The day Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, "sighs of relief rippled through capitals" around the world. NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reported, "As the results came through tonight, I started to watch the reaction coming in around the world, and people were reacting like the United States had overthrown a dictator, that democracy has been saved, that America's reputation had been saved."
In the months that followed, the United States' allies liked what they saw from the new Democratic president. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared in February, "America is unreservedly back as the leader of the free world — and that is a fantastic thing."
In the months that followed, there were similar assessments from, among others, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, French President Emmanuel Macron, and a great many E.U. officials. It wasn't just leaders' rhetoric: International public-opinion research found the United States' global reputation bouncing back in 2021, following four years of disapproval.
And so, as President Biden arrives in Europe for two important summits, he has reason to expect a warm welcome. There is, however, a problem hanging overhead: As The Washington Post reported, our allies aren't concerned with our current president, so much as they're concerned about the possible return of his predecessor.
The leaders of America's closest partners have watched Biden's popularity plummet while former president Donald Trump has begun holding raucous election-style rallies and making his trademark provocative or false pronouncements on a range of issues. And that is raising questions about the durability of any promises by — or agreements with — the current administration.
"After four years with Trump, the world is very, very curious whether this is a lasting new direction of American politics or we could risk a return to Trumpism in 2024," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former Danish prime minister who served as NATO secretary general. "It will be an uphill effort for Biden to convince his allies and partners that he has changed American attitudes profoundly."
Rasmussen went on to tell the Post that world leaders are even watching Virginia's gubernatorial race — and if Terry McAuliffe's Democratic candidacy falls short, it would be a sign of trouble for the United States' overall direction.
"It would add to some skepticism in Europe that the declaration that 'America is back' is only temporary," Rasmussen said.
Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States, added, "After Biden, it may be Trump again."
This is emblematic of the lasting damage the former president did to the United States' international credibility. Circling back to our earlier coverage, after the 2016 elections, Americans could plausibly make the argument to the world that Trump's election was a bit of a fluke. His rise to Republican prominence was the result of radical shifts in GOP politics, but Trump's election, the argument went, was an accident of history.
There was a unique set of circumstances — the late-October Comey letter, Russian interference, Hillary Clinton's pneumonia, etc. — which happened to unfold at roughly the same time, which led to an unfortunate fiasco that the United States was eager to undo.
The thesis was bolstered by Democratic electoral gains in 2017, 2018, and 2019, each of which made it easier for Americans to tell the world, "See? We're correcting the mistake. The accident of history is being gradually undone." When Biden defeated Trump by several million votes, the case seemed to grow easier.
But for international observers, the fears are not easily dismissed. In 2016, Americans proved themselves capable of electing someone like Trump to the nation's highest office, and in 2020, his popular vote totals actually improved a little.
Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked last fall, "How could tens of millions of [Americans] reward this lying demagogue [Trump] after everything he's done? People knew exactly what they were voting for. How deep are America's democratic convictions, really?"
Complicating matters, Trump hasn't gone away. The United States only has two major parties, and one still belongs to the corrupt, twice-impeached former president, who's made no secret of his interest in another possible candidacy.
Can we blame our allies for being skeptical?