The indispensable but always irksome nation

It would be fair to say that ever since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in November 2016, America’s friends and allies have been worrying about how reliable the country’s future leadership might be. The first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency, which culminated in a surprise success for him and his Democratic Party in the mid-term elections last month, have not brought that worrying to an end. But as 2022 comes to a close, it would nevertheless also be fair to say that America now looks once again to be an unreliable, often irritating partner within normal post-war parameters – rather than the abnormal parameters that Trump introduced. The United States has always caused concern among its allies, whether during the Vietnam war that ended in 1975, the Iran-Contra scandal of secret weapons sales under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s or, most recently, the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Yet even allies such as France and Germany that opposed the second Iraq war still felt they knew where they ultimately stood with the United States. That confidence was shaken by Trump. Now, the events of 2022 have restored it. This is not, and cannot be, a definitive judgement. The worrying will not cease. But the sense that the world’s leading superpower might suddenly do a deal with North Korea over the heads of its allies, as Trump appeared to envisage in 2018-19, or carve up Europe into spheres of influence with Russia or contemplate the same in Asia with China, as Trump might have attempted, has subsided. February 28, 2019, photo shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump walking together at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi. The United States and North Korea put forward starkly different accounts of the breakdown of a high-stakes summit. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS Also in decline, albeit still with fingers crossed for good luck, is the view that America might no longer qualify as a democracy after the 2024 presidential election. An outcome in 2024 endorsing the Trumpian claim that the 2020 election was illegitimate and placing control over electoral results in key states in partisan loyalists’ hands would consign to the historical dustbin the idea that the West works together for common liberal values. Such an outcome is not impossible, but it now looks less likely. Can America and its global reputation really have changed so radically in such a short time? Not entirely, for many concerns about US foreign policy pre-dated Trump. Nonetheless, the outcome of November’s elections, which bucked the historical trend of mid-term votes going against the unpopular incumbent president and his party, suggests the electoral appeal both of Trump personally and of moves to manipulate democratic processes are reassuringly limited. Certainly, the Democrats’ retention of a majority in the Senate will strengthen President Biden during the next two years. But we should still interpret the results cautiously: The elections showed how, in a highly polarized democracy such as America, the results can depend on very narrow margins. That doesn’t matter much when both parties accept the legitimacy of the process, but it matters hugely when that legitimacy has been placed in question. Thus, the sighs of relief heard from America’s friends and allies concerning those elections can be thought of as justified, but not conclusive. Far more important in calming allied nerves, however, has been the conduct of American foreign policy during 2022 by President Biden and his cabinet, and the quite widespread support for it across the party divide. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th there was some initial criticism of the Biden administration’s refusal to get directly involved in the war on Ukraine’s side. This ignored the enormous amount of intelligence support America (with its traditional partner, Britain, at its side) provided to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government and its armed forces. It did then take some time before Ukraine’s military inspired enough confidence that Washington was willing to provide the advanced weapons Kyiv needed to be able to resist Russia and then to force Russia’s army into retreat. But the Americans did so, with a generosity and effectiveness that fully confirmed the title that the late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conferred on her own country during the 1990s: “the indispensable nation.” European countries have also provided generous support, but it is American military and financial aid that has really made the difference. President Biden hosted President Zelenskyy of Ukraine at the White House on December 21, 2022. Photo: Wikipedia This has underlined how dependent Europe still is on America for the continent’s own defense. Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea know full well how much they rely on the United States. But the episode has also underlined how willing and able America is to intervene abroad when it sees its

The indispensable but always irksome nation

It would be fair to say that ever since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency in November 2016, America’s friends and allies have been worrying about how reliable the country’s future leadership might be.

The first two years of Joe Biden’s presidency, which culminated in a surprise success for him and his Democratic Party in the mid-term elections last month, have not brought that worrying to an end. But as 2022 comes to a close, it would nevertheless also be fair to say that America now looks once again to be an unreliable, often irritating partner within normal post-war parameters – rather than the abnormal parameters that Trump introduced.

The United States has always caused concern among its allies, whether during the Vietnam war that ended in 1975, the Iran-Contra scandal of secret weapons sales under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s or, most recently, the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Yet even allies such as France and Germany that opposed the second Iraq war still felt they knew where they ultimately stood with the United States. That confidence was shaken by Trump. Now, the events of 2022 have restored it.

