People in Geneva and around the world are hoping that the presidency of Joseph R. Biden Jr. will return the United States to the way it was before the presidency of Donald Trump.
According to this popular narrative, multilateralism will flourish with renewed American leadership. The four years of the Trump administration, it is said, has been one of those rare periods of U.S. isolationism. Biden’s nomination of many ex-Obama administration officials is a strong indication of the desire to go back to pre-2017. Domestically, democracy will survive in the U.S. after coming to the edge of a totalitarian abyss.
The Latin expression status quo ante, translated as the state of affairs that existed previously, may serve in legal terms to mean a return to the previous diplomatic situation, but in human terms the expression is extremely limited. As time moves forward, how can we return to a condition that existed before?
Time never stops. One can ask about how important political upheavals have left permanent scars: Can Russia go back to the way it was before the 1917 revolution? Can Germany return to the way it was before the rise of National Socialism in 1933?
Quite simply; Can the United States return to the way it was before January 20, 2017?
While these questions are not totally similar, they raise the obvious question of status quo ante, and the problematic of how to deal with the past in moving forward. The fact that people talk of Trump running in 2024 shows that the Trump era has not drawn to a close. The defeat of Germany in 1945 ended National Socialism; the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ended the Communist era although vestiges of the past remain in both countries. Seventy-four million people voted for Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate will probably have a Republican majority when Biden takes the oath of office on January 20.
The Trump years cannot be forgotten either domestically or in foreign policy. Brexit has weakened the European Union and the Atlantic alliance. Russia, China and Turkey have not stood still during four years of American retreat in an isolationist understanding of America First. The United Nations has not shown leadership either in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic or the global economic slowdown.
(For those particularly nostalgic for post-World War II American leadership, the United States had about half of the world’s gross domestic product seventy years ago; it now has about one-seventh.)
The future, then, appears to be how the people with the experiences of the Obama/Clinton years will adapt to the changes of 2017-2020. But it is not obvious that Biden’s promises of unifying the country or re-assuring allies will work. Europeans now talk of “strategic autonomy” after the realization that the United States can no longer be assumed to be their bedrock defensive partner. The United Nations has looked to other sources of financing and leadership after the previous U.S. administration withdrew from various organizations and multilateral agreements.
The world has become wary of the United States. Having lived through four years of tumult and the creative destruction of accepted diplomatic norms, global leaders have lost confidence in Uncle Sam. The list of people nominated in the Biden administrative are familiar faces, designed to re-establish confidence. But the scars of the Trump years will not go away. Internally, Senators Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham will not forget the 74 million who voted for Trump. Diplomatically, leaders will wonder how unifying Biden and his team can be and how they can re-establish moral leadership at home and abroad.
Confidence-building measures are difficult in any situation. Re-establishing confidence after the trauma of the Trump presidency is more complicated. There are no marriage counsellors to help the Republicans and Democrats work together. There are no global mediators to put Europeans and the United States back where there were pre-2017. The new United States ambassador to the United Nations cannot announce “We’re back,” and expect world leaders to forget what they have lived through for four years.
As much as many of us wish to forget that the Trump years ever happened, they did. And while we will have to move on from here, we should not be naïve to believe that certain scars will not remain. There is no going back to 2016.