US Middle Class First: Biden’s New Multilateralism

Mario Calvo Platero
Columnist for la Repubblica, Guarantor for the Italian edition of the New York Times, President Gruppo Esponenti Italiani New York, Chairman Palazzo Strozzi Foundation USA

It has been clear in every speech: Joe Biden’s foreign policy will revert to multilateralism, will strengthen relations with its European allies, will restore the credibility of multilateral organizations. Yet, after the Trump treatment, nothing will ever be the same again. Biden’s approach to multilateralism will be new and will be defined first and foremost by America’s need to strengthen its economy and social fabric.

We all know how the two elections of 2016 and 2020 showed a stark split in the country and a deep dissatisfaction of the US middle class. Because of this, despite Biden’s relaxing message for the post-Trump era and the pleasant, friendly, constructive attitude of this President, the clock of history will not be turned back. The new administration will not pick up the thread of the multilateral discourse from where Barack Obama left it in January 2017, after elevating – in 2009 - the G20 to a formal leader’s gathering, launching a dialogue with Iran and free trade agreements such as the TPP for the Asian Pacific basin and the TTIP for the Transatlantic area (which as we know, were later withdrawn). Biden is already searching a very different path from those we were used to.

On a short term he will leave the US Embassy in Jerusalem, will reopen a dialogue with Tehran and will re-affirm the importance of human rights to both China and Russia. But there is not a new doctrine as of yet. And we do not know yet whether his will be a transition path, or if it will already be a platform on which all of the Washington establishment will lay the foundations for a new course lasting possibly the next 20 years.

There are still too many uncertainties, too much polarization and, again, above all, the American people is split in two, with one half of the country still determined not to embrace “openness” and still intrigued with Trumpism. It should be added that the left of the Democratic Party is equally critical of the old pillars of globalization. This is why Biden’s foreign policy will be characterized above all by economic objectives. In a couple of occasions Biden even pledged to put “America First”, an interesting pragmatic choice within the dramatic and positive change in tones and rhetoric: aggressiveness, rudeness, lies coming from the White House are gone, let’s hope for ever.

Being realistic, Biden knows that if he wants to have a chance of being reelected in 2024 and does not want to lose in two years the razor thin majority in Congress (both Obama and Clinton lost the midterm elections), he will have to pursue first and foremost the internal American interests. And he said that quite openly from the very speech celebrating his election victory: “We will fight to give everybody a fair opportunity. This is what everybody is just asking for: a fair opportunity”. Allies and antagonists, therefore, will be called upon to do their part. Europe or China will have to understand that some concessions have to be made, otherwise the threat of Trump or Trumpism could surface again with new votes prompted by guts rather than reason. We also know that much of the blame for the middle-class crisis lies with rapid technological innovation. But globalization and Chinese or European unfair trade are easier scapegoats to point at. Biden’s  two main foreign policy minds, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Council head Jake Sullivan understood this perfectly well even  before the elections took place.

Let’s see what Blinken said last July in a speech at the Hudson Institute: “We’re living in a time of shifting power... away from states and a growing questioning of governance within states; tremendous economic, demographic, technological, environmental, geopolitical change that we’re all experiencing every day. In fact, the rapidity and pace of change is such that I think there’s a general sense that we’ve lost our North Star. People are increasingly confused. They feel a sense of chaos...  as well as a tremendous inequality problem, both within our own country and around the world. We are facing, I think, the most challenging and complex international [crisis] certainly in decades, if not longer”.

In his acceptance speech for his appointment at the White House, Sullivan used similar tones about the environment, technology, immigration, trade. And in a document of May 21st last year, published after almost three years of research by the Carnegie Endowment, edited among others by Sullivan himself, new considerations and objectives emerge. For example, identifying the impact of American foreign policy on states representative of American regional realities, such as Nebraska, Colorado and Ohio. The focus: the middle class. It is clear that the impact of this study has been strong, judging by what Sullivan said on the day he accepted his new post: “We must put ordinary people at the center of our agreements, improve the lives of American families. The alliances that we will build will have to meet a central requirement, our foreign policy must produce results for these families and unite America”. So very clear.

To this aim, Biden, from a strategic point of view, wanted to give a broad historical breath for the rediscovery of the American soul. In his acceptance speech, he recalled historical moments, such as the Lincoln Presidency in 1860 which saved the Union, or that of FDR in 1932 who promised a “New Deal”, or that of Kennedy who promised a new frontier in 1960. You surely noticed that Biden cited the beginnings of those historical administrations. So, let’s get ready. Italy, which will host the first G20 summit of the Biden era next year, the summit of the revival of multilateralism, has prepared itself. The summit will focus on a slogan of three Ps: People: safety and health; Planet: environment; and Prosperity: self-explanatory. Three P’s that will suit just fine Biden’s, Blinken’s and Sullivan’s vision of America’s interest. Provided that those three P’s will allow to secure an advantage also for the middle-class families of Nebraska, Colorado and Ohio.

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