During his trip to Europe over the next week, Joe Biden can pronounce all he wants that "America is back." But his hosts will know it might not be true.
Over the past 20 years, the United States has undermined its own global leadership by inconstancy. We launched a war over the strong objections of our most important NATO allies; then we actively sought to mend the resulting strained ties; then we insulted these same allies to their faces, pulled out of multilateral institutions, and threatened to walk away from NATO altogether; and now we're reaffirming our commitment to the organization and multilateralism. We've also joined, withdrawn from, and rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement — and spent years negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, pulled out of it, and are now trying to revive it.
This is the behavior of a country deeply and sharply divided about how to comport itself in the world, lurching haphazardly, from one president to the next, between conflicting policy stances, temperaments, and geostrategic approaches. Given this capriciousness, our allies are bound to remain wary, and for good reason. They will know that, no matter what assurances Biden offers, promises and priorities laid out now could well end up shredded on January 20, 2025. In the wild oscillations between Republican and Democratic administrations since September 11, 2001, we've demonstrated in innumerable ways that we're an unreliable partner.
That doesn't mean we won't be able to move forward on some fronts with our allies on matters of common interest. Conversations are bound to continue on climate, Iran, checking Russia's ambitions in Eastern and Central Europe, and the liberal international order's greatest foreign policy challenge of all: how to respond with resolution and prudence to China's continued rise as a global power. But lurking in the background at all times will be an awareness that, regardless of where the conversations lead, the United States could change its mind and shift directions again a few years down the road.
As long as we remain a military and economic powerhouse, we will continue to have a strong influence on the world. But leadership? That requires a steadiness and dependability we've lacked for two decades now. The damage has been done, and Biden won't be able to reverse it.