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Jonathan E. Hillman
President-elect Joe Biden has put foreign leaders on notice, declaring, “America is back.” The world is now waiting, and listening, for what comes next. As the Biden-Harris administration reintroduces America to the world, the words it chooses can build domestic support for U.S. foreign policy, strengthen partnerships abroad, and more effectively compete with China.
The U.S. government does a lot of talking, as you may have noticed, and first impressions are critical for a new administration. There are summits, meetings, and calls with foreign leaders. Strategy documents signal priorities and guide executive branch agencies. Speeches build support for action. There are congratulations to send, negotiations to advance, warnings to make, and crises to defuse. And the world talks back.
Deciding not only what to say, but how to say it, is a central challenge. Style cannot fix a lack of substance, but effective messaging expands the scope of what is possible. It is also incredibly difficult. When the president speaks in Aberdeen, Pennsylvania, people in Aberdeen, Texas, are also listening. So are people in Aberdeen, India, as well as Aberdeen, Hong Kong, and Aberdeen, South Africa. Critics and competitors are ready to counter, spin, and deceive. The world stage does not have an orderly auditorium. It is a chaotic and contested battleground.
Before turning the page, it is important to learn from Trump’s “America First” message. Although crude and ultimately counterproductive, it attempted to address a genuine need. To American ears, the message was accessible, free of references to the “rules-based international order” and other foreign-policy jargon. In plain language, it promised to help Americans.
But the bluntness of “America First” did not serve Americans well. It alarmed U.S. allies. It pushed away partners. That made the easy things, like issuing joint statements among like-minded countries, more difficult. It made the hard things, like resolving trade disputes, nearly impossible. U.S. households are still paying the price.
The lesson, however, is that “America is back” need not include a return to the lofty foreign policy language of the past. There is a time and place for the big foreign policy speech, but even then—especially then—Americans deserve concrete examples of how U.S. foreign policy will improve their lives. Many of today’s biggest challenges, from addressing climate change to competing with China, will extend beyond a single administration, making domestic support critical for sustaining an effective response.
President-elect Biden’s message can be accessible, unabashedly pro-American, and still appeal to foreign audiences. The key is extending his focus on the middle class abroad, where he will find a massive audience. In 2018, for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population became middle class or wealthier. Their fundamental aspirations for prosperity and security are shared, and their futures are linked. A world with stronger economies, less corruption, and cleaner air is one that benefits that middle-class citizens everywhere.
The right message will also help the United States compete more effectively with China abroad. A sensible first step is replacing lectures on great power competition with local listening tours. Unintentionally, the great power competition framing often helps the United States’ competitors. President Vladimir Putin of Russia presides over a shrinking population and a rusting, one-trick economy, so it is music to his ears when U.S. officials put Russia in the same league as China. And there is nothing strategic about pushing China and Russia, historical adversaries, closer together.
Tough-sounding public statements aimed at China can also make Beijing appear more powerful. In April, as the Trump administration was preparing to withdraw from the World Health Organization (WHO), National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said, “China spends about $40 million dollars on the WHO, about one-tenth of what the U.S. spends, and yet the WHO has become a tool of Chinese propaganda.” Rather than complaining and congratulating China on doing more with less, the United States should compete more effectively behind the scenes and talk up its own successes publicly.
Critically, foreign audiences do not see themselves as pawns in a geopolitical chess match between China and the United States. They have their own aspirations and agency. Asking them to limit their options, particularly in emerging and developing economies, is likely to backfire. Last month, for example, Brazil’s four largest telecom companies declined to meet with U.S. officials, who have been publicly pressing to exclude Huawei from their networks. “We should be able to freely make our best financial decisions,” an industry source explained.
To compete more effectively with China in third markets, the United States should move from a security mindset that emphasizes risks toward an economic mindset that advertises benefits. When you test drive a car, for example, the dealership does not sell you on the shortcomings of competing brands. They emphasize the benefits of the car you are testing. The United States is now making more financing available to incentivize countries to adopt secure 5G equipment. But U.S. officials are still talking about the risks of Chinese equipment and lending rather than the benefits of alternatives.
The messenger matters as well. In addition to harnessing the United States’ diversity, the Biden-Harris team can empower mayors and governors in their outreach abroad. Most states already have overseas trade offices, and tapping local officials has the dual benefit of building domestic support at home and engaging pragmatically with foreign audiences. Not every foreign engagement will be appropriate, but the secretary of state may create more opportunities by thinking like the “secretary of states and cities.”
“America is back” is only an opening line, but it has within it a calm sense of confidence that should infuse the messages that follow. Doing so will provide a clean break from Twitter tantrums and draw a favorable contrast with China’s increasingly sharp and insecure-sounding public diplomacy. As the Biden-Harris team transitions from the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governing, among their biggest opportunities is reintroducing America to the world.
Source; Center for International Studies
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