During his first address to a joint session of Congress on April 28, U.S. President Joe Biden noted that in the dozens of conversations with world leaders he’d had since taking office in January, one comment kept coming up: “We see America is back, but for how long?” This skepticism on the part of other heads of state is a direct response to the recent past. Under President Donald Trump, Washington seriously challenged or outright withdrew from more than a dozen international agreements or institutions, including the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, and the World Health Organization.
But concerns about the nature and longevity of American commitments extend beyond Trump’s legacy overseas. Allies of the United States are also reacting to its internal politics and, in particular, to a deepening partisan divide that creates uncertainty about the future of U.S. foreign policy. Observing the polarized politics on display in the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland noted that many European leaders will “no longer take for granted that they can trust the U.S., even on basic things.”
The fears are valid. Although foreign policy has traditionally been insulated from political polarization, that is no longer true. On such issues as multilateralism, climate change, and terrorism, Americans are more divided than ever. The bipartisan foreign policy consensus among both voters and the politicians they elect is eroding. But even worse, polarization has created broader, underappreciated consequences for the United States’ ability to enact foreign policy in the first place by chipping away at a key pillar of its power: its reputation for stability, credibility, and reliability.