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Op-ed: Biden needs to act now to shore up economic foreign policy to restore confidence in U.S. leadership

CNBC logo CNBC 10/2/2021 Frederick Kempe
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines and booster shots in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, September 24, 2021. © Provided by CNBC U.S. President Joe Biden speaks about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines and booster shots in the State Dining Room at the White House in Washington, September 24, 2021.

The Biden administration should act to correct its post-Afghanistan foreign policy malaise by embracing economic agreements that rally its global partners and restore confidence in U.S. leadership.  

That effort should begin, but not end, with an embrace and expansion of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP, to include the United Kingdom (which has applied to join) and other European partners (who have not). 

That mouthful of a trade agreement title, not helped by an acronym that is more stutter than vision, has come to symbolize all that is wrong about the United States' retreat from the brand of international leadership that defined the decades after World War II. That period brought with it a historic expansion of prosperity and democracy, which is now endangered.  

Though negotiated by the Obama administration as the TPP and signed in February 2016, the agreement never entered into force after President Trump withdrew from it upon entering office in 2017.  Led by the Japanese, the other eleven signatories moved forward anyway a year later with an agreement that represents more than 13 percent of global GDP, or $13.5 trillion.

Nothing should have awakened the Biden administration more to the attractions of CPTPP, or to the perils of U.S. withdrawal from it, than last month's application by the Chinese to join the agreement, coinciding with news of the trilateral U.S.-Australian-United Kingdom defense deal, or AUKUS, that among other things would bring nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.  

What Beijing has argued is that while the United States continues to think about global influence in divisive military terms, China sees its greatest global asset to be the size and attractiveness of its economy at a time when most leading U.S. allies, including the entirety of the European Union, have Beijing as their leading trade partner.

The best way to counter this economically driven Chinese effort, which operates under the all-inclusive heading of the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, is to launch something even more attractive, galvanizing, and inclusive among democracies.

Biden administration officials would argue they are already doing just that through Build Back Better World, or B3W, the G7 counter to BRI designed to counter China's strategic influence through infrastructure projects.  This is a useful contribution. 

By combining an expanded CPTPP, B3W and a host of other measures one could generate a "Global Prosperity and Democracy Partnership." It could include all willing partners, organized in an audacious manner equal to the task of reversing three dangerous, reinforcing trends: U.S. international disengagement, global democratic decline and China's authoritarian rise as the leading international influencer and standard setter for the era ahead.

By embracing its global partners economically, the Biden administration would be acting in a manner far more consistent with its own "America is back" narrative than has been its trajectory during an Afghan withdrawal that did little to embrace allies and put in power the Taliban. It would at the same time reflect President Biden's accurate diagnosis of our current inflection point as being a systemic competition between democracy and autocracy.

The AUKUS defense deal may be a welcome regional, security arrangement, but it has at the same time strained the alliance with France through undermining its own $66 billion agreement with the Australians with what one Paris official called "a stab in the back."

Last week's meetings of "Quad" leaders in Washington, bringing together India, Japan, Australia, and the United States, is a significant regional accomplishment. Yet it still fails to address the generational Chinese challenge that is global, economic, and ideological.    

Biden administration allies have thus far argued that before one can even consider international economic and trade deals, the President must first focus on domestic affairs: quelling COVID-19, passing his $1 trillion infrastructure bill alongside a separate social-policy and climate measure, which remain stalled in Congress.

However, it is the international and historic context that give his domestic plans, under the "Build Back Better" mantra, their greatest urgency.

Writing this week in Foreign Affairs, President of the Council of Foreign Relations Richard Haass calls for "a new internationalism" that must combine both domestic and global features to succeed.

"The starting point for a new internationalism should be a clear recognition that although foreign policy begins at home, it cannot end there," writes Haass in his must-read essay. "Biden has acknowledged the 'fundamental truth of the century…that our own success bound up with others succeeding as well;' the question is whether he can craft and carry out a foreign policy that reflects it."  

Haass' essay provides a useful and compelling way of understanding the U.S. global leadership role after World War II and the significance of our historic moment.

He begins by provocatively arguing "there is far more continuity between the foreign policy of the current president (Biden) and that of the former president (Trump) than is commonly recognized" in their rejection of the brand of U.S. internationalism that drove our actions after World War II.

He separates U.S. global leadership after 1945 into two "paradigms."

The first, which grew out of World War II and the Cold War, was "founded on the recognition that U.S. national security depended on more than just looking out for the country's own narrowly defined concerns." That, in turn, "required helping shepherd into existence and then sustaining an international system that, however imperfect, would buttress U.S. security and prosperity over the long term."

He sees the new and still existing paradigm, which emerged at the end of the Cold War some thirty years ago and still exists in the Biden administration, as reflecting "the reality is that Americans want the benefits of international order without doing the hard work of building and maintaining it."

He rightly uses the word "squander" to criticize U.S. foreign policy after the Cold War. "The United States missed its best chance to update the system that had successfully waged the Cold War for a new era defined by new challenges and new rivalries," he writes.

President Biden came into office sounding like a leader who wanted to invent a new paradigm for a more challenging global era, characterized by a generational Chinese and climate challenge. It was to be one of domestic renewal and international engagement.

He can stop the squandering by beginning a course of global common cause among democracies. "In the absence of a new American internationalism," Haass warns, "the likely outcome will be a world that is less free, more violent, and less willing or able to tackle common challenges."

The Biden administration still has a chance for bold, decisive action. But that window of opportunity will not be open forever.

Frederick Kempe is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Atlantic Council.

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