America isn’t back

By Giacomo Valentini

On 19 February this year, in his first foreign policy speech in Munich, Germany, newly elected President Joe Biden declared that “America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back”, promising words aimed at marking a major change in tone compared to the four years in office of Donald Trump. Unfortunately, developments since that date suggest that there is more continuity between the two administrations than Biden seems to be willing to admit. Whether it is China, Iran, or Afghanistan, Biden has not significantly changed the course set by his predecessor.

Recent events only confirm this trend. The swift US withdrawal from Afghanistan, culminating in the sudden takeover of Kabul by the Taliban on August 16th, suggests that America might have undergone a fundamental change. It has no more appetite for being the world policeman. The spirit of the post-world-war-two period, of US international engagement and promotion of western values throughout the world, might be finally over. America is not falling back into 1930s isolationism, but it no longer sees itself as the centre of the world international community.

The change has taken place over the past few years, triggered by the most disruptive political development that America has experienced in decades: the presidency of Donald Trump. It was Trump who started the US pullout, both from Syria and Afghanistan. 

During the 2020 presidential campaign, many democrats vowed to reverse Trump’s extreme isolationism, but once in office, has made few changes in the US policy towards China, Iran or Afghanistan. On Afghanistan, he stubbornly ignored his advisers and international allies and pursued a disorderly and ill-thought pullout. Biden has also refused to change course in America’s dealings with China – portrayed in much US press in almost hysterical cold-war-style tones – or Iran, where despite the rhetoric no progress whatsoever has been achieved on a resumption of the Iran nuclear deal.

This change in American attitude seems to be bipartisan. Both on the right and left of the political spectrum, the prevailing winds favour a modern isolationism. While Trump’s brand of extreme isolationism might still be an outlier in the US political landscape, more moderate forms are now prevalent among both Republicans and Democrats. This situation is not likely to change any time soon, despite Biden’s “America is back” reassurance. And even if a future US President were to seek to reverse course, Trump and Biden have inflicted long lasting, possibly irreparable damage to America’s international image.

To be clear, I am not implying that there is no difference between Biden and his predecessor. Under Biden the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change, and put an end to Trump’s habit of publicly clashing with his partners at G7 or G20 summits. But Biden’s re-engagement is often limited to diplomatic niceties, or aimed at satisfying the most radical wing of his party. There is little indication that Biden is treating foreign policy with the same high level of priority as presidents Obama, Bush, or Clinton. And the fact that Biden has resumed multilateral diplomacy should not distract from the fact that on military issues, the change in attitude has been dramatic.

Partners in Europe and Asia will no longer be able to look at the US as a reliable partner in defense matters. For Europe, a militarily hesitant America might mean serious exposure to Russian military aggression. To Japan and Taiwan, it might suggest a weakened US resolve to intervene in the face of Chinese or North Korean aggression. Trump’s approach to the Iranian nuclear deal, which included punishing European companies dealing with Iran, has suggested to many Europeans that the EU should seek a greater international role for the euro as an international alternative to the US dollar.

All this risks strengthening the arguments of those in Europe and Asia seeking  more independence in foreign and trade policy. But independence always entails the risk of unilateralism, which portends the risk of a fragmentation of the international order that has dominated the world since the end of the second world war.

Allies feel betrayed

This new American isolationism leaves the UK in a bad position at a crucial time in its history, having turned its back on Europe and seeking a new international profile. The Afghan debacle highlighted how totally reliant the UK is on US military support. It should remind even the most bloody-minded UK Brexiters that the past days of UK international dominance are over, in case they had forgotten the lesson of the Suez crisis of 1956. The image of Britain having to sheepishly follow the US moves when leaving Afghanistan will endure.

Europe is also shocked. The reversal will embolden politicians in France and elsewhere who want to step up European military and financial autonomy from the US. German “doves” such as conservative leader and potential future Chancellor Armin Laschet, who had been arguing that the Trump years were just an exception and that trusted Biden’s “America is back,” will have a harder time now defending that position.

Even in areas like the climate negotiations, the impact of Biden’s ill-judged international policy decisions might be felt. Trump caused consternation in Germany when he sought to block the Nord Stream gas pipeline to Russia, just weeks before its completion. The measure has climate implications since without it Germany would not be able to meet its pledges to phase out coal use by the 2030s. Although the Biden administration has reversed the Nord Stream boycott, it nonetheless shows the extent to which a rogue US President can influence climate and energy policies around the world.

The new climate of uncertainty created by the Trump-Biden foreign policy turnaround is likely to have negative impacts on global trade, and risks pushing China into an openly anty-Western attitude.