This is not, and cannot be, a definitive judgement. The worrying will not cease. But the sense that the world’s leading superpower might suddenly do a deal with North Korea over the heads of its allies, as Trump appeared to envisage in 2018-19, or carve up Europe into spheres of influence with Russia or contemplate the same in Asia with China, as Trump might have attempted, has subsided.

February 28, 2019, photo shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump walking together at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel in Hanoi. The United States and North Korea put forward starkly different accounts of the breakdown of a high-stakes summit. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

Also in decline, albeit still with fingers crossed for good luck, is the view that America might no longer qualify as a democracy after the 2024 presidential election. An outcome in 2024 endorsing the Trumpian claim that the 2020 election was illegitimate and placing control over electoral results in key states in partisan loyalists’ hands would consign to the historical dustbin the idea that the West works together for common liberal values. Such an outcome is not impossible, but it now looks less likely.

Can America and its global reputation really have changed so radically in such a short time? Not entirely, for many concerns about US foreign policy pre-dated Trump. Nonetheless, the outcome of November’s elections, which bucked the historical trend of mid-term votes going against the unpopular incumbent president and his party, suggests the electoral appeal both of Trump personally and of moves to manipulate democratic processes are reassuringly limited.

Certainly, the Democrats’ retention of a majority in the Senate will strengthen President Biden during the next two years. But we should still interpret the results cautiously: The elections showed how, in a highly polarized democracy such as America, the results can depend on very narrow margins. That doesn’t matter much when both parties accept the legitimacy of the process, but it matters hugely when that legitimacy has been placed in question.

Thus, the sighs of relief heard from America’s friends and allies concerning those elections can be thought of as justified, but not conclusive. Far more important in calming allied nerves, however, has been the conduct of American foreign policy during 2022 by President Biden and his cabinet, and the quite widespread support for it across the party divide.

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th there was some initial criticism of the Biden administration’s refusal to get directly involved in the war on Ukraine’s side. This ignored the enormous amount of intelligence support America (with its traditional partner, Britain, at its side) provided to Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government and its armed forces.

It did then take some time before Ukraine’s military inspired enough confidence that Washington was willing to provide the advanced weapons Kyiv needed to be able to resist Russia and then to force Russia’s army into retreat.

But the Americans did so, with a generosity and effectiveness that fully confirmed the title that the late Secretary of State Madeleine Albright conferred on her own country during the 1990s: “the indispensable nation.” European countries have also provided generous support, but it is American military and financial aid that has really made the difference.

President Biden hosted President Zelenskyy of Ukraine at the White House on December 21, 2022. Photo: Wikipedia

This has underlined how dependent Europe still is on America for the continent’s own defense. Asian allies such as Japan and South Korea know full well how much they rely on the United States. But the episode has also underlined how willing and able America is to intervene abroad when it sees its own interests and values under threat. In the case of Ukraine, Biden’s America saw the whole of the post-war system of security and international law at serious risk of destruction.

Some analysts, especially in Japan, think that Russia still might prevail, because it is  more willing to fight a long war in Ukraine than are the Americans and their European allies. Biden’s success in the mid-term elections should, however, have put this view into serious doubt.

So far, the conflict has lasted 10 months, and Russia is clearly in big difficulties. America’s political will to keep supporting Ukraine is now certain to last for at least another two years until the 2024 elections, which is more than double the duration of the fighting so far. The cross-party support that Biden has received on this issue also suggests that this political will could even endure into 2025 and beyond. Time is not on Russia’s side.

This does not mean that the US will be a comfortable partner, or leader, over the next two years. Just like under Reagan in the 1980s, Biden’s America has turned quite protectionist, both on national security issues and on global ones such as climate policy. Its economic strategy in Asia looks unhelpful or plain inadequate, just at a time when it needs all the friends it can get in the Indo-Pacific so as to deter China.

Making it an unreliable, often irritating partner, but within normal postwar parameters: That is what Joe Biden has done to restore America’s reputation and position in the world. It is an important achievement. Yet the world is now much more complex than it was during most of the postwar period, because China has become so powerful and because there are now many more large and medium sized powers, in the Indo-Pacific in particular, that have their own interests and values.

This means that America’s friends and allies will still be right to put pressure on Biden to smooth off the sharp edges of its international policies and to give more recognition to the needs of others. Getting America to do that is no simple task, but neither is the task of becoming less dependent on it and more capable of defending ourselves. Both tasks, however, are important.

Bill Emmott, a former editor of the Economist, is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairsThis article, originally published on The Mainichi news site and in the Japanese Mainichi Shimbun newspaper on December 18, 2022, is republished with kind permission.