February 5, 2021

America will spend the next four years restoring its frayed alliances around the world and God will again be in his heaven — that is, at least, if you believe President Biden and his national security team. When he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the eve of Biden’s inauguration, Antony Blinken, confirmed last week as secretary of state, could scarcely stress more emphatically that the US will act “together with our allies and partners” across both oceans.

Not since Ronald “Morning in America” Reagan has a new administration come to office with so tenuous a grasp of the realities facing the United States — and so evident a determination to flinch from them. Look squarely across those oceans and you find diplomatic, political, and economic drift. An age of alliances? Not on Washington’s terms. As things stand, Joe Biden’s presidency is destined to mark an age of isolation.

Hardly two weeks after Biden’s November victory at the polls, 15 Pacific Rim nations signed what HSBC reckons is the largest trade accord in history, dwarfing anything the U.S. has sought to organise in recent years. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which come into effect by midyear, covers a third of the planet’s GDP ($26 trillion in 2019) and the same proportion of its population.

Who signed it? All 10 members of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan.

And China. All of America’s bedrock allies and partners in East Asia just agreed an extensive trade pact that can also be taken broadly as a plan to get along with the mainland. This is, in effect, an Asia-for-Asians accord. Not to be missed, it is the first trade agreement that puts Japan and China on the same piece of paper.

In his Senate testimony, Blinken made it clear the Biden administration expects America’s traditional allies to stand with it as it faces up to China. “We have to start by approaching China from a position of strength, not weakness,” Blinken told his interlocutors, “a position of strength when we are working with, not denigrating, our allies.” This is the sort of bureaucratic diplo-speak, wanting in all specificity, that gets Washington in trouble in one instance after another.

The RCEP, however, is a subtly rendered but direct repudiation of this view. The accord, which sets down a variety of economic and investment rules from tariffs to intellectual property, is the Pacific Rim’s declaration that it does not recognise the ideological red lines the US insists on drawing across the region — “techno-democracies” as against “techno-autarchies,” in Blinken’s histrionic terms. These nations evince absolutely zero interest in any kind of Cold War 2.0 with the mainland.

Yet the United States seems incapable of retiring the 20th century’s binaries into the past and addressing our diverse, multifarious new era. Certainly, its ties with Asia are more strained now than may meet the eye: the continued presence of American troops, to cite one example, has long been a politically contentious question among the Pentagon’s principal hosts — South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines.

ASEAN’s desire to settle sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea at the negotiating table, as opposed to displays of power at sea, are another. Indeed, they are fully aware that Washington’s obsession with the South China Sea has nothing to do with security, as it claims: it has everything to do with supremacy.

And so the Biden administration assumes office at a key moment in America’s trans–Pacific relations. It inherits alliances and partnerships of many decades’ standing, and no one at the far end of the Pacific, not even the Chinese, wants the US out of the region. But continue to get the China question so wrong and Biden’s national security people will severely damage Washington’s trans–Pacific ties, with the result that an incipient isolation will begin to assume a permanent character.

Something of the same obtains in Washington’s trans–Atlantic relationships, which now bear the character of irritated friends discovering they do not have as much in common as they once did. It is uncanny, indeed, how similarly Washington’s predicament unfolds in Europe. In the final days of 2020, China signed a bilateral investment treaty with the European Union that is at least as ambitious as the RCEP. In one interview, Valdis Dombrovkis, the EU trade commissioner, said it provided for “the most ambitious outcomes that China has ever agreed with a third country”. Are the E.U.’s 27 members really going to line up with Washington as it conjures a confrontation with China?

Critics immediately complained that the EU–China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment was poorly timed — a slap in the new American president’s face, a “kick in the teeth,” a “strategic mistake.” Implicit in this is the assumption Europe should continue playing follow-the-leader with Washington and has no business acting in what it judges to be its own interests. However, The CAI, as it is known, was seven years in the making and also bears broader interpretation. It, too, can be read as an indication that the Continent is no more interested than East Asians in Washington’s Sinophobic plans for some kind of decisive, king-of-the-hill reckoning.

It is Russia, however, as well as China, that has caused the Atlantic to grow wider in recent years. While the US has become increasingly hostile toward the Russian Federation, Emmanuel Macron has argued strenuously for some time that Europe must re-engage Russia as a key step toward a more independent foreign policy altogether. Angela Merkel has been less vocal on this point, but it will be interesting to see where her successor, Armin Laschet, lands on these questions.

Laschet is avowedly an Ostpolitik man, favouring friendly ties with Moscow and China alike. Should he take over as chancellor in September, among his early decisions will be whether to defy American objections and proceed with the highly contentious Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is to connect Russian gas fields with German ports and the European market. All signs are he will see through the project, which is now 95% completed.

Of course, we should not forget that America’s relations with Europe and Asia were growing increasingly distant well before Biden won the White House  — and, let us not be mistaken, before Donald Trump’s singularly disruptive term, too. Why has the U.S. been so consistently in denial about this? The best I can do is suggest that Washington, after seven decades of primacy, suffers an institutional inertia that prevents it from registering the 21st century’s defining currents.

Anyone familiar with Washington’s foreign policy cliques understands that they have simply not had to make any fundamental decisions since the 1945 victories, and must learn again how to respond to changing circumstances. The reality is that Washington’s policy cliques just don’t seem ready to accept the multipolar world we all find out our windows. The Nixon­–Kissinger opening to China in the early 1970s stands among the few exceptions to the rule. Yet today’s policy planners condemn that highly imaginative move as a mistake, preferring, in effect, to take cover in the anachronistic thought that America’s place as a global leader is just as it was during the post-war decades.

A year ago Biden published a much-remarked essay in Foreign Affairs under the headline: “Why America must lead again.” This is what the president and his national security people mean when they talk of alliances and partnerships: Let us all work together — we the commanding officers, other nations adjutants following our lead. Barack Obama and his administration — many of whom will now serve under Biden — made the same mistake.

Does this mean the United States will find itself isolated as our new century unfolds? Quite possibly, though it is not inevitable. Isolation, if it comes to be the case, will prove a choice, not a fate. The United States could accept — indeed, participate in — the transformations in motion in Asia and Europe were it willing to do so as an equal partner with others. But all signs indicate that Biden and his foreign policy people have no intention of squarely addressing the complexities of our time, and will insist on sustaining a primacy of a bygone era.

It is almost 70 years since Luigi Barzini published Americans Are Alone in the World. It was a work of admiration for a nation that stood unambiguously above others after World War Two. Now, the noted Italian journalist’s observation has been turned upside down. Unless the Biden administration alters course — an unlikely prospect by any sound reckoning — Americans stand to be alone because they are falling behind.