- - Wednesday, February 24, 2021

President Biden wants the world to know America is back, prepared to lead and committed to shared goals, multilateralism and diplomacy. All this could end worse than America First.

American foreign policy must operate at two levels. The existential threats to civilization — climate change, pandemics and nuclear proliferation. And East-West competition — Russia’s obsession with lost empire in former Soviet states, Europe and the Middle East, and China’s ambition to overtake America to impose an international order more friendly to its autocratic capitalism.

Mr. Biden’s work would be difficult but manageable if our allies and foes saw the imperatives for cooperation and points of conflict as we do but they don’t.

If China and Russia viewed proliferation as a genuine threat, Iran and North Korea by now would be subjected to severe enough multilateral sanctions to give up nuclear weapons ambitions or face regime change. Instead, Beijing and Moscow like those thorns in America’s side.

The Europeans would recognize the 2015 deal that froze Tehran’s weapons-making ambitions for only 10 years was never a solution and advocate the toughest sanctions possible to force its hand. Instead, they act as though negotiating with a terrorist regime would accomplish results with Mr. Biden’s participation that were not possible with President Obama.

China appears confident it can thrust upon the world one pandemic after another, use the resulting chaos to advance its timeline for gaining global economic dominance and manage whatever public health problems those may impose domestically, or it would be cooperating more earnestly with the WHO.

China simply won’t commit to net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 as have Europe, Japan and America with Mr. Biden. Instead, we can expect it to demand payment—preferential terms on trade, a blind eye to human rights abuses, militarization of the South Pacific and incursions on Taiwanese autonomy.

No solution to climate change is possible without India, but its sense of entitlement as a developing nation make net-zero by 2050 politically impossible without massive Western aid. Europe, given the state of its economy, can barely afford to finance its own energy transformation. Mr. Biden’s Middle Class First foreign policy would look a lot like President Trump’s America First if summonsed to truly underwrite the Third World. 

It seems the Chinese and Indians don’t believe they will burn up with the rest of us. But if climate change is truly an existential threat, then the Washington-Brussels axis should be angling for regime change in Beijing and radical political change in India.

Mr. Biden’s progressive wing and the moral relativists on the continent are too much vegetarians in a world of carnivores for that sort of talk.

This brings us to the more immediate issues — getting a better deal for American industry and workers in commercial relations with China, naval supremacy in the South Pacific and defending Taiwan.

Mr. Biden wants to combine forces with Western Europe and Japan to address Chinese mercantilism without entering into new trade agreements. This president’s economic advisers — like Jared Bernstein — appear all for the WTO, where nothing much useful happens, but view the Trans-Pacific Partnership, where a great deal is possible, as the work of the devil.

A decade ago, the Chinese saw no profit in truly transforming their economic system to embrace Western free-market norms — something that is needed for Beijing to adhere to the letter and spirt of the WTO agreements — but at least respected the accomplishments of the Western system. In the wake of China’s robust recovery from the pandemic and American and European rope-a-dope performance, they now see no need to offer even the pretense of such aspirations.

Perhaps that’s how the Europeans want it.

Germany sees a way to mid-century by adopting the Indian strategy of playing off the Americans against the Chinese. Before Mr. Biden was inaugurated, it hurriedly pushed completion of an EU-China commercial agreement that effectively guarantees Beijing’s growing influence on the continent in exchange for accepting German exports.

Should Mr. Biden convene his Summit of Democracies, many polite words will be spoken, but the convocation will yield little more than a high-sounding communique — ambitious words with little action to fig leaf business as usual.

The paper tiger laid bare, President Xi Jinping who lusts for a legacy via reunification with Taiwan, may test Mr. Biden in the Straits, and the American military is ill-prepared.

Multilateralism and diplomacy are tools not strategies but when raised up as idols — as Mr. Biden’s Obama-era retreads do — they invite aggression and capitulation or war as surely as appeasement did in the 1930s.  

• Peter Morici, @pmorici1, is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist. 

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