Between What Was and What Could Be: America on the World Stage 

The four years of the Trump presidency were uncharted territory in American foreign policy. President-elect Joe Biden and his foreign policy team will prepare their path forward as of January 20. Former US career diplomat, now Ottawa-based expat Sarah Goldfeder assesses that transition from up here. 

Sarah Goldfeder 

Since the very beginning, foreign policy experts have disagreed on the proper and balanced role of the United States of America on the world stage. For the first 35 years of America’s democracy, foreign policy was simple. It was focused on protecting and nurturing established alliances and ensuring access to trade routes. The notion of entanglements in the affairs of others was rejected as being particularly imperial, and exactly what the American colonies had rejected in the policies of King George.

It wasn’t until the 1820s and the heated debate on the Monroe Doctrine that the United States articulated a fully-developed foreign policy. It took generations to get from there to the post-Second World War assertion of the Marshall Plan and the entrenchment of American diplomacy and military power around the world. 

Throughout its history, Americans have argued among ourselves about the rightness and efficiency of our global involvement, and with the evolution of the intelligence community from war-time capacity to fixture of the everyday diplomatic relationship, many have questioned the why, the how, and the what.

Americans believe in democracy and freedom, in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But we struggle with the reality that some democracies and some pursuits will not align with our understanding or experience. Our ability to see the world from the point of view of others is limited. The lack of personal interactions with foreign perspectives has much to do with the same geography that allows us to escape the immediate consequences of war and famine. It protects us, in more ways than one. The distrust of mainstream media reporting, official government reports, and the prevalence of propaganda dispersed by social media has only aggravated that disconnect.

Donald Trump operated with an overt philosophy that international involvement should only come with immediate benefits for the United States, based on his definition of “benefit”. He reached out to dictators and global bad actors and pushed away America’s traditional allies, including Canada. He has dispatched his second secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, his former CIA director and an evangelical Christian who has long blended religion and policy into his understanding of the national interest, to secure these immediate benefits. 

The results have included a strengthening of Israel’s alliances in the Middle East in the form of the Abraham Accords, which even Democrats, however unconvinced of the tactics, applaud. Speaker Pelosi and then-candidate Biden lauded the deal to deepen the strategic relationships between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain. Other results have been less well-received, especially by globalists both in and out of government—from the deepening of the trade rift between the United States and China and the resulting increasing hostility between the two great powers to the ineffectual strategies employed against Iran and North Korea. In addition, the empowering of Israel, the endorsement of Israel’s annexation of the West Bank settlements, and the assassination of Iran’s lead nuclear physicist may leave an unwelcome inheritance for the incoming administration.

Canada and others could be forgiven for feeling that in the past four years the United States was not only turning away from the rest of the world, but lashing out at it. But if we want to gaze into the foreign policy crystal ball and ask what will a Biden administration will bring, we need to understand the past four years in the context of generational change.

The world should not want a return to a hegemonic, however benevolent, United States of America. Somewhere in between what we were and what we’ve become will be a necessary compromise. There are, of course, the arguments that the world itself has changed, has become more complicated, that our enemies are no longer nation-states that are subject to international standards of behavior and norms, but non-state actors. In the depth of these debates, academics and pundits inevitably sound nostalgic for other times. The reality is that every moment in America’s past has contained uncertainty and instability, just as now. Non-state actors have been around since the beginning of state-to-state diplomacy and have always been complicated as well as often ruthless and violent. The United States has, for decades, been an active participant in dialogues with non-state actors, sometimes openly and sometimes not, manipulating the ebbs and flows of these players for its own national interests.

Antony Blinken as US Under Secretary of State with Vice President Biden in 2016. As SecState under President Biden, Blinken begins with institutional knowledge of issues, including Canada-US files, that was conspicuously lacking under the previous Trump administration. US Air Force Flickr photo

The immediate renewal of the engine that powers American diplomacy will be the first order of business for the Biden national security team, including incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken. The US Department of State, long the standard-bearer for the global diplomatic corps, has been hollowed out and demoralized in the past four years. The care and feeding of America’s diplomatic, intelligence, and international development communities will be a priority. The Blinken era will be one of rebuilding and buttressing of the human capital that makes diplomacy happen. Colin Powell entered into his tenure as secretary recognizing the importance of taking care of the country’s first line of defense in ways that only a general could thoroughly appreciate. Tony Blinken will similarly need to focus on building the intellectual and strategic personnel assets that the country will need to reestablish itself as a trusted actor on the global stage.

This national security team will also need to address fundamental issues that have long been ignored, and not just in the administrations of the immediate past. Americans need to be able to see how a global footprint is important, that what happens around the world matters to them at home. Putting a national interest test on foreign policy, trade, and development policy is already something openly being discussed—how to measure and understand how these policy actions impact middle and working-class Americans must be part of the process, similar to how Gender-Based Analysis (GBA+) is now entrenched in policy making in Canada.

The result may well be a less activist America, one that looks to the rest of like-minded nations to carry more water. This national security team will likely look to NATO allies and others, including Canada, and not only applaud the additional leadership they have taken in these past four years, but look to them to take on more. 

The challenge for the Biden Administration will be navigating a world where trust in diplomatic institutions that form the foundation of this possibility has been eroded and networks frayed. They will have to not just convince the world that America is a willing partner, but Americans that the world stage is an important place to be.

Canada and the rest of the world understand that there’s no snapback to how the world was before Donald J. Trump became president. But the real question is whether the world understands that the United States, in ways unique to it, has been failing its foreign policy infrastructure by failing the American people. There is every indication that the Biden team understands that one of the most challenging aspects of their foreign policy plan is domestic politics. Demonstrating the value of international entanglements to the American public will be both a priority and a challenge for Blinken and team.

The good news for Canada is that Americans understand the requirement for strong strategic relationships on the North American continent. If there is any country that is consistently understood to be a valuable and unconditional partner by Americans, it is Canada. The challenges for the relationship will continue to be the traditional ‘condominium issues’ that Condoleezza Rice described. Transactional and compartmentalized, these are largely trade-based, but also include burden-sharing at NATO and alignment on national security issues such as 5G network participation by Huawei. 

Both Canada and the United States have long benefited from the asymmetry in the relationship, and there will be the expectation that the continued leverage of Canada’s global relationships will work for the good of the continent. In diplomacy, sometimes the mouse is better deployed than the elephant. And now, at least for a little while, the elephant’s behaviour should be more predictable. That said, expect the next four years to be about rebuilding the relationship between the American people and American foreign policy more than restoring American dominance to a world that is looking for a more multilateral approach to global leadership. Especially in a world post-COVID, with precious little funding on the table for investment diplomacy akin to the Chinese Belt and Road Intitiative, the United States will have to carefully choose its methods and spheres of influence. 

Canada should stand ready to continue the pathway it has been on these past four years. Engagement, multilateralism, and leadership in areas of strength will remain important. The biggest change will be that instead of looking over its shoulder, Canada can look across the table at its neighbour and know that its contributions are valued and will be rewarded, not punished.  

Contributing Writer Sarah Goldfeder, a career State Department officer, was an adviser to two American ambassadors to Canada. She is now a Principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa.