UCL News


Opinion: Biden, the G-7 and the limits of multilateralism

11 June 2021

President Biden’s election victory led many to hope for meaningful progress on international issues, but there are multiple reasons why expectations should be tempered, say Dr Thomas Gift and Dr Julie Norman (Both UCL Centre on US Politics).

Dr Thomas Gift, Dr Julie Norman

When Joe Biden entered the White House, he declared that “America is back.” Many in the international community expressed relief, predicting the new U.S. president would be a return to normalcy, a committed ally of Atlanticism — and, most importantly, an antidote to four turbulent years of Donald Trump.

Nearly five months on, with the world’s eyes cast this week on Cornwall, England, site of the G-7 summit, what will foreign leaders see when they meet face-to-face with Biden? And what does it portend for achieving meaningful progress on an international agenda?

Three facts offer cause for tempered expectations.

Biden is governing as a domestic, not a foreign policy, president

Biden has pursued a number of agenda items on the world stage. Since becoming president, he’s notably rejoined the Paris climate accord, extended the START treaty with Russia and withdrawn troops from Afghanistan.

Yet make no mistake: Biden’s top priorities lie within America’s borders. Before being elected, Biden promised that he wouldn’t “enter into any new trade agreements until…[the U.S. had] made major investments here at home.” So far, Biden is sticking to his word — and, if anything, being much more aggressive on his domestic agenda than many expected.

Biden has championed three major bills out of the gates, all geared toward domestic priorities: The $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package, which passed in March, as well as the proposed $2.0 trillion American Jobs Plan and $1.8 trillion American Families Plan.

Even one of Biden’s signature international priorities – a global minimum corporate tax, on which G-7 finance ministers have made substantial progress in recent days – is oriented toward a domestic goal: ensuring that the administration can raise taxes to foot the bill for new infrastructure, without depressing U.S. economic competitiveness.

Biden touts multilateralism and the imperative of working with allies on areas of shared concern. Although the values of diplomacy are real, the international community should realize that Biden’s foreign policy aims take a backseat to what he wants to accomplish at home.

Biden is constrained by polarized interests in Washington

U.S. presidents have more latitude to make decisions on foreign policy without the consent of Congress. Regardless, Biden clearly hasn’t yet fixed polarization in the U.S., and partisan intransigence will still constrain how hard he can press on his agenda abroad.

There is some bipartisan acknowledgement of the need to counter China. Yet disagreements remain on the value of the trade war, how aggressively the U.S. should pressure Beijing on human rights and the extent to which China poses a security threat. Additionally, the parties remain divided on many of Biden’s other foreign policy priorities, including climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and immigration.

Biden has also faced criticism from within his party for high-profile foreign policy decisions regarding Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine. These intra-party divisions should make foreign leaders skeptical of how assertively Biden will pursue international priorities given scarce political capital.

Against this backdrop, the fractured state of American politics has some allies rightly worried that U.S. foreign policy could shift quickly again after 2024, especially with Trump still dominating the Republican Party. That could short-circuit compromises now that require long-term commitments from allies. 

The U.S. and its allies don’t see eye-to-eye on a litany of issues

Biden has underscored the need for cooperation on pressing issues such as global vaccine rollouts, taxes and countering rising authoritarianism. While these are shared concerns throughout the West, there’s no consensus on how to address them. 

For example, while all U.S. allies see global vaccine distribution as a priority, some European leaders were frustrated by Biden’s decision to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines, especially as the move came without warning or consultation.

An international tax agreement also isn’t a done deal. G-7 finance ministers have indicated support for a 15 percent global minimum corporate tax, but EU countries that have benefited as low tax havens will be a tougher sell and could veto the bloc’s implementation.

Moreover, Biden has framed much of his foreign policy as bolstering democratic values to counter rising authoritarian threats. But pursuing policies based on such a sharp dichotomy may prove complicated for European allies, who are more dependent than the U.S. on Beijing and Moscow for trade and energy. 

Foreign policies need not be uniform, and variation can create opportunities for different types of leverage – ranging from sanctions to incentives – to manage mutual threats. But Biden and his G-7 counterparts should use the upcoming summit to move past democratic sloganeering and work carefully to ensure their foreign policy approaches are complementary — or, at least, not contradictory.

Despite the globalist rhetoric, Biden may find that a more attenuated multilateralism is in the best interests of both the U.S. and European allies. While U.S. leadership is still valued, Biden will be meeting an EU increasingly interested in “strategic autonomy,” a UK looking to redefine itself as “Global Britain” and G-7 states grappling with rising nationalism. 

Biden’s own stated aim of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” however aspirational, reflects self-awareness that international priorities need to deliver for voters at home.

The G-7 and Biden’s subsequent meetings with NATO and the EU will be important for resetting the tone of international relations. But transformational foreign policies will still be constrained by domestic politics and national interests.

This article originally appeared in The Hill on 10 June 2021.



(l-r): Dr Thomas Gift, Dr Julie Norman