Impact of Populism on European Policy Making

Relaunching the blog

This article relaunches IPM’s blog after over a year of silence. We hope to provide more frequent, timely updates on issues that are of interest to our clients and friends.

Giacomo Valentini



In recent years, a majority of European countries have experienced a rise in populist movements, a trend which is affecting national politics and even brought populist leaders to occupy important government positions.

In Hungary, on 8 April the nationalist and populist Fidesz party won a two-thirds parliamentary majority, reconfirming Viktor Orban as prime minister. Orban based his election campaign on fighting alleged foreign meddling in Hungarian politics, in particular by financier George Soros, and on preventing refugees and migrants from entering the country.

Since 2015, Poland has been ruled by the populist PiS Party, adopting policies that tend to reject international cooperation, set limits on freedom of expression, and focus on domestic issues.

In Greece, the current government is a coalition between anti-establishment parties. It adopts positions that are often at odds with those of the country’s EU partners.

In Austria, following a general election in 2017, the country is ruled by a coalition between the mainstream conservative ÖVP Party and the right-wing populist FPÖ party, with an anti-immigrant agenda. In the Netherlands, the mainstream conservative VVD Party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte heads a coalition designed to keep the right-wing party of Geert Wilders out of power. To win the election, Rutte adopted some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric of his right-wing opponents. Populist parties have appeared elsewhere in Europe, from Spain, to Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Not to be undone in this competition, Italy has spawned not one but two populist parties. The election of 4 March saw big gains for both the Five Star Movement and of the League, while the two main traditional parties lost badly. The two parties are discussing a possible coalition government, which might focus on adopting measures against immigrants, promoting greater government spending, and challenging EU authority in economic matters. While the United Kingdom does not currently feature a prominent populist party, the recently deceased UK Independence Party (UKIP) fitted that definition during the years leading up to the 2016 referendum which resulted in the UK announcing its withdrawal from the EU.

The last bastions of European stability and continuity appear to be Germany and France. However, in both countries populist movements have emerged. In France, the elections of 2017 saw the defeat of the country’s two main traditional parties, Republicans and Socialists, and the rise to prominence of two outsiders, the centrist Emmanuel Macron – who eventually won the presidency – and right-wing populist leader Marine Le Pen. In Germany, the right-wing anti-establishment AfD party made significant gains at the 2017 general election, with 12.6% of the vote and 94 members in the 600-seat parliament.

The populist parties that have emerged in Europe in recent years can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Parties that defend the “ordinary citizen” against the power of the “elites” – an umbrella name which covers supposedly corrupt politicians, multinationals, and unspecified occult powers.
  • Nationalist parties which claim their country is under attack from foreign threats – including immigrants, supranational organisations such as the EU, the UN, or the IMF.

These two categories often overlap, and most populist parties include both elements. Both these groups of parties tend to be inward-looking, in the sense of being relatively uninterested in international issues. Many of the populist parties in power in Europe adopt inward-looking policies, and try to divert government expenditure towards measures to help vulnerable groups – in particular the unemployed and retirees.

Implications for European politics and policy making

Election results in recent years suggest that in most of Europe, traditional parties are struggling to maintain their popular support. Many factors might be cited to explain this decline – including the financial and economic downturns of the past decade, increased automation on the factory floor and outsourcing of production to countries with cheaper labour costs, the long-term political and ideological consequences of the end of the cold war in the 1990s, the rise of social media, the refugee crisis that followed the civil war in Syria, and hypothetical Russian disinformation campaigns.

The changes in government are already having an impact on EU politics. However, the impact on policy making has so far been much more muted. This is because EU institutions are somewhat shielded from political swings. The civil service plays a central role, and top civil servants are career officials, thereby relatively immune from changes in the political mood.

This means that sudden swings in policy are unlikely as a result of political shifts in government. Nonetheless, over time the political changes will make their way into EU policy making.

Policy outlook

It is quite possible that over time, the rise of populist parties could result in subtle changes in the EU’s policy focus. Populist parties tend to be suspicious or outright sceptical of policies that would require them to spend money on international issues, or on issues which appear to be removed from the concerns of the ordinary citizen. On climate change, some populist parties are openly climate-sceptic. This is, for instance, the case of Poland.

For instance, in energy policy currently the EU concentrates its efforts on market deregulation and coordination of national energy policies. A rise in populist parties might result in more attention being paid to electricity prices. On climate change, populist parties are likely to assign a low priority to climate-related policies, if these involve major costs or budgetary expenditures.

Similarly, on policies such as innovation, transport, or industrial policy, populism is likely to promote diversion of expenditure towards meeting the concerns of the ordinary citizen, away from more lofty or long-term goals.

Giacomo Valentini