Everyone loves scoffing at polls. But if the polls are to be believed, the US, Europe’s transatlantic ally, will next Tuesday elect a multilateralist president who feels called to the presidency by the need to defend the values of liberal democracy.
Joe Biden’s stated policy positions speak closely to the European consensus in key areas: COVID-19, Iran, climate change, China, and the Middle East. But Europeans would be mistaken to think in terms of a “restoration” to a pre-2017 status quo ante. That version of multilateral cooperation was not working well enough, and in any case, the former vice president and his team have suggested that they have grander designs: more reinvention than restoration.
There are some harsh truths for Europeans in this prospect. Biden will have his hands full at home. COVID-19, economic stimulus and healthcare are top of the domestic agenda. His immediate foreign policy challenge may well be at his southern border, where the 11-week US transition process creates plenty of scope for difficulty. And Biden lived through the Obama presidency, when partnership was strong in word but weaker in deed.
So, Europe needs to learn the right lessons. It needs to work with the grain of what Biden is trying to do at home, and make itself an indispensable partner abroad. Here are some issues that will force themselves onto the agenda.
COVID-19 shapes everything. Biden realises that there can be no normality re-established without global action. So, as well as testing, tracing and treating on the continent, Europe needs an even bolder package for global action on COVID-19 that could engage America’s interest. Global public health is now a social and economic issue of massive importance, and needs the resources and vision to match. Not just vaccines, though they will be key.
The EU should be prepared to work as a global convener with a Biden administration reintegrated into the World Health Organisation (WHO), ensuring that fast, sustainable and flexible financing reaches frontline health responders and delivers the economic support for poorer countries and people that have been core to the macroeconomic response in richer parts of the world. Overall, donors have thus far failed to rise to the challenge of an effective global economic response: while G20 countries allocated $8 trillion (€6.8 trillion) in domestic economic stimulus packages, only $48 billion (€41 billion) has been raised for the fight against the virus amongst the world’s poorest and most vulnerable.
Even before COVID-19, 64 developing countries spent more on debt service than on health, including 18 countries where the International Rescue Committee (IRC) operates. The coronavirus crisis is a disease of the connected world - mounting a global response in concert which encompasses the weakest links in the chain means taking on the virus everywhere and for good.
China is the biggest geostrategic challenge for Biden. There is a new skepticism in the US, but limited interest on the Democratic side in a second Cold War. China is not a re-run of the old Soviet Union, not least because it works better. Its primary concern is sustained domestic prosperity and stability, and international cooperation offers ways to support that. The EU’s commitment to decarbonise the economy, championed by Frans Timmermans in the Green Deal, offers a vital area for such cooperation.
The Biden plan promises America a $2 trillion (€1.7 trillion) domestic climate plan and a recommitment to the Paris Agreement. China has committed to carbon neutrality by 2060 at the latest. There is, therefore, an opportunity for an unstoppable G3 on decarbonisation.
President Trump has shunned traditional diplomacy. The running sores of conflicts in Syria and Yemen are left over from the Obama years. These are opportunities for urgent humanitarian diplomacy.
Biden has already signaled his intent to end US support for the war in Yemen, notably by ending arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition. With famine conditions fast approaching, the UK and EU member states like France would do well to follow suit and use all means of joint diplomatic influence to urge warring parties to agree to an immediate ceasefire, commit to a political settlement, and ensure aid flows unabated to those most in need. They should also use their leverage to ensure an end to violations of international humanitarian law - and hold accountable those responsible.
In Syria, the US and EU can - and should - put serious diplomatic muscle into ending ongoing attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Syria, and ensure unhindered humanitarian access. Nowhere has the international community failed more crushingly than in protecting humanitarian aid workers. Doctors and nurses have operated for the past decade under the constant threat of airstrikes and shelling. COVID-19 adds to the needs.
The loss of the Yaroubiya and Bab al-Salam aid border crossings earlier this year has only further crippled vital medical facilities and the flow of health supplies to millions of vulnerable civilians. Acting jointly within the UN Security Council to reverse course and shore up commitments to international humanitarian law is of urgent importance to ensure that even more Syrian lives are not lost in the face of grave international failings.
Biden knows that the clock for the 2022 Congressional elections and the 2024 Presidential election will start ticking on November 4th. And he knows from 2009-2010 the dangers of not making a fast start. But Europe has an interest in thinking beyond this timetable.
There are issues where European interests could be massively helped by American support. One obvious example is how Europe engages with economic, security and migration issues in Africa. But there is also a bigger picture.
It needs to revamp the multilateral system, and put cooperation amongst liberal democracies onto a sustained footing. This is a project that runs beyond a Biden term in office, but it is well past time to put in the legwork. As the world confronts a new “Age of Impunity” - from the Russian invasion of Crimea to war crimes in Syria - the need for a countervailing force is greater than ever. Division among Western countries will enable bad actors. Now is the time for unity of purpose.
- David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and a former UK foreign minister
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