The difficult question for Biden will be whether the United States and China can cooperate in producing global public goods while competing in the traditional areas of great power rivalry.

FACED WITH a divided government and a polarized public, Joe Biden will have limited leeway in domestic politics, but more room for innovation in foreign policy. Even so, a good part of his agenda will be inherited from the Trump administration. Great power politics are here to stay, and China’s power is increasing. Fortunately, Asia has its own internal balance of power, and while many countries want access to China’s growing economy, they also welcome an American security presence to maintain their independence. Maintaining our alliances with Japan, Korea, Australia, and improving relations with India is a north star for foreign policy. So too is restoring relations with Europe, and trust in NATO.

The harder questions arise over the institutional structure of world order, where Trump was the first president since 1945 to call into question the American liberal international order. Should Biden try to revive it, or is it an ancient relic?

The American order after 1945 was neither global nor always very liberal. It left out more than half the world (the Soviet bloc and China) and included many authoritarian states. American hegemony was always exaggerated. Nonetheless, the most powerful country must lead in creating global public goods, or they will not be provided and Americans (among others) will suffer. The current pandemic is a potent example, as are problems of climate change, non-proliferation, and a stable international monetary system, to name but a few. And if one imagines the foreign policy agenda over the coming decade, these issues are likely to increase in importance. Biden should aim for rules-based international institutions because it is in our national interest. But how does this fit with the great power competition? The answer may lie in variable memberships.

After the Cold War, neither Russia nor China could balance American power, and the United States overrode sovereignty in pursuit of liberal values. The United States bombed Serbia and invaded Iraq without approval by the United Nations Security Council, and bombed Libya to protect the citizens of Benghazi. Russia and China felt deceived by the hubris of American unipolarity. Since then, the growth of Chinese and Russian power has set stricter limits to liberal interventionism.

Russia and China stress the norm of sovereignty that was enshrined in the UN Charter in 1945. States can go to war only for self-defense or with Security Council approval. Taking a neighbor’s territory by force has been rare since 1945, and has led to costly sanctions when it has happened (as with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014). Limited cooperation is possible within the UN, for example, on the deployment of peacekeeping forces in troubled countries, and political cooperation has limited the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This important dimension of a rules-based order remains.

On economic relations, many rules will require revision. China’s hybrid state capitalism underpinned an unfair mercantilist model that distorted the functioning of the World Trade Organization. The result will be a partial decoupling of global supply chains when security is at stake. Although China complains when the United States prevents companies like Huawei from building 5G telecommunications networks in the West, this position is consistent with the sovereignty and security that China itself practices with regard to the Internet. Negotiating new trade rules can help prevent the decoupling from escalating into rampant protectionism. At the same time, we can continue cooperation in the crucial financial domain.

Ecological interdependence, however, poses an insurmountable obstacle to sovereignty, because the threats are transnational and obey the laws of biology and physics rather than the logic of contemporary geopolitics. Such issues threaten everyone, but no country can manage them alone. On these issues, we must also think in terms of exercising power with others rather than over others, something many Americans chafe at. Ideology is not relevant. The Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization help us as well as others. The difficult question for Biden will be whether the United States and China can cooperate in producing global public goods while competing in the traditional areas of great power rivalry. Can we learn to manage cooperation and rivalry at the same time?

Cyberspace is another new issue—partly transnational, but also subject to sovereign government controls. The Internet is already partly fragmented. Norms regarding free speech and privacy on the Internet can be developed among an inner circle of democracies, but will not be observed by authoritarian states. The Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, of which I was a member, outlined a set of rules barring tampering with the Internet’s basic structure that are also in the authoritarian states’ interest if they want connectivity. But when they use proxies to interfere in elections (which violates sovereignty), norms will have to be reinforced by rules such as those the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated during the Cold War (despite ideological hostility) to limit the escalation of incidents at sea. The United States and like-minded states will have to announce the norms they intend to uphold, and deterrence will be necessary. And liberal countries will have to participate fully in bodies like the International Telecommunications Union and not leave standard-setting to China.

A recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll showed that the American public wants to avoid military interventions and what Trump called “endless wars,” but not to withdrawfrom our alliances or multilateral cooperation. And the public still cares about values. The United States would continue to criticize authoritarian countries’ human rights records. The question Biden faces is not whether to restore the liberal international order. It is whether the United States can work with an inner core of allies to promote democracy and human rights while cooperating with a broader set of states to manage the rules-based international institutions needed to cope with transnational threats such as climate change, pandemics, cyber-attacks, terrorism, and economic instability. Can America learn to manage a “cooperative rivalry?”


Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard and author of Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.