Though recent public opinion surveys find that 60% of Americans have confidence in Biden’s foreign policy, there are reasons to suspect that the US domestic environment will not be as supportive of Biden’s re-engagement with global primacy and the liberal international order as in previous eras of US foreign policy where domestic politics was divided, writes Alexander Cooley, Director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University and the Claire Tow Professor of Political Science at Barnard College.
Newly-inaugurated US President Joe Biden’s proclamation that “America is back” has stirred debate about whether the new administration can effectively restore American global primacy and sustain the liberal international order that was largely abandoned by the administration of Donald Trump. Debates continue about whether US hegemony can be resurrected or remains in a terminal decline, but it is clear that Washington has dramatically shifted towards supporting more international engagement, multilateralism and active involvement in global governance.
Does this mean that a US-led liberal international order is ripe for renewal? What of the contentious domestic politics and political polarization that now characterize internal US politics? How might the intense schisms within the American political system impact the administration’s ability to pursue global primacy and sustain an updated version of liberal internationalism?
On the face of it, President Biden’s return to embracing a version of liberal internationalism appears in line with the main foreign policy preferences of the American public. A newly released public opinion survey by Pew Research found that 60% of Americans have confidence in Biden’s foreign policy. Along with a similar survey conducted in January 2021 on behalf of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, these polls find strong overall support for both upholding the US system of security alliances and a US commitment to international institutions as venues to solve the world's problems. When Chicago asked about alliances, a strong majority of respondents (71%) – including majorities of Democrats (82%), Republicans (57%) and Independents (72%) – agreed that the United States “should be more willing to make decisions with its allies even if that means the United States sometimes has to go along with a policy that is not its first choice.”
On the topic of the United States and its commitment to the United Nations and international institutions we also see overall support, although with more clearly partisan differences. When asked whether the United Nations should be involved in the decision-making process of the United States and its allies, 62% of Americans agree, but this breaks down into 84% of Democrats and only 37% of Republicans. Similarly, when asked about whether prominent international organizations should be involved in solving the world's problems, 52% of overall respondents support the United Nations, 41% the World Trade Organization (WTO) and 51% the World Health Organization (WHO). Again, partisan differences are striking as Democrats support each of these international institutions more than Republicans: 68% vs. 39% for the UN, 53% vs. 30% for the WTO, and 71% vs. 32% for the WHO. On the question of overall leadership in the world, Pew found that 78% agreed that the. United States should “play a shared leadership role in the world”, while only 11% thought that the US should be the “sole” leader and only 10% supported “no leadership” at all.
Importantly, we should note that these partisan differences towards international bodies are not new. A 2004 Chicago survey found similar partisan differences, while the administration of George W. Bush was also publicly skeptical of the role of multilateral organizations, most dramatically illustrated by the US failure to secure UN support for its 2003 military action in Iraq.
Nevertheless, despite the similarities in polling, there are four important reasons to suspect that the US domestic environment will not be as supportive of Biden’s re-engagement with global primacy and the liberal international order as in previous eras of US foreign policy where domestic politics was divided.
First, although most Americans hold foreign policy beliefs broadly consistent with liberal international principles they do not do so intensely. In other words, the broad support for alliances, free trade and a more open migration regime are often met with intense opposition by partisans who strongly oppose these “globalist” policies. For example, those who believe that their manufacturing jobs have been lost to international trade to outsourcing are likely to hold intense views that oppose international trade agreements such as NAFTA or the now tabled Trans-Pacific Partnership. Those who see national benefits from an open trade regime are less likely to vote as their main political issue. Moreover, around 75% of the American public wants to prioritize domestic issues over foreign policy, while opposition – both on the left and the right – to external US military interventions and “forever wars” continues to grow.
Second, unlike in previous eras, there is a significant partisan divide on perceptions about the most significant threat to US security. During the Cold War, superpower rivalry with the Soviet Union created a strong domestic consensus about the contours of defense and foreign policy, while the attacks of 9/11 ensured bipartisan support for the Global War on Terror. By contrast, another recent survey by the Chicago Council reveals a dramatic split about what constitutes the most serious security threat. Just 11% of respondents (10% Democrats and 15% Republicans) view external terrorist groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda as the main security threat of the United States. Among Democrats, the greatest threats now are groups within the United States: “violent white nationalist groups within the United States” (47%) and “militant far right extremist groups” (46%). But for Republicans, 45% believe that China poses the greatest threat to US security, as opposed to just 10% of Democrats. In short, not only is there stunning disagreement about what groups or states are the most threatening to US security, but political partisans are divided over whether the greatest threat comes from domestic extreme movements or foreign geopolitical rivals.
Third, broad bipartisan support for democracy and political liberalism is waning within the United States, again broadly across partisan lines. Republicans, especially at the state level, are increasingly embracing a form of anti-systemic politics that includes rejecting the results of the 2020 Presidential elections, opposed by 128 House Republicans and 18 Republican state attorneys general who joined a legal action in support of President Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen or somehow conducted improperly. Moreover, the storming of the US Capitol on January 6 by Trump-supporting demonstrators both threatened US lawmakers and delayed the certification of the electoral college vote. International expressions of stunned disbelief underscored that the American political system no longer seems to operate according to a consensus that both sides will accept the results of elections and agree to a peaceful and orderly transition of power. To be sure, the United States has always been accused of hypocrisy in its support for democratic values, both at home (especially during the Civil Rights movement) and abroad when it has openly supported authoritarian regimes in the name of anti-Communism or defeating militant Islam. And President Trump’s skepticism about promoting democracy abroad and projecting liberal values now appears broadly held among the American public – just 20% of Americans support promoting democracy abroad as a top foreign policy priority.
In sum, despite proclamations that “America is back.” the domestic challenges confronting the Biden Administration as it seeks to re-engage with the world will be formidable.