Zdravko Popov: US returns to the well-trodden path of liberalism

Published by Public Policy Institute on

President Biden’s slogan America is Back suggests that the US is strong when it shares global leadership with its partners 

In his first days in office, US President Joe Biden got down to the business of restoring the status quo that had been dismantled by Donald Trump’s stint in the White House. His strategic message America is Back, both for the domestic audience and the world, contains a number of suggestions, but I think the main one is that the US had been on a very clear and successful path before it was derailed in the past four years by the poor and downright harmful governance of the previous US president. It also means a course correction back to the familiar liberal paradigm and approach to international relations, which says that America is strong when it shares its global leadership with his partners, says Zdravko Popov, professor of political philosophy, in an interview to EUROPOST.

Mr Popov, President Joe Biden promised a new era in US foreign policy. What are the first steps of his administration indicating? What policies are being redefined, what US interests are being prioritised?

Let me answer those questions through Joe Biden’s America is Back strategic message, which is meant both for the domestic audience and the world. It contains a number of suggestions, but I think the main one is that the US had been on a very clear and successful path before it was derailed in the past four years by the poor and downright harmful governance of Donald Trump. It implies that under Joe Biden the country will return to that well-trodden path. In other words, a return to the normalcy of the presidency terms of Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. By attending Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, the three former presidents projected a sense of continuity.

In his very first days in office, Biden got down to the business of restoring the status quo that had been dismantled by Donald Trump’s stint in the White House. The new president signed executive orders for rejoining the World Health Organisation and the Paris Climate Agreement, adhering to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), keeping the US-South Korea defence alliance in place, looking into a possible return to the Iran nuclear deal, scrapping many of Trump’s restrictive policies on immigration, breathing new life into NATO and actively supporting the EU.

America is Back means a course correction back to the familiar liberal paradigm and approach to international relations, which says that America is strong when it shares its global leadership with partners such as the EU, Canada, the UK, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Israel, and constantly seeks to expand its partnerships with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. To the US, being a global leader means not only conflict management around the world, but stability and security management around the world as well. This suggests staying engaged with the rest of the world – in politics, economics and the military – no matter the price tag, instead of turning inward and demanding that the rest of the world does things that are solely in your favour (as Trump did).

International organisations are crucial instruments of liberal philosophy in international relations and of shared global leadership in international security. In that sense, the US is back in the UN, WTO, WHO, NATO, OSCE, ASEAN and many other organisations underestimated or otherwise neglected by Donald Trump and his administration. For Biden and the Democratic Party, these organisations are of key importance to the country’s global leadership position. In the now normalised landscape, multilateral diplomacy becomes a bigger priority for the US than traditional bilateral diplomacy. This, in turn, brings the role of universal liberal values and principles to the forefront as diplomatic means to forge agreements, exercise influence and defend actions in pursuing US interests. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the outset of his term: “Human rights are back at the centre of American foreign policy” and adding that “Freedom and Dignity are America’s most sacred values”.

The US wants to “repair and revitalise” its partnership with European allies, as Biden put it on a call with EC President Ursula von der Leyen. The two agreed to coordinate on “issues of shared interest”, including policies on China and Russia. Do you believe that Washington and Brussels see this rapprochement similarly?

To the US, Europe (think the EU and NATO) is at the core of strategic transatlantic cooperation and partnership. In that sense, their relations are an example of shared leadership. Biden’s remark about the US repairing and revitalising its alliance with Europe is the America is Back slogan put into action.

“We are revitalising our alliances,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on a videoconference call with EU foreign ministers in March. He clearly indicated a return to the US-EU agenda and cooperation on global, foreign policy and security issues such as combating the pandemic and climate change and promoting democratic values across the world.

Biden joined the 25 March European Council meeting virtually to reiterate his secretary of state’s position: together in the name of global security, together in combating the raging pandemic, tackling climate change and working to deepen economic ties and protect and promote democracy. “Democracies rather than autocracies (should) set the rules of the road,” Biden said. He also called for coordinated stances on China, Russia, Turkey, Iran, Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. “A strong EU is in the US interest,” he said in probably the most significant sentence of his speech. European Council President Charles Michel greeted Biden with an emotional “America is Back. And we are happy you are back.”

Do you anticipate the US lifting Trump’s tariffs on European goods, which have proven most damaging to EU-US relations?

I am certain that the Trump administration’s tariffs on European goods and services, which turned many producers and suppliers in the EU (especially Germany) against the US, will be lifted. We are also seeing the beginnings of a lengthy negotiation and coordination of EU and US policies regarding Russia and China, and the Americans will likely insist that the Europeans adopt their attitudes towards and doctrines on Russia and China as foundational and mapping the way.

