The United States, a dangerous ally

Washington’s attempts to rebuild its network of international alliances will have one great limitation: the volatility of the country’s own political system

US President Joe Biden.
US President Joe Biden.Evan Vucci / AP

“America is back,” declared an excited Joe Biden. He was speaking to a group of mostly European political leaders, via video link, at the Munich Security Conference. The new president emphasized that “the transatlantic alliance is back.” Naturally, the message was well received. Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Boris Johnson all applauded America’s new stance. In his remarks, Biden also renewed America’s commitment to NATO’s Article V, which obliges the military alliance’s member nations to respond collectively to an attack against any one of its members. During Donald Trump’s presidency, he repeatedly refrained from publicly acknowledging that, as a member of NATO, his country would accept that obligation. Naturally, Trump’s reluctance produced a great deal of anxiety in the capitals of Europe... and glee from the Kremlin.

That changed when Biden entered the White House. The US president used his speech at the Munich conference to leave no doubt about his administration’s position on Article V. “An attack on one is an attack on all,” Biden said, and promised that his country would honor its commitment.

As president, Donald Trump disdained multilateralism, alliance-building and diplomacy, which he considered a waste of time. Instead, he prioritized the development of personal relationships with the leaders of countries such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. He didn’t accomplish much and, in general, US relations with many of the countries he sought to seduce deteriorated.

It is fascinating to see high-level diplomats emulating the strategies of many multinational executives

For their part, both Biden and his officials repeat, whenever possible, alliances will be the central pillar of the administration’s foreign policy. They see diplomacy as the main instrument to further US national interests. According to them, successfully attacking the pandemic, climate change and the economic crisis, and preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons, would all be impossible without coordination with allies. From the perspective of Biden and his administration, Trump’s slogan “America First” ended up meaning “America Alone.” According to them, Trump’s position only served to isolate the country, including unilaterally ceding geopolitical spaces that were quickly filled by China and Russia. It also proved that while America’s military and economic power is important, it is not enough to accomplish the nation’s international objectives.

Potential allies are keen to work with the United States in pursuit of their common interests. There is no doubt that repowering these alliances is necessary. Global problems that cannot be solved with local responses are proliferating and with them, the need for countries to act in a coordinated manner.

Unfortunately, Washington’s attempts to build a much-needed network of international alliances will have one major obstacle: the volatility of US politics.

As president, Donald Trump disdained multilateralism, alliance-building and diplomacy, which he considered a waste of time

Why? Consider what would happen to a country that enthusiastically embraces Biden and dives into an alliance with the United States only to find four years later that the US elections have ushered in a new president who has no interest in upholding Biden’s agreements. That issue is very much on the minds of foreign policy leaders of the very countries that Washington needs as allies. In the virtual corridors of the Munich conference, the most pressing question was not whether the United States was back. The burning question was – and still is – how long it will stay “back.” They realize that the United States is not a politically stable country.

It is fascinating to see high-level diplomats emulating the strategies of many multinational executives. Since the late 1990s, business leaders have built complex and highly efficient supply chains that start in China and flow to markets around the world. These supply chains allowed companies to drastically reduce their inventories. Just-in-Time (JIT) logistics practices became universal in inventory management. In order to minimize costs, supplies arrive with speed and precision at their destination, just when they are needed for the manufacture of the final product.

The trade war that Trump set off with China created all kinds of headaches in global supply chains. Thus, companies that depended on JIT logistics discovered that it was dangerous to put all their eggs in one basket. To mitigate the risk, executives were forced to balance the principle of “Just-in-Time” with that of “Just-in-Case.” Many were forced to invest in finding new suppliers, at considerable cost, just in case.

Business leaders understood that as much as they want the United States to create stability and limit imbalances, this will not always be the case. Political leaders will likely emulate them. The politics of alliances promoted by Joe Biden will be shaped by the diplomacy of “Just-in-Case.”

Follow me on Twitter: @moisesnaim

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