As the world’s great power, America ends up having to deal with all its problems, from North Korea to the war in Ethiopia and, more directly, the instability in Latin America that is driving columns of migrants up to the border with Mexico. However, it is the intensifying conflicts with China, Russia and Iran that are likeliest to test Mr Biden’s mettle. It is tempting to see them as signs of America’s decline. Are the trio challenging America’s resolve after his debacle in Afghanistan? A senior White House official rejects the suggestion: all three are acting out of “fundamental dynamics” that predate Mr Biden’s election. China and Russia are motivated by irredentism, fearing that Taiwan and Ukraine respectively are slipping away (largely because of their own bullying). Iran is exploiting the breach Mr Trump created when he abrogated Mr Obama’s nuclear deal in 2018.
Mr Biden has been trying to quieten things through diplomacy. At a video-conference summit on December 7th, he will warn Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, against invading Ukraine. Last month, during a similar encounter with Xi Jinping, China’s president, Mr Biden said it was essential to “ensure that the competition between our countries does not veer into conflict, whether intended or unintended”. Meanwhile, in Vienna, American and Iranian diplomats have resumed nuclear negotiations after a five-month hiatus.
Richard Fontaine, head of the Centre for a New American Security, a think-tank whose alumni occupy some prominent positions in the Biden administration, says opinion among foreign-policy experts is broadly split by generation: younger scholars, disillusioned by years of fruitless war in Iraq and Afghanistan, are often sympathetic to the idea of restraint. Any zeal to export democracy has abated. “There is a big disillusionment with the missionary role,” he notes. “They say, ‘after Trump, the Capitol riots and covid, are we really going to tout our model?’” The restrainers’ arguments have been seeping into Washington’s discourse—both among doves who want to reduce America’s commitments globally, and among China hawks who want America to do less in the Middle East and Europe the better to direct attention and resources to Asia and the Pacific.
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