What did we learn from the NATO summit in Brussels at the end of March and Blinken’s conversations with European leaders?

First, it should be noted that President Biden took part in the virtual Munich Security Conference, on 19 February, where he underscored that the US will “keep faith with Article 5” of the North Atlantic Treaty and “work in lockstep” with its European allies to meet every challenge. He noted Europe’s “growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defence”. The US president also announced that he was halting the Trump-ordered withdrawal of American troops from Germany. He said that the European democracy must be protected against the rising authoritarian forces.

Despite the agreements and friendly tone that marked this conference, analysts pointed out the existing differences between Biden and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on the strategic autonomy of the EU and European sovereignty as well as in some nuances regarding Russia and China. Those differences were further highlighted by Boris Johnson’s and Angela Merkel’s remarks.

When it comes to global and regional security, NATO remains among the most important tools of US foreign policy, just as much as during the Cold War. At the NATO foreign ministers summit in Brussels, 23-24 March, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg first focused their attention on the new NATO 2030 initiative. It is designed to not only restore the alliance to its pre-Trump state, but make it stronger and more adaptable to the new strategic realities. And those inarguably are related to Chinese and Russian interests, expansions and ambitions for global roles and leadership positions; to the threats of terrorism, hybrid warfare, disinformation, cyberattacks, inadequate control on arms proliferation, etc.

On Turkey, Blinken was adamant that NATO has a strong interest in keeping Ankara anchored in the alliance. He hearkened back to Biden’s expressed opinion that the Nord Stream 2 project is “a bad idea, bad for Europe, bad for the US”, that the pipeline makes European energy security problematic, undermines the interests of Poland, Ukraine and other close partners and allies, and hands Russia too many strategic advantages.

Washington continues to paint Russia in a negative light. We all know Biden’s response to a reporter’s question whether Putin is a killer and his subsequent remark that Putin will pay a price. Are the goals of the new US administration’s strategy against its Cold War enemy clear?

It would appear that the US is going back to a dynamic of fierce clashing with Russia, reminiscent of the Cold War era. Obviously, global leadership comes with resistance, confrontation and overcoming challenges. If we use the theory of Carl Schmitt, who puts “the enemy” – one who threatens your very existence as a way of life, leadership, future – at the centre of every policy, Russia has once again been identified as an “enemy”, just as it was in the era of the ideologically polarised world.

Soon after Vladimir Putin rose to power, Russia asserted its ambition to regain its USSR-era status of a global actor involved in deciding the world order, to restore its influence in certain regions. Ever since then, the US and Russia have been on a collision course.

Joe Biden began his presidential term with a clear-cut position on Russia, and no qualifications. The US will never accept the annexation of Crimea and views Ukraine as the victim of a Russian act of aggression. To the US, Russia is an enemy of western democracies, NATO and the EU. In his now infamous ABC News interview, Biden agreed that Putin could be described as a killer and vowed that he will pay a price for Russia’s interference in the 2020 US presidential elections on Trump’s side and for Russian cyberattacks on American companies and government agencies. Biden has ordered a complete ban on arms trade with Russia and has updated lists of Russian goods blocked from being imported into the US. He has also banned individuals close to Putin from entering the US. Let me remind that the country expulsed 35 Russian diplomats, sanctioned dozens of Russian civilians and companies and shut down two Russian compounds during Barack Obama’s two terms, in which Joe Biden served as vice-president.

Biden is adamant that he stands firmly against dividing the world into “spheres of influence” (a policy that Trump was willing to allow in dealing with Russia). I see the potential for a fierce battle between the US and Russia in the fields of rearmament, the race for Space, and competition for the Arctic, for natural resources and for dominance in various parts of the world. The question of whether shared leadership between the US and Europe will also mean shared opposition to Russia as an “enemy” remains without a definitive answer. Macron and Merkel are still speaking of dialogue and cooperation with Russia.

The US proclaimed China America’s “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century”. Does Washington have any aspirations of cooperation with such a powerful actor?

A month into his term, Antony Blinken said in a speech before Department of State diplomats that China is America’s “biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century”, adding that it is “the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system, all the rules, values and relationships that make the world work the way we want it to”. We have already seen stern words and sanctions against Chinese companies and officials.

