America First, Biden-Style

America First, Biden-Style

Melvyn B. Krauss,

STANFORD – If America’s allies were concerned by President Joe Biden’s remarks on foreign policy in his address to Congress on April 28, they had every right to be.

Although Biden’s domestic economic agenda could not have been less Trumpian – higher taxes on the wealthy and a substantial expansion of the social safety net – the foreign policy he outlined was not all that different from his rococo predecessor’s “America First” credo.

As Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently noted, “there is more foreign-policy continuity between Biden and Trump than first meets the eye..Trumpism still looms large.”

So, Biden’s speech was a strange brew: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal mixed with powerful hints of Trumpian nationalism.

When Biden turned to foreign policy, his emphasis was on China and the United States, as if Europe did not exist, and the US could win this competition without the active participation of Europeans.

To European ears, of course, that sounds a little bit too close to Trumpian contempt. The US could not have won the Cold War without its European allies, and it will not outcompete China without European cooperation.

In her softly, softly way, German Chancellor Angela Merkel drove that message home just before Biden took office by pushing the European Union into fast-tracking the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment.

Biden has been following a form of “America First” policy even in response to the coronavirus pandemic. His refusal to send COVID-19 vaccines to important European countries in dire need and facing important elections has made his claim that “America is back” sound very doubtful in many European capitals.

For example, to date, the Biden administration has sent no vaccines to France, despite the fact that one of America’s most reliable allies, President Emmanuel Macron, faces a tight race against his main challenger, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Rally, in next year’s presidential election.

Biden clearly understands that a Le Pen victory would be a disaster for the EU and the transatlantic alliance, with the only winner being Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Biden administration clearly wants to contain Putin’s revanchism in the ex-communist world and block the Kremlin’s efforts to weaken, divide, and ultimately destroy the EU.

But its refusal to help Macron by shipping some of America’s excess vaccine supplies (some of which it is now rightly sending to hard-hit India) is a gift to Putin, who has long encouraged Russian banks to offer financial backing to Le Pen and her party.

Biden also has a serious problem when it comes to Germany and Putin. The Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to import Russian gas via the Baltic Sea, circumventing Poland and Ukraine, is a potential strategic victory for Putin and threatens to incite suspicion of Germany among its eastern neighbors.

Merkel’s stubborn indifference to the geopolitical consequences of the project is mind-boggling; Biden’s failure, thus far, to seek ways to mitigate its potential damage amounts to foreign-policy malpractice.

Apparently in thrall to protectionist thinking, Biden seems unable to envisage the type of trade deal that would encourage the Germans to back away from Nord Stream 2.

One ray of hope is that the project is now understood to pose serious environmental threats, which is one reason Germany’s Green party, the likely kingmaker following this autumn’s Bundestag election, strongly opposes it.

As one observer recently concluded, “the Greens are more closely aligned on the controversial issue of the pipeline with the US and Germany’s eastern neighbors, such as the Baltic states and Poland, than with [Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union].”

There are other worrying signs of Trumpism’s long half-life in US foreign policy. Biden has not lifted his predecessor’s tariffs on imports of EU steel and aluminum, originally imposed on dubious national security grounds.

And there has been no reconsideration of Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although it is clear that the revised TPP, now led by Japan, could be a formidable weapon for putting pressure on China, Biden seems too frightened of Trump’s shadow to buck protectionist sentiments in any way.

It is time for US trade and foreign policies to become compatible with Biden’s promise that “America is back.” As it stands, there is too much continuity between Trump and Biden in both areas.

The America that Biden should want to bring back is a dynamic America, open to the world, not Trump’s anxious America, suspicious and contemptuous of others.

Until Biden offers a bold gesture to exorcise the spirit of Trump from US foreign policy, his hopes of restoring American global leadership are likely to be disappointed.

Melvyn B. Krauss is Professor Emeritus of Economics at New York University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.