Woody Allen once said, “Eighty percent of success happens.” No piece of advice is more important to President-elect Joe Biden as he maps out his strategy to regain lost ground and US influence in the world.
The United States’ relative global retreat trend predates the Trump administration, but has accelerated over the past four years. The Biden administration has made re-energizing the common cause alongside its global partners and allies one of its top priorities. Reversing current trends, however, must begin with understanding where the US “no-shows” have been most significant.
This week’s announcement of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would be a good place to start. China stood at the center – and the United States watched from afar – of the world’s largest multilateral trade deal ever. It brings together countries that represent around 30% of the world’s economic production and population.
The deal is a fitting bookend for a Trump administration that in its early days withdrew from negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership deal that would have sealed America’s trade ties with 11 other Asian economies – stealing a march on China. Instead, this agreement was made between these countries, but without the United States. The Biden administration should start by investigating whether there is a fast track path to joining this group. Yet the phenomenon of the relative withdrawal of the United States, known by some scholars as the “world without the United States”, goes far beyond trade. Last week, for example, the United States and Europe were left out looking at Russia negotiated an agreement ending six weeks of bloody conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Whatever the vision of the deal, and Armenians seem to have lost the most as it stands, what struck international diplomats the most was the central and unchallenged role of President Vladimir Putin. Turkey was the only major country involved, but it was not a signatory to the agreement and is not mentioned in the agreement. That said, Ankara’s military and diplomatic support contributed to Azerbaijan’s victory.
Putin’s message to Europe and the world was clear in a time of American political transition and distraction: the United States is no longer a deciding factor in “his region.”
“Missing this opportunity and giving Moscow free rein at the end of the war means that Russia now has military bases on the territory of the three republics of the South Caucasus,” written Neil Hauer, Canadian journalist and analyst working in the southern caucuses. “Any American engagement with Karabakh (under a Biden administration) will therefore now start firmly on the rear foot, indebted to this unfavorable reality on the ground.”
American diplomats who have invested their careers in the democratic and peaceful development of countries bordering Russia note the stark contrast between the decline in American influence today and Washington’s central role 25 years ago today. hui in the negotiation of the Dayton accords which ended the Bosnian war.
Many Americans can congratulate themselves on Washington’s less involvement in such distant conflicts, even if they do not involve American troops. However, the impression that remains among allies and adversaries around the world is that Washington has quietly accepted a diminished global role that remains of uncertain form and ambition.
They point to the recent Abraham’s accords, whereby the UAE and Bahrain entered into peace agreements with Israel, to highlight how Washington can still shape a better future when it wants to. However, even there, Middle Eastern parties have come forward in part as a security blanket against growing concerns about the reduced US presence.
There is a long list of places the partners will want the Biden administration to reaffirm American influence. The Biden administration on inauguration day is likely to join the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization, but it will move forward on other fronts as well.
First, U.S. partners will be careful to see if President Biden works more closely in multilateral settings such as the G-7 and G-20 to better manage the global common cause in response to Covid-19, to the distribution vaccines and ongoing economic shocks. They point to how America reacted to the 2008-2009 global financial crisis as an example of such leadership.
They will also be watching to see how quickly and successfully the United States re-engages in multilateral organizations like the United Nations. Whatever Americans think of the UN’s performance, the US disengagement has left the door open for China fill the best positions through a number of the most influential United Nations agencies. China now heads four of the 15 UN agencies and specialized groups that run the organization’s machinery. No other country has more than one.
The most important to tackle, but also the most politically difficult, will be tackling China’s global economic and trade gains such as those that this week’s RCEP agreement signifies.
Nowhere could the United States gain more ground more quickly than by concluding trade and investment agreements with its European and Asian partners, whether by joining current agreements or forging new ones.
What RCEP shows is that China and some of Washington’s closest regional partners believe the quickest route to greater prosperity is through trade and liberalized economic relations. The deal is should add $ 209 billion in global revenues and $ 500 billion in global trade by 2030.
That said, Democratic and Republican members of Congress and their constituencies have been wary of the kind of deals that are most crucial to dealing with China’s rise to power.
Manfred Weber, leader of the European People’s Party, the largest constituency in the European Parliament, Told the South China Morning Post says the new Asia-Pacific trade deal should be a “wake-up call” to the transatlantic common cause.
“We need a reunification of the so-called western world,” he said, “now with Joe Biden as a constructive partner, to face this challenge from China. This is the key issue for the decade to come. ”
Going back to Woody Allen, maybe 80% of success will manifest itself, but it’s the final 20% that will be decisive for the story. Can President-elect Biden galvanize European and Asian partners around a landmark deal to counter the growing influence of China and authoritarian capitalism? Or will US politics and disarray among global democracies block this crucial path to global relevance?
Frederick Kempe is a bestselling author, award-winning journalist and CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States’ most influential think tanks on world affairs. He worked at the Wall Street Journal for over 25 years as an overseas correspondent, deputy editor and senior editor of the newspaper’s European edition. His latest book – “Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the World’s Most Dangerous Place” – was a New York Times bestseller and has been published in over a dozen languages. Follow him on twitter @FredKempe and ssubscribe here at inflection points, his look every Saturday at the main stories and trends of the past week.
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