President Joe Biden pledged an “America is back” foreign policy that would get the United States out of forever wars, renew U.S. moral authority through closer relations with allies and support for democracy, and revive economic leadership.
In many ways, it was a soft-power vision of foreign policy.
But over President Biden’s first year in office, China’s Xi Jinping and more recently Russia’s Vladimir Putin have been busy reminding the U.S. that the 21st-century world is one of big-power competition.
After a post-Cold War era of globalization, China’s ratcheted-up pressure on Taiwan and Russia’s moves against Ukraine and efforts to reconstitute in some form the security blanket of the Soviet Union are reviving 19th-century big-power notions like “spheres of influence” – once thought by some to have been relegated to history.
The questions now are whether Mr. Biden’s soft-power foreign policy can adapt to the realities of the world as it is, and whether the tools his administration has largely turned to so far for dealing with Russia and China – like sanctions – are the right ones.
“Big-power politics is back in a big way. It’s not a reality President Biden can wish away or ignore,” says Michael Desch, a professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame and founding director of the university’s International Security Center. “But a year into his presidency and as he confronts these two very difficult and fraught situations, I see both ways in which his administration is acknowledging this big-power world they’ve entered – and ways they still have not.”