At first glance, the stand towards China seems the same as the one towards Russia. Is it safe then to assume that the US sees China as an “enemy” as well? Likely not. Behind the seeming confrontation are signs of a different attitude. Whereas Russia is portrayed as an “enemy”, China is more of a “rival” – America’s biggest geopolitical rival for global leadership due to its comparable power and influence. This is why the US approach to China is described by Blinken as a mixture of “competition when healthy, cooperation when possible, and antagonism when needed”. Let us not forget that many American companies operate on Chinese territory and not a small number of them supported the Democratic Party’s campaign and the election of Joe Biden as president. It is obvious that they are indirectly influencing the American government’s complex foreign policy approach to China. Regardless of which one of its elements takes precedence for Biden’s administration at any given moment, the approach should be carried out from a position of strength (inherited from Trump, by the way).

This has been made evident by the first talks between the US and China in Anchorage, Alaska, held at the level of foreign ministers and national security advisors. The two delegations went into those meetings with hardline positions on Hong Kong and Taiwan; the human rights of the Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in China; South China Sea; cybercrimes, etc. Nevertheless, they came out of those conversations with a productive agreement on climate change policies and projects.

Following Biden’s election win, the Chinese leadership officially called him “a new window of hope” for the development of Sino-American relations. Yet, observers fully expect there to be fierce competition between the two nations in the areas of high-tech, artificial intelligence, energy, trade, finance, warfare and Space colonisation. The two rivals have already mounted campaigns to win over Europe, while the US is also striving to make up ground it lost to China in Africa and Latin America.

Strained US relations with the West are obviously bringing Moscow and Beijing closer together, as was indicated by the meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers in the Chinese city of Guilin. What does those two military powers joining forces mean for the West?

At their 7 March meeting, the foreign ministers of China and Russia – Wang Yi and Sergei Lavrov – discussed a model for mutual support against what they see as a policy of interventionism employed by the US and the West when it comes to their countries. Wang Yi explained that this is a “model of strategic mutual trust, of staunch support in protecting our key interests”. He also said that the two nations must join forces against the colour revolutions and fight any piece of disinformation.

Both Beijing and Moscow are convinced that the revolutions in Eastern Europe were instigated by the West and that those same tactics can be seen in Asia. In the eyes of China and Russia, this constitutes blatant interference in the domestic affairs of many countries and should be met with strong resistance. Both nations believe that democratic principles and human rights are being used as the main instruments of such interference. The sanctions imposed by the US and Europe on Chinese and Russian politicians, businessmen and companies supposedly betrays this weaponisation of values and principles. Beijing and Moscow think the end goal is regime change – toppling the legitimately elected government of a particular country and installing pro-western people in office.

China and Russia believe that the US is taking aggressive actions, both overt and covert, against their global projects One Belt One Road and Look East. This is why they are calling for an enhanced role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a form of collective protection for its member states.

Are Beijing and Moscow coming together on various fronts to take a stand against the US? Gen. Xu Qiliang, the second in command of the Chinese military, recently said that China must prepare for a potential war with the US. There is tension and anxiety in the US too. On 9 March the US Senate heard a report by Admiral Philip Davidson, which projects that China will displace the US as world leader by 2050, including in military capabilities, and calls for such an outcome to be prevented. The report even forecasts that China will carry out a military intervention in Taiwan within the next six years.

We truly live in a multipolar world. We have powerful global actors like the US, China and Russia, which are dictating the essence, dynamics and confrontations of the modern era. But let us not forget or overlook other hubs of power and influence such as Europe, the Arab world, India, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Australia and Japan. No one would benefit from a revival of the concept of an East-West dividing line. Of course, countries will continue to enter into alliances depending on their interests and needs, whilst competing on others. But all political actors on the international scene, be they big or small, invariably say they will rely on diplomacy as the means for resolving conflicts, disputes and disagreements. Because they know there would be no winners in a modern world war.


Assoc Prof Zdravko Popov, PhD, is a career diplomat who served as foreign policy adviser to the President of the Republic of Bulgaria (1990-1992) and special policy adviser to the Minister of Foreign Affairs (2002-2003). He is the founder and served as director of the Diplomatic Institute of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2003-2006), ambassador of Bulgaria in Czech Republic (2006-2010). His resume also includes positions as foreign affairs consultant to the Chairperson of the Bulgarian Parliament (2011) and vice-president and board member of the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria (1992-present). Since 2012 he has been editor-in-chief of Diplomacy Journal and teaching at Sofia University “St Kliment Ohridski” (academic courses on public diplomacy, security policy and European modernity). He is founder and president of the Public Policy Institute (2012-present). Popov earned his master’s degree in philosophy and psychology from Sofia University and went on to specialise in ancient philosophy and history of religions (Italy), foreign policy and diplomacy (US) and public policy (UK).