Legislative and regulatory

Multilateralism is back. But is it here to stay?

Key takeaways
Multilateralism has returned with Biden
The US rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organization on his first day as president.
Some US allies are skeptical
Could the effort toward multilateralism be undone in the next US election?

As a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised to return the United States to activism on the international stage, chiefly by reinvigorating America’s traditional alliances and rejoining multilateral organizations and agreements that the Trump administration had abandoned. Thus far, President Biden has kept his word. While allies of the US have largely welcomed the return to a leadership role, there remains some skepticism regarding the staying power of this new policy direction.

As President-elect, Biden started reaching out to world leaders beginning with traditional allies and treaty partners: Canada, France, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Australia, Japan, and South Korea were among his first calls.

On his first day in office, Biden signed an Executive Order rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, putting the United States back into the international fight against climate change. Delivering on another day-one priority, Biden also rejoined the World Health Organization and with it, pledged US support of COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access), the international effort to ensure that vaccines are available to low- and middle-income countries. A month later, Biden participated in a virtual summit with the other leaders of the G-7, giving him a platform to project US re-engagement on the world stage.

Early into his tenure as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken announced that the United States would rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council. While the council has come under intense criticism for its focus on Israel, and for including as members some nations that are viewed as serious human rights offenders, the view inside the administration is that the much needed reforms of the council are best made with the United States at the table.

Multilateralism is also evident in regional engagements by the president and other senior administration officials. For example, Biden participated in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, whose members include Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. While initially viewed with some uncertainty as a primarily regional security mechanism to contain China, the most recent meeting produced working groups on the COVID vaccine, critical technologies, and climate change.

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The recently held NATO Ministerial, which Blinken attended, gave the United States an opportunity to sign on to a restatement of America’s commitment to NATO, and particularly to Article V of the Washington Treaty, which commits all the treaty allies to mutual self-defense. This contrasts with former President Donald Trump, who only provided his public support for Article V after a political backlash over his refusal to do so initially.

While many of these meetings with other world leaders will happen routinely, Biden has laid out a new proposed Summit of Democracies to be held in late 2021. The agenda and participants have not been released, but administration officials have described the summit as an opportunity for democratic nations to form a common front to bolster newly emergent democracies as well as confront authoritarian regimes.

Domestic criticism of Biden’s approach centers around the complaint that multilateralism should be viewed as a tool and not elevated to a policy goal. There is also some skepticism among US allies that all this effort could be undone if the next US election installs a new president who rejects Biden’s multilateral approach. That skepticism is reflected in French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments that Europe should not solely rely on the US for its security, and in German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rejection of Biden transition team efforts to delay the EU-China commercial agreement that was signed in December of 2020. US allies want to see that the Biden administration can generate support for its policies in Congress before they will fully embrace the US return to a global leadership role. Given the huge partisan divide in Washington over virtually every domestic issue, foreign policy may offer a chance for bipartisanship and a restored role for the United States on the world stage.