The importance of a strong and multilateral-focussed United States

Joe Biden’s biggest challenge will be to re-establish a multilateral dynamic that keeps Russia in check, argues former US ambassador Cameron Munter.
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By Cameron Munter

Cameron Munter is a former US ambassador to Serbia and India and former chief executive officer and President of the EastWest Institute

30 Dec 2020

Despite electoral challenges and unprecedented obstruction by the losing side, the US has elected its new President. The upcoming Joe Biden Presidency promises a return to traditional foreign policy, after four years of ‘America first’ and ever-so-cold transatlantic relations.

"America is back" Biden recently tweeted; a call that almost immediately echoed throughout Brussels, European Ministries and across US democratic strongholds. To make facts meet rhetoric however, will undoubtedly take more time.

Donald Trump’s Presidency was marked by an overt rejection of multilateralism, best exemplified by its constant criticism of the UN, for which it repeatedly threatened to, and did, cut funding, and the US withdrawal from both the Paris agreement and the Iran deal.

This distancing led to a reshuffle in internal relations, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel even declaring that Europe could no longer rely on the US for “protection", in a clear break from the post-War, Marshall Plan-fuelled, entanglement of the US with the Old Continent.

The Biden administration's first port of call will be to ensure this divide was only temporary. Efforts are already underway, with the President-Elect's first official calls having been to key European leaders.

What may prove more difficult to fix, however, is the power vacuum the last administration has left behind; a power vacuum that other international players have exploited, none more than Russia.

Indeed, the Trump Presidency has been marked by a move away from the confrontational, Cold-War-inherited relationship with Moscow, to make way for what was always thought to be an unlikely pairing. Most Americans will remember watching their President, in Moscow, rejecting conclusions from his own intelligence community to absolve Russia of any electoral interference.

"Trump's America was not so much an ally to Vladimir Putin's Russia as it was a weak opponent. This perceived weakness emboldened Moscow's stances both towards NATO and in the various regional conflicts that plague the former Soviet sphere"

But Trump's America was not so much an ally to Vladimir Putin's Russia as it was a weak opponent. This perceived weakness emboldened Moscow's stances both towards NATO and in the various regional conflicts that plague the former Soviet sphere.

The Biden administration's greatest challenge will be to re-establish a power dynamic, both with Moscow and the international community, that helps curtail Russia's expansionist policy.

While Moscow's destabilisation of Ukraine was met with sanctions and US troops in Kiev; Washington has not been consistent in its other responses. The situation in Belarus was left to escalate, with the US gingerly trying to nudge the former Soviet state toward new elections without provoking Moscow.

Most recently, the US was left to play second fiddle in Nagorno-Karabakh, assisting Russia's role as an intermediary whilst taking shots at a NATO ally, Turkey, who has arguably also been emboldened by Trump's leniency.

However, the price paid for a weaker US around the globe is perhaps best exemplified not by a conflict, but by recent developments in Georgia, for years the darling of the Caucasus.

An ex-Soviet country on a steady path to democratic reform that recently passed a resolution confirming aspirations to NATO and EU membership, yet progress is quickly coming undone.

Recent elections have seen the ruling party, Georgian Dream, re-elected under controversial circumstances. Georgians have taken to the streets to protest voter intimidation, vote buying, and other distortions to the democratic process, which international observers have also called out.

"The truth is that, with the US less present, Georgia has been steering away from its democratic path. Georgian Dream has opted to normalise and bolster relations with Moscow, to the widespread unease of the Georgian people"

Georgian Dream ignores these accusations, comforted in its stance by Mike Pompeo's recent visit, during which the Secretary of State unironically recognised their victory and announced a strengthening of US-Georgia cooperation.

The truth is that, with the US less present, Georgia has been steering away from its democratic path. Georgian Dream has opted to normalise and bolster relations with Moscow, to the widespread unease of the Georgian people.

Local NGOs decry a shrinking of civil liberties, with the government seeking to expand its influence over communication channels, information, and citizen data.

The government has even gone as far as expropriating one of the country's leading internet providers, Caucasus Online, from foreign investors that planned to build a fibre-optic pipeline connecting Asia and Europe.

This project could turn Georgia into a digital hub for the region, improving internet access for millions of people. But it would also offer an alternative to what are currently exclusively Russian connectivity assets and, after government interference, it is now at risk.

There lies the importance of a strong US engaged in, and committed to, the multilateral world order.

The Trump administration failed to recognise that America's greatness lies in its global positive influence as much as in its domestic affairs.

The Biden Presidency's biggest challenge will consist in reversing the trend, and re-establishing a multilateral dynamic that keeps Russia, and the democratic drifts it fuels, in check.

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EU-US Georgia
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