President Biden has been in Europe for his first foreign trip since taking office. He arrived with an ambitious, even daunting, agenda. That to-do-list has at least three parts. First, rebuild America’s damaged relationship with key allies and partners, including the G-7, NATO and the European Union. Second, achieve a working consensus with Europe and Japan on the nature of the transnational threats facing the world, including an environmental crisis, a pandemic(s) and the rapidly growing presence of criminality and falsehoods in cyberspace. Third, seek common ground in dealing with the growing assertiveness, power and malign behavior of autocratic regimes — notably China and Russia.
The first item on the agenda is the easiest. Europeans were traumatized by Donald Trump’s active hostility to the very existence of the Atlantic alliance. His public insults hurled at allies (“freeloaders”) were matched by his slavish admiration for Russia’s dictator. For Europeans, it was deeply unnerving and profoundly unattractive. President Biden is bringing exactly the opposite message (“America is back”) and sees the Western alliance as a vital asset to be supported and strengthened. The immediate results have been pretty spectacular. Public opinion polls in 12 European countries show confidence in Biden currently at 75 percent compared to Trump at 17 percent last year. Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who once sounded like a sort of Trump acolyte, greeted Biden (who he had never met) like he was his oldest and dearest friend in the world.
The second agenda item is far more difficult — and longer term. Biden is a true believer in the scientific consensus that environmental breakdown — notably uncontrolled heating of the atmosphere — is an existential threat to the very future of life on Earth. Along with climate change comes a host of other apocalyptic threats including pandemics. COVID is not a one-off; it is a harbinger of the future. For the Biden team, hope lies in the fact that the leaders he has been meeting (as well as their citizenries) broadly share this grim prognosis. That, in turn, offers the prospect of a very large coordinated effort — societal, economic, technical, scientific — on the part of the world’s most advanced countries, to save the planet. The first tangible, and relatively easy, step was a pledge of the G-7 to join together in providing a billion doses of COVID vaccine to poor countries. Next, if you are a bit optimistic, you can foresee a huge flowering of green energy initiatives coming out of research labs, corporate production facilities and government agencies in Europe, Japan and North America in the very near future.
The toughest short-term challenge may be the geopolitical one — the third item on the agenda. When the Cold War ended three decades ago, there was much hopeful thinking in Washington (and Europe) that the world was entering an extended period of peace and stability. A best-selling book by a leading intellectual was titled “The End of History,” i.e., the end of major international conflict. In fact, the EU fostered democratic polities across a continent once heavily penetrated by different varieties of fascism. The U.S. launched major military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq with the stated intention of building democracies where they had never existed. In 2010-11, a wave of popular demonstrations, dubbed the “Arab Spring,” rolled across the Middle East calling for a birth of democracy in the region. The EU has broadly succeeded, but the rest has turned to ashes. More important, a fledgling democracy in post-Soviet Russia failed and was replaced with a new autocrat, Vladimir Putin. And still more important, hopes for the birth of democracy in China, expressed in the Tiananmen demonstrations of 1989, and later in Hong Kong, were extinguished by brute force. Instead, China has a totalitarian dictatorship under Xi Jinping — the world’s first total surveillance state.
The simple fact that autocrats rule in Moscow and Beijing is not, in itself, a threat to the vital interests of the U.S. and its allies. But when both the Russian and Chinese regimes seek to expand their power and control over states and regions beyond their borders — whether it is Crimea or the South China Sea — that all changes. The Biden administration has responded by characterizing the present era as one defined by the contest between democracy and autocracy. Biden used the G-7 summit to urge a coordinated approach designed to blunt China’s growing influence in Asia. Chinese leaders complain that America has adopted a “cold war mindset” — and they have a point. The first Cold War was a struggle between the free world and communism. This one is between democracy and autocracy. As the saying goes: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
There are obvious dangers in the emerging paradigm. Global threats such as climate change and pandemics will require a truly global response. Washington and Beijing will simply have to work in parallel, if not together, if global temperatures are to be controlled. To say that this won’t be easy is an understatement. Nevertheless, the global threats do not discriminate. Shanghai will be inundated by rising seas just as surely as Miami. Perhaps, in that grim prospect, lies a bit of hope for a different kind of Cold War.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.