Prestige and post-Trump foreign policy

by John Brake

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Photo by Augusto Navarro on Unsplash

Joe Biden and his team have emphasized two broad goals for US foreign policy after Trump—restoring the nation’s international prestige and reinforcing the rules-based international order. Yet they may find that these goals are less aligned than many liberal proponents of Washington’s ‘international leadership’ assume.


Consider the United States’ current position, preeminent but precarious, atop the international prestige hierarchy. Rising powers, chiefly China, have become increasingly competitive in domains that long sustained US prestige such as high technology, naval forces, and sheer economic size. Under Trump, the United States attempted to compensate for its relative decline with transgressive sabre-rattling on security and trade issues, a strategy that cost Washington moral authority. The new Administration will certainly repudiate this approach. They will also have to go beyond merely disavowing Trumpian assertiveness, however, in order to fortify the United States’ standing in the medium- to long-run.


The question for the Biden Administration, then, is how to restore US standing in the post-Trump era without violating the liberal international norms it seeks to uphold or validating the revisionist ambitions of the rising powers it seeks to contain.


More broadly, the International Relations literature on prestige suggests that all status quo powers face a similar dilemma. Competitions for prestige intensify as rising powers seek the material resources, symbolic capital, and institutional privileges that leading states enjoy within an existing international order. Status quo powers may pursue a strategy of accommodation, sacrificing their relative prestige in order to secure the rising powers’ buy-in to the existing order. Alternatively, they may engage in confrontation, which can preserve their prestige but also destabilizes the international system. Either way, powers that occupy the United States’ current international position must often choose between maintaining their prestige and conserving world order.


The question for the Biden Administration, then, is how to restore US standing in the post-Trump era without violating the liberal international norms it seeks to uphold or validating the revisionist ambitions of the rising powers it seeks to contain.


My research illuminates one overlooked but promising pathway to prestige for the United States—conspicuous restraint. From arms control and treaty compliance to military non-intervention and diplomatic non-escalation, states regularly practice restraint by voluntarily holding back their power for supposedly principled reasons. Practising restraint requires, first, a credible claim to possess underlying capabilities that are actually restrained and, second, a salient normative standard that states can invoke to frame their practice as principled. When states meet these conditions, their practices of restraint effectively signal both material and moral components of international prestige.


John Ikenberry and others have recognized a dynamic of restraint at the systemic level whereby hegemonic states limit themselves within institutions in order to render their rule more legitimate and robust. I conceptualize such restraint not only as a grand institutional bargain but also as a practice that can be used to accrue prestige in a variety of foreign policy domains. Arms control supplies a clear example: by committing to reduce or limit its possession of certain weapons, a state draws attention to its actual or potential arsenal while also gaining credit for behaving ‘responsibly’. This dynamic—which I call ‘holding back to get ahead’—could serve as a key tactic in the United States’ post-Trump foreign policy, as the Biden Administration conspicuously reaffirms the United States’ prestigious role as defender of the status quo.


This kind of restraint differs from the familiar concept of ‘strategic restraint’, which may also guide how Biden’s administration deploys US power. ‘Holding back to get ahead’ requires performative restraint that is publicly and conspicuously declared, explicitly tied to recognized principles of international morality and law, and positively distinct from other states’ corresponding lack of restraint in a given domain. There is an aesthetic component to this performative restraint—a style of equanimity and fair dealing—that Biden may naturally embody in sharp contrast to Trump’s preening. Biden and his foreign policy team can also refine the rhetoric of restraint deployed by Barack Obama, who asserted that “what makes [the United States] exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.”


And beyond style, in terms of substantive foreign policy, ‘holding back to get ahead’ seems particularly promising in two key areas: China and climate change.


The bilateral relationship with China presents fertile ground for Biden to signal US restraint. This might entail, for instance, reversing Trump’s WeChat ban—which has limited national security benefits but outsized negative consequences for Chinese living in America—or initiating a détente in the tit-for-tat visa and travel restrictions that Washington and Beijing have imposed over the past two years. Biden could even dramatically reaffirm US commitment to a liberal trade order by lifting tariffs on some Chinese goods without any immediate expectation of reciprocity. To be clear, the primary purpose of these measures would not be to gain goodwill in Beijing. Rather, the aim would be to impress other states—say, European allies—with the United States’ capacity for and commitment to restraint. The resulting moral authority could help Biden coordinate a more assertive international response to Chinese policies in other areas such as human rights.


Climate change presents another area where Biden and his team are poised to ‘hold back to get ahead’. While Trump has largely ceded international leadership on climate change to the Europeans and, increasingly, China, Biden clearly intends to return the United States to centre stage. This will require more than merely re-joining the Paris Agreement, which other nations never abandoned. Biden will have to leverage significant and potentially costly measures to reduce US emissions in order to apply diplomatic pressure on other states—again, China stands out—that have yet to live up to their bold commitments. A true competition between Washington, Beijing, and Brussels for the mantle of international climate leadership would also demonstrate that the quest for prestige, when directed towards restraint, can generate positive externalities.


Of course, on both of these issues, US domestic politics will sometimes oppose concerted and enduring restraint. Yet in rallying support for restraint Biden may find that invoking national prestige has renewed appeal after Trump. It is difficult to argue that US standing has risen over the past four years. A more plausible lesson is that the United States must pointedly exemplify the standards of restraint that it wishes to apply as well for allies and adversaries alike.   

About the author

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John researches International prestige, status, and hierarchy; rules and rule-following in world politics; restraint and historical sociology of international law

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