How will the venerable Biden deal with the new geopolitical reality?

By: Rachel Marsden

PARIS — A lot has happened over the past four years while Donald Trump was president. If President-elect Joe Biden thinks he’s going to just waltz into the White House in January and reset everything back to the way it was, he’s in for a rude awakening. The world isn’t what it was four years ago. Biden and his team had better wake up to that new reality — but early indications suggest that they haven’t yet.

Biden is planning to issue a number of executive orders reversing Trump policies, according to the Washington Post. These apparently include sending a strong signal that the U.S. wants to reassume a leadership role on the world stage by rejoining the World Health Organization and Paris climate accords.

In an op-ed he wrote for CNN in September, Biden said he would “offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy” by having the U.S. rejoin the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, which would be a mere “starting point for follow-on negotiations.” Biden also wrote: “With the world back at America’s side, a Biden administration will make it a priority to set Iran policy right.”

It’s presumptuous to think that the rest of the world has been waiting around like abandoned children for Uncle Sam to return. The world has moved on — or at least has tried to.

Every country is free to do what it wants in the best interest of its own people. If Trump figured that institutions of global governance such as the World Health Organization were frustrating America’s ambitions, it was his right as elected head of state to leave. That wasn’t the problem. The real issue was that Trump’s administration withdrew from deals such as the Iran agreement and then tried to sabotage other nation-state signatories, typically via economic sanctions. The message was clear: America doesn’t want this. But you can’t have it either.

The world hasn’t been waiting around for Biden to come along. Other countries would be perfectly content with Uncle Sam taking his boot off everyone’s necks so they can make their own choices. That international antagonism was Trump’s doing. A more laissez-faire approach would be a good place for Biden to start if he’s really interested in resetting Washington’s relationship with the rest of the planet.

Washington, D.C., is no longer the center of the universe, and Biden isn’t going to change that. Other countries have emerged as regional powers around which ecosystems have evolved. Those localized ecosystems are better tailored to common cultural, economic and political realities. Trump didn’t cause this phenomenon, but he accelerated it.

The economies of countries that were once heavily dependent on others have benefited from increased globalization and trade, growing their middle classes and making them economically stronger. Military interventions under previous U.S. presidents and economic sanctions under Trump have caused many of these countries (which tend to be strategically targeted for their wealth and resource potential) to make fast friends with other similarly targeted nations for their own protection. This is how, under the Trump administration, there has been a rapprochement among countries that have been at odds with America — Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela and others — and a shift away from relations with the U.S.

Alliances among such countries tend to involve less drama, greater trust and more stability than an alliance with the U.S. So Biden is going to have an uphill battle convincing them to drop everything and move back to America’s side, particularly if it’s an all-or-nothing proposition where they will be forced to choose between being allies with the U.S. or with America’s geopolitical foes.

Biden, a Washington fixture for nearly 50 years who has lived through the age of U.S. global dominance, is going to have to embrace the realities of an open relationship, geopolitically speaking. His willingness to do that will depend largely on the people around him.

Old hands in the Washington establishment don’t tend to do well with this sort of mindset. They still think they’re calling the shots and that the world revolves around them — and when it doesn’t, that they can get what they want by making threats or using force. Even Trump couldn’t purge that element from his administration. In fact, it was perhaps one of the only aspects of Trump’s presidency that remained aligned with Washington’s conventions and traditions.

Biden will be 78 when he assumes the presidency. He’ll need to get hip to a new geopolitical reality that’s young enough to be his great-grandchild. Can he adapt?