By Hiroyuki Akita, commentator
TOKYO — The U.S. will choose its next president in less than a week.
Even as pundits offer disparate prognostications for the Nov. 3 poll, one thing is clear: Even if former Vice President Joe Biden wins, the U.S. will not instantly reverse course to deepen its involvement in world affairs and reclaim global leadership.
It is important for other countries to face this reality and map their paths forward. A Biden win would on the surface greatly alter the messages Washington sends out to the world. It would return to the Paris Accord to help address climate change and rejoin the World Health Organization to combat the coronavirus pandemic. It will reiterate its commitment to international alliances.
A President Biden would undoubtedly announce all these steps on Jan. 20, his Inauguration Day, to tell the world that “the U.S. is back.”
But Washington will not be able to instantly regain the diplomatic and political power expected of the global leader. Facing a deep political divide within, the U.S. must first contend with domestic maladies that will take a long time to heal.
Top Biden camp operatives are fully aware of this. His diplomatic and national security advisers discretely communicated with those in European political circles and told them not to expect an immediate U.S. comeback.
Their message was this: The U.S. will be forced to allocate a huge amount of energy to deal with domestic issues, most importantly containing the pandemic and rescuing its economy. So instead of thinking about what the U.S. can do for your countries, please think about what your countries can do to facilitate a U.S. return to the global stage.
The U.S. has been engaged in combat in the Middle East and Afghanistan for two decades, in what can be considered the longest war in modern U.S. history. There is growing “war fatigue” among the American public.
A July survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 68% of respondents believe the U.S. should take an active part in international issues, down for the second year in a row.
Fifty-five percent believe that maintaining alliances is a very effective way to realize diplomatic goals, while 17% cited military intervention. On military assistance to other nations, 36%-47% of supporters of either the Republican or Democratic parties said such aid should be reduced.
And the U.S. continues to suffer from a rise in COVID-19 infections. More than 220,000 people have lost their lives so far, almost quadruple the American casualties in the Vietnam War.
Measures to deal with the pandemic have caused the fiscal deficit to balloon to levels not seen after World War II, and there is a huge gap between the rich and poor. The top 1% hold roughly half of all U.S. stock and mutual fund assets.
Larry Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, says that the U.S. has never been as divided as it is now with the exception of the Civil War. The U.S. cannot take a global leadership role unless this division is healed and the nation is united. This could take not just years but more than a decade.
Other democratic countries would need to fill the opening left by the U.S. and help maintain order. The so-called middle-power members of the Group of Seven — Japan, the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and Canada — would be tasked with initially taking on that role.
Dealing with the lack of U.S. global leadership was a topic for debate at a recent online conference by the U.K.-Japan 21st Century Group, a gathering of lawmakers, academics, former diplomats and journalists from both countries.
Three points stood out in the seven-hour exchange of ideas. First, in the event of a Biden win, the world would be unwise to hold out excessive hopes or make sudden demands from the U.S. on foreign policy.
Second, involving the U.S. more deeply in the United Nations and other multilateral institutions will require reforms that convey their benefits to Washington as well. Third, middle powers must play a leading role in this effort.
On trade, Japan has sought to fill the vacuum left by the U.S. Tokyo has remained a steady advocate of multilateral frameworks, helping spearhead the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership after the Trump administration pulled out.
Security poses a greater challenge. The Indo-Pacific region is the stomping ground of nuclear-armed giants China, India, Russia and Pakistan. Tensions are rising around potential flashpoints including the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait.
One place to turn for clues on managing these risks is a set of recommendations published this week by Japan’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
The institute recommends upgrading the “Quad” talks by the U.S., Japan, India and Australia to the summit level, as well as bringing in the U.K. and other new partners. It also calls for an Indo-Pacific framework for missile control that covers the U.S., China, Russia, India and Pakistan.
While the latter proposal is arguably a high hurdle, it makes a meaningful contribution to a debate on security in Asia.
Yet such recommendations carry little weight unless Japan makes greater investments in defense. Without stable defensive capabilities for Japan, regional security will suffer.
Japan’s defense spending comes to only about 1% of its gross domestic product. Tokyo needs to aim for the NATO benchmark of 2% in the medium term.
A senior official at a Democrat-leaning U.S. think tank wonders how Japan would respond to a Biden initiative for a stronger alliance and whether Tokyo is ready to go to 2%.
Other U.S. allies are committing more money to their own defense. Australia plans to increase defense spending 40% over the next 10 years. South Korea aims to raise its defense budget to 3% of GDP from about 2.5% now, according to local media.
Washington’s unipolar moment in global affairs ended long ago. Now, the era when middle powers could sit back and rely on American leadership is over too.