President Joe Biden was absolutely correct when he said “the world is watching all of us today,” as he delivered his inaugural address Wednesday from the very spot where a mob stormed the Capitol two weeks before.
Biden’s message “to those beyond our borders” was that “America has been tested and we’ve come out stronger … We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. And we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
But beneath the warm — and relieved — congratulations that poured in to Biden from leaders of allied nations in Europe and Asia, lies an undercurrent of uncertainty that our government can fully emerge from its partisan paralysis. The Jan. 6 insurrection, and the Trump team’s disastrous failures with curbing COVID-19 and vaccine delivery only deepen these worries. In other words, they fear U.S. democracy has become broken — and incompetent.
So the most immediate foreign policy message Biden can send to convince allies America is back does not involve Iran or China or Russia. Rather, it requires the president to succeed in rallying bipartisan congressional support and management skills to deliver COVID-19 vaccine to much of the public over the next three months, proving our system can still work with the right leadership.
Controlling the pandemic would not only gain Biden credit at home, but would reburnish America’s image abroad.
To get a sense of how shaken Europeans have become about America’s capacity, let alone leadership, you need only check out a survey of 15,000 people in 11 European countries done by the European Council on Foreign Relations after Biden won the election but before Jan. 6.
“Americans have a new president but not a new country,” the survey concluded. “While most Europeans rejoiced at Joe Biden’s victory, they do not think he can help America make a comeback as the preeminent global leader.
It gets worse. Among the key findings:
Majorities in key member states believe that the U.S. political system is completely or somewhat broken. Thirty-two percent overall — and 53% of Germans — believe that, after electing Trump, Americans can’t be trusted not to choose “another Donald Trump” next time.
A majority believe China will be more powerful than the U.S. within a decade and would want their country to stay neutral in a conflict between the two superpowers.
And after witnessing America’s halting response to COVID-19 and domestic polarization — most poll respondents doubt Washington’s capacity to shape the world.
Of course, these doubts were magnified by the assault on the U.S. Capitol which shocked publics in allied countries (and delighted adversaries). The whole world could watch it live.
As Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, a leading expert on democratic systems around the world, said recently. “The world is very shaken with this drama and the sense it confers of American democracy … in crisis and chaos, after years of deepening polarization and the pathetic spectacle of the U.S. government in managing the pandemic and becoming the (global) epicenter.”
Indeed, many Americans don’t realize how much this perception of a broken America was strengthened even before Jan. 6, by the Trump administration’s COVID-19 failures. U.S. technological prowess has long been regarded as the gold standard internationally, so both allies and adversaries were startled to watch the Trump administration let the pandemic rip.
And the impressive U.S. success in vaccine development was overshadowed by the lack of a national plan for the rollout, leaving it entirely to states who don’t have the manpower or funds. Hospitalizations and deaths exploded in recent weeks, as the outgoing president ignored them.
Meantime, although the coronavirus resurged in Europe and Asia, many countries had done so well in flattening the curve that their relative numbers of fatalities and hospitalizations are nowhere near the out-of-control figures in the United States.
Yet, for various reasons, most (not all) of America’s allies are also facing slow vaccine rollouts, so the Biden team has a chance to resurrect the U.S. reputation as a leader in science and competence. Unfortunately, it will have to create a vaccine distribution plan from scratch since Trump left none behind.
Biden has laid out a national COVID-19 strategy in recent days, offering federal help to create mass vaccination sites, including in stadiums, gyms and community centers, while building a public health workforce to do the jabs. National guardsmen would also be used. His goal is to vaccinate 100 million in 100 days.
His vaccine plan would also make greater use of the Defense Production Act to expedite vaccine production, along with glass vials, stoppers and syringes. And there would be regular briefings, and massive outreach, including to minority neighborhoods, to try to instill trust in the vaccine.
But none of this can happen without bipartisan support for the necessary funding — and without cooperation from GOP officials who control distribution within states.
We will soon see if the GOP finally recognizes that controlling COVID-19 is a national security requirement, to convince a skeptical world that U.S. democracy can still meet the test.