Variable Geometry Takes Shape in Biden’s Foreign Policy
March 19, 2021
In his short foreword to the interim national security strategy released by the White House earlier this month, President Joe Biden mentions the importance of working with U.S. allies and partners no fewer than five times. In early speeches and statements by the president and his top foreign policy officials, the new administration has left no doubt of its rhetorical commitment to multilateralism. Biden has moved quickly to give substance to this commitment. In addition to reversing his predecessor’s decisions to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization (WHO), the president has devoted personal time and capital to two small groupings of countries that could become the anchors of a signature Biden approach to multilateralism.
In his first two months in office, President Biden has attended two virtual “summits” of global leaders. The first was on February 19, when he met his counterparts from the world’s largest advanced market economies in an emergency G7 meeting called by this year’s host, the United Kingdom, to discuss collective responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Then on March 12, Biden joined the prime ministers of Australia, India, and Japan for the first-ever leader-level meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, popularly known as “the Quad,” a group formed after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in late 2004.
Brief joint statements were issued after each summit. Both documents naturally center on collective responses to the pandemic. Both also highlight the importance of joint action to address climate change. And both stress democratic values and norms, revealing an unstated goal of the G7 and the Quad: to make common cause in responding to the challenges of a more assertive, authoritarian China. The Quad meeting was especially noteworthy because it involved the first steps toward institutionalization of the group: three working groups were established, including one on critical technologies, and a regular schedule of senior meetings was announced.
Together, the G7 and Quad countries represent nearly 60 percent of the global economy. They include many of the world’s leading democracies, military powers, and technology leaders. And they all have rising angst about Chinese policies, practices, and intentions in both the security and economic realms. From the perspective of the Biden administration, all of this makes the G7 and Quad appealing forums to bolster and build out support for U.S.-preferred rules, standards, and norms in international affairs.
Of course, the G7 and Quad are small, selective groups that do not have the legitimacy to serve as “steering committees” for the global system. In a perfect world, the United States would rely primarily on all-inclusive international institutions like the United Nations and World Trade Organization (WTO) to uphold global rules and norms. But those institutions are not working as designed; the WTO, for example, is effectively stymied from carrying out either of its core functions, negotiating new agreements and settling disputes. The Biden administration is right to conclude that if it wants to move a multilateral agenda, working through plurilateral groups of like-minded countries and piecing them together in a kind of “variable geometry” is the most practical way to proceed.
In emphasizing the G7 and Quad, Biden officials are signaling—appropriately—that they prioritize function over form. This means starting with U.S. interests and deciding which institution or grouping of countries can help advance those interests, rather than considering which collection of leaders looks best in a photo opportunity. Frankly, the various proposals for gatherings of democracies—Biden’s own call for a “summit of democracy” and UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s notion of a “D10”—suffer from the latter mindset, in which the first question seems to be whom to invite rather than what problems need solving. In choosing which forums of global governance to embrace, U.S. and UK officials should keep in mind two important points: first, multilateralism is a means to an end, not an end in itself; and second, there is no single grouping of countries that can solve all problems.
Having invested in the G7 and Quad, how should the Biden administration drive toward global consensus on U.S.-preferred rules and norms? The first task is to seek internal consensus within each group on an achievable set of objectives. Cooperation on pandemic response is the lowest-hanging fruit and rightly the main focus of early G7 and Quad efforts. Climate change will be more difficult but should be a top priority for cooperation in both forums. It would also make sense to seek progress on areas of comparative advantage for each group. In the G7, one productive way forward would be to build on the final substantive sentence of the February 19 statement—“We will consult with each other on collective approaches to address non-market-oriented policies and practices”—by reviving the trilateral process among the United States, European Union, and Japan launched by the Trump administration to develop common responses to China’s massive subsidies and industrial policies.
The Quad has clearly signaled that one of its priorities for cooperation beyond the pandemic is critical technologies. The new working group will need to put meat on the bones of the areas identified for collaboration. With this particular group of countries, there may be more scope for cooperation on policies to protect against unwanted transfer of critical technologies to competitors, rather than on joint promotion activities. For the latter, the Biden administration will need to attach spokes to the Quad hub—or work along separate tracks—to pull in other key technology players: for example, the Netherlands and South Korea on advanced semiconductors or Canada and Israel on artificial intelligence. The ultimate goal could be a loose “tech alliance” of like-minded countries prepared to work together to ensure reliable supplies of critical technologies essential to these countries’ security.
The next trick will be to drive common positions into broader plurilateral groupings. The G7 and close-in partners could act as an effective caucus in the G20, which includes China, Russia, and other major economies. G7 countries could also work together more deliberately to drive a shared agenda in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based body that does important work on global economic standards.
The Quad, meanwhile, could focus on taking its common positions into Asian regional institutions, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). APEC, for example, has done important work on data governance principles and norms, including through its cross-border privacy rules; these and other efforts in the region could be built upon to establish a global regime for data. The fact that India is not a member of APEC (having shown little interest in its mission of trade and investment liberalization) should not stand in the way of this effort; the advantage of variable geometry is that it is flexible and allows multiple overlapping efforts to drive a policy agenda.
The ultimate goal of these efforts is to bring other countries along in global rulemaking by working through all-inclusive multilateral institutions like the WTO and by helping individual countries accede to existing plurilateral arrangements. The latter approach may be the path to broader agreement on the high-standard trade rules embodied in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Although former president Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the trade deal’s predecessor agreement, and the Biden administration is reluctant to rejoin (a serious problem for U.S. strategy in Asia), there is a long queue of countries considering acceding to CPTPP, including the United Kingdom, Thailand, and even China.
A variable geometry approach to multilateralism does not mean abandoning international institutions that the United States created and championed for decades, like the United Nations and WTO; these are important for legitimacy and to put a floor under the global system. Nor should plurilateral groupings be exclusive; they should remain open to new members willing to commit to the group’s objectives and norms. But for a Biden administration trying to recommit the United States to multilateralism and advance U.S.-preferred rules and norms, investing in groups like the G7 and Quad is a sensible way to start.
Matthew P. Goodman is senior vice president for economics at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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