The writer is CEO of the New America think-tank and an FT contributing editor
Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris, greeted Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election with the tweet: “Welcome back America!” Mr Biden has reciprocated in the same language, telling European leaders who called to congratulate him, “America is back. We’re going to be back in the game. It’s not America alone.”
Yet the world can be excused for wondering how long this internationalist America will remain on the world stage. After two close elections that have left an electorate deeply split between nationalists and internationalists, who can be sure how much any agreement with the US is now worth?
This problem is all the greater because it is hard to negotiate an international agreement, harder still to make it “binding” under international law and often almost impossible to then enshrine it domestically. (The US requires two-thirds of the Senate or a majority of both houses of Congress to do so.) Moreover, it is easy to exit such agreements. President Donald Trump withdrew the US from over a dozen of them, ranging from high-profile accords like the Paris agreement on climate change and the nuclear deal between Iran and global powers, to treaties and conventions governing nuclear weapons, diplomatic relations, open skies, refugees and humanitarian assistance.
Warm speeches, foreign summits and rejoining the World Health Organization and a few other international compacts won’t be enough to change the tide. A Biden administration would do better to redefine “engagement” — Barack Obama’s foreign policy watchword — and extend it far beyond government. The US has a wide array of philanthropies, businesses, civic organisations, universities and faith groups that are deeply embedded in global networks; this is a hallmark of the openness of US society and its diversity. If properly integrated with government initiatives to tackle global problems, these networks will be relatively impervious to the efforts of any future president to withdraw from the world.
President-elect Biden has already committed to rejoin the Paris agreement on his first day in office. But suppose he accompanied that with the simultaneous announcement of, say, a Biden-Bloomberg Climate Coalition. This would bring together the US government; the more than 7,000 members of the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy, an alliance helped by Bloomberg Philanthropies; as many of the companies in the US Business Roundtable as possible; and civic groups working on climate change.
Such a coalition would have to make specific, easily measurable commitments regarding emissions reductions and agree to monitoring. Members would also be encouraged to expand the coalition by reaching out to others in their global networks.
Mr Biden could undertake the same kind of diplomacy in global health. The Gates Foundation has already pioneered this approach with its creation of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, which brings together governments, international organisations, pharmaceutical companies and civic organisations. Google “Covax” and you will discover that it is one of three pillars of something called the Access to Covid-19 Tools Accelerator, launched by France, the WHO and the EU.
Covax itself is focused on equitable access to vaccines when they are developed. It is a partnership between the WHO, Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, another Gates initiative. The Trump administration refused to join Covax; Mr Biden could reverse that and work to create a genuine public-private health security alliance that draws on multiple resources and thus benefits from, but does not depend on, US government.
Such efforts will have to go far beyond announcements and convenings. Making global networks work requires a funded secretariat that manages the collaboration of so many actors. Their commitments have to be clear and monitored, and their impacts measured and reported — ideally with enough precision to attract impact capital. A Biden White House would also have to create an office and charge it to engage with all members of the coalition in the same way diplomats engage other states.
Expanding US engagement so that it draws on the full resources of US society and the opportunities created by this participatory approach to problem-solving would go some way towards anchoring US internationalism. It would also make a real difference in focusing global talent on issues that touch people’s lives far more than great power competition.