President Joe Biden will address world leaders at the United Nations today. Although few in Topeka, Tulsa, or Tampa will pay much attention to the content of his words, the assembled crowd of presidents and prime ministers will be listening closely.
Much of the world is at once skeptical of and desperate for American leadership. At a moment of technological change, economic uncertainty, the largest war in Europe since World War II, mounting tensions between the world’s two largest powers and the prospect of an erratic populist returning to the U.S. presidency in 2025, world leaders will be attentive to Biden’s agenda — both its substance and its tenor — and to his assurances about the durability of America’s commitments.
Conventional wisdom has it that the relative decline of American economic and military power has left a vacuum in the global order. What had been, at the end of the Cold War, a unipolar moment underwritten by American power and influence has receded. Now, with the rise of China and after ill-fated American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, multiple countries are jockeying for an upper hand. We have entered, as the saying goes, a new era of “great power competition.”
This kind of moment produces strange, often thin relationships at the global and regional levels as powers seek to balance and best each other. Witness the China-Russia partnership, a bond between two neighboring regimes whose greatest threats are internal, emanating from their (different) authoritarian models. Or the apparent progress in the U.S.-Saudi relationship, despite that, among other things, the de facto leader of the latter ordered the brutal killing of a journalist.
In an era like this one, it can be tempting to think that interactions between states become necessarily transactional. (Donald Trump’s “America First” agenda was a policy commitment to such an approach.) We sign up for a more chaotic world where hard power results in inevitable confrontations, deals of convenience are made and unmade, and more nuanced or complex forms of international politics fade into the background.
But great power competition is both dangerous and unstable; to expect or accept its permanence is foolish. History suggests that it most often leads to war (Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine is enabled by the current geopolitics, even if it emanates from his own insecurities and perverse psychoses). So we should ask ourselves: What is an alternative, constructive way out of our present geopolitics?
The solution cannot be to recreate the American dominance of the 1990s — that’s impossible. There is no single, liberal power that’s ready to inherit the mantle of world leadership as the U.S. had done from the UK last century. The prospect of an authoritarian regime becoming the dominant global power and reshaping the world under its repressive model is abhorrent.
We need something new. Instead of a unitary power, multiple constellations of cooperation must emerge to guide responsible state behavior to solve problems, mitigate catastrophic risks, and harness opportunities to improve human welfare. The G7 can lead on some challenges. Regional associations of states might lead on others. Issue-specific coalitions — on emerging technologies, pandemic preparedness, supply chain vulnerabilities or migration management — might play the central role on others.
This doesn’t have to be a collection of coalitions of democratic actors. There aren’t enough of them, and the non-democratic world needs to participate in global governance as well. But these arrangements must be rooted in universal values. They must be guided by good faith efforts to solve collective action problems, rather than serving as vehicles for neo-mercantilism or neo-imperialism.
The struggle Biden describes between democracy and authoritarianism doesn’t suggest a bifurcated world in which democracies do one thing and autocracies another. Instead, it demands an evolved approach to global governance that is inclusive, and in which the leadership of democratic actors is essential.
The U.S. is indispensable to this transition, but we must still adapt, trading some of the tools and strategies of hegemony for a more rigorous and nuanced engagement. It must have a strategy to earn its enduring leadership in world politics rather than relying on its dominant scale to ensure the weight of its voice.
The U.S. must develop credibility among global skeptics by demonstrating real concern for the issues on their agenda. It must seed cooperative, multilateral approaches where it once simply announced the way forward and expected others to fall in line. And the U.S. must make itself more attractive as a leader, to compensate for its declining geopolitical weight.
Meanwhile, it must invest anew in building the skills and basic research that give us a technological and scientific edge, so that it can continue to be a source of advances in human welfare. And we should take seriously the flaws in our own democracy and tackle the gaping economic inequality that makes America less compelling as a model. These are not just social justice issues — they are national competitiveness issues in the 21st century.
Much of Biden’s foreign and domestic policy has been a down payment on such an approach. For example, the U.S. has led a coalition of more than 30 countries in supporting Ukraine with military assistance in the face of Russia’s unprovoked and brutal war. The Inflation Reduction Act’s investments are intended to seed American innovation in a global energy transition and fight against climate change. But Biden must double down on the case to world leaders that the U.S. is ready and willing to serve as the world’s “cooperator-in-chief” in the years to come.
Biden’s message at the UN will be calibrated with these challenges in mind. The UN’s inclusivity is an enemy of its effectiveness: it’s difficult to get things done when you have Pakistan, Venezuela, Ecuador, Egypt, China, Russia, Eritrea, and others at the table. But it is still the universal forum, offering the U.S. president an opportunity to address the world.
Biden will make the case that the U.S. sees the world’s problems — including food security, energy poverty, and climate change — as its own. He will offer an alternative to the value-free volatility of great power competition, averring that the U.S. is ready to partner with friends both old and new, to address the challenges of our time.
Daniel Baer is author of “The Four Tests: What it will take to keep America strong and good,” out September 19 from Avid Reader/Simon & Schuster. He is senior vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and served as U.S. ambassador to the OSCE under President Obama.
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