David Lindsay: I didn’t like the beginning of this piece, but it got better and better. Obama announced that on his watch, the US would not lead the world, but lead from behind. Biden is sounding very eager to return to world leadership, and it doesn’t sound right, and raises a few red flags. Peter Beinart calls for solidarity and team work, rather than follow the leader. It would be a nice rebranding of Lead from behind.
“. . . Mr. Biden has offered two justifications for why America deserves this privileged role. The first is hereditary: “For 70 years,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs, “the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules” that “advance collective security and prosperity.” In other words, America should lead the world now because it has done so effectively in the past.
Between 1945 and 1989, according to Dov H. Levin’s book “Meddling in the Ballot Box,” the United States interfered in foreign elections 63 times. So Mr. Biden’s cheery history of American Cold War leadership leaves a lot out. But even if you romanticize the post-World War II era, it is long gone.
Seventy years ago, as James Goldgeier and Bruce W. Jentleson recently noted, the United States accounted for roughly half of the world’s gross domestic product. It now accounts for just over one-seventh. Collectively, the European Union’s G.D.P., adjusted for purchasing power parity, is almost as large as the United States’. China’s is already larger, and the coronavirus pandemic is likely to only widen the gap. The phrase “leadership” assumes a power hierarchy that, at least economically, no longer exists.
Mr. Biden’s second justification is moral. As he wrote in 2017, “other nations follow our lead because they know that America does not simply protect its own interests, but tries to advance the aspirations of all.” But it’s hard to survey America’s behavior in recent decades and glean some special commitment to global welfare. According to a study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, America’s post-9/11 wars have displaced 37 million people. And even before Donald Trump entered the White House, the United States had refused to ratify international treaties that ban land mines, cluster bombs and nuclear tests, regulate the global sale of arms, protect the oceans, enable prosecution of genocide and war crimes, and safeguard the rights of women, children and people with disabilities. Most countries on earth have ratified all or nearly all of these agreements. No other nation has spurned every single one.
Mr. Trump has added to this litany of noncompliance by withdrawing the United States from the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization, the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Treaty on Open Skies and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This isn’t the record of a country that has earned the right to global leadership. It’s the record of a country that should work on global membership first.” . . . .
“. . . . It’s not ordinary Americans who believe the United States must “sit at the head of the table,” as Mr. Biden said last week. It is foreign-policy elites, who often slander public opposition to American primacy as isolationism. But there is a dissident foreign-policy tradition, often championed by those at the forefront of America’s domestic struggles for justice. In his 1967 speech opposing the Vietnam War, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called the United States government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” Such a government, he insisted, should not pretend “it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them.” Rather than seeking to dominate the world, Dr. King argued, the United States should show “solidarity” with it: first, by curbing its own contributions to global misery and second, by joining with others to battle “poverty, insecurity and injustice.”
The Biden team should make solidarity — not leadership — its watchword for approaching the world. In so doing, it would acknowledge that while the United States can do much to help other nations, its first obligation — especially after the horrors of the Trump era — is to stop doing harm.”