When members of Joe Biden’s incoming foreign policy team chant their mantra — policies will be anchored in “multilateralism” and based on respect for allies — their objects of desire are the United Nations and Western Europe.
Or do I repeat myself?
In the eyes of traditional national security types, the EU (or at least some members of the now-Britain-less union) and the UN (or at least its “good” parts) are one and the same. For Foggy Bottom traditionalists, allying with “Old Europe” while using the United Nations as a major tool of foreign policy is a sign of maturity, tact, and good world-citizenship.
How that delights their favored allies. “There are big hopes that the trans Atlantic alliance will be strengthened” once Mr. Biden takes the helm, says the European Union envoy to the UN, Olof Skoog of Sweden.
On this side of the Atlantic, America’s next permanent representative in Turtle Bay, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told State Department officials that “America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back.” That Ms. Thomas-Greenfield was included in Mr. Biden’s first round of cabinet nominees was in itself widely seen as a signal of the central role the world body will play in his foreign policy.
American leadership means “diplomacy,” which at times means deferring to Turtle Bay: That was the winning foreign policy formula during President Obama’s tenure, when Ms. Thomas-Greenfield served at the State Department. Yes, that formula was reversed, even ridiculed, in the last four years under President Trump.
Mr. Obama’s top foreign policy feat, the Iran deal, was never submitted for ratification by the Senate (it was overwhelmingly opposed by both houses of Congress). Instead it was etched in international law as a Security Council resolution. This summer Mr. Trump, against the wishes of the other 14 council members, effectively declared that resolution null and void.
Similarly, Mr. Obama never asked the Senate to ratify the Paris Accord on climate emissions, which was endorsed by the UN and is strongly favored by EU members. It’s hard to imagine that he could have won ratification for the climate pact, which would cost America a fortune — one reason that Mr. Trump unceremoniously ended America’s participation.
Now European diplomats are ecstatic because Mr. Biden is widely predicted to reverse such decisions. In conversations they express their hope that next year America will also rejoin the World Health Organization, which Mr. Trump quit early in the pandemic over favoritism toward China displayed by its director, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Also, Mr. Trump ended America’s financing of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees. UNRWA is a 70-year old anomaly that, its detractors argue, exacerbates, rather than resolves, the plight of stateless descendants of Arabs who fled mandatory Palestine in 1948. By contrast, American foreign policy traditionalists, and most European Union members, insist America must refinance the agency, which keeps declaring a dire shortage of funds.
Another instant that has created a major trans-Atlantic rift at Turtle Bay involves America’s uneasy alliance with top human rights violators over women and reproductive issues. Mr. Trump has cut funds for the UN Population Fund, arguing it “supports, or participates” in “coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.”
Now European diplomats anticipate that, in General Assembly votes and funding, a Biden administration will be more favorable to what UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, called, in a tweet, “Women’s rights,” including “those related to sexual and reproductive health.”
A word of caution, though: the European Union is far from united. France and Germany will be hard-pressed to find agreement over that issue with Poland and Hungary, which have legislated strong abortion-restricting laws in recent years. Similarly, while Europeans generally favor the Iran deal, they are split over which of its parts to renegotiate once — or is it if? — America rejoins it.
The EU, which was always more divided than united over foreign policy, is no longer the same union it was during the Obama-Biden administration. Most significantly, it has because of Brexit been shorn of one of its pillars. Also, some of its member countries have elected populist-right governments that lean toward nationalism, rather than globalism.
So sure, Mr. Biden instinctively favors the kind of diplomacy that for decades was all the rage among members of the smart set. But if he and like-minded policy planners in Europe hope for a carbon copy of the Obama-era kumbaya moments, they’re likely to find themselves out of tune with the times.