of Scars of war, wounds of peace: the Arab-Israeli tragedy.

Other uncomfortable ideas from Project Syndicate:

Why Trump’s False Claims on Election Fraud Resonate So Strongly with His Backers

Can humanity grow in time to avoid extinction?

Coronavirus accelerates America’s decline


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