- With a fractured Western alliance, Biden would prefer that the partners of the West work together to confront shared Russian and Chinese concerns.
- While Biden leads a divided US and a weakened West, US under Clinton as the President was undoubtedly the most powerful state on earth, and was capable of wooing the people of Northern Ireland towards peace.
- Although Biden may be able to persuade the unionists as the President of the United States, the current situation prevents him from sharing Clinton’s optimistic outlook for the future.
- Instead of trying to sell the Western order to the rest of the world like Clinton did, Biden only wants to keep it together.
US President Joe Biden began his tour to Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom last Tuesday. His visit to Belfast comes at a time when the two sides are commemorating 25 years of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’. It was with this historic agreement, the 30 years-long conflict in Northern Ireland, popularly known as “The Troubles”, came to an end. His visit takes place at a time when Stormont, Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government is not operating. One of the main parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), withdrew in protest to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements which collapsed last year. While urging lawmakers to resume their roles as leaders, Biden commended them for remaining united in the wake of the attempted murder of a top investigator in Northern Ireland in February.
Comparisons between Joe Biden’s visit to Belfast last week and substantial contributions made to the Northern Ireland Peace Process by former Democratic President Bill Clinton more than 20 years ago became apparent. It was widely believed that Clinton’s three visits—in 1995, 1998, and 2000—were crucial in bringing unionists and republicans to an agreement and in preserving the 1998 ‘Good Friday Agreement’ during the difficult months and years that followed its signing. Interested parties from other countries as well as observers in Belfast, Dublin, and London are hoping that Biden’s visit will have a similarly energising impact on the province’s politics, which once more seem to be at a standstill. Of course, Biden lacks Clinton’s appeal. According to an Irish citizen who saw both presidents’ visits, “Clinton was charismatic, like a film star,” according to The Guardian.
Since Clinton’s first trip, Northern Ireland has changed significantly. Despite various obstacles along the way, the peace deal has been in effect for 25 years. The $6 billion in investments in the province that Biden has offered hesitant unionists in exchange for their return to the power-sharing deal may help Biden’s intervention succeed. Even so, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Biden lacks the same level of power projection as Clinton did throughout the 1990s, in addition to not having Clinton’s charisma. This has less to do with personality per se and more to do with the unique global environment that Biden operates in. While Biden leads a divided US and a weakened West, US under Clinton as the President was undoubtedly the most powerful state on earth, and was capable of wooing the people of Northern Ireland towards peace.
US and Ireland
In the 1990s and 2000s, Clinton’s involvement was a part of a larger American agenda for the world. A liberal global hegemony was pursued by succeeding presidents, who regularly emphasised its two tenets of neo-liberal capitalism and democracy.Clinton was able to interfere in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, and the Israel-Palestine peace process thanks to this “unipolar” period that followed the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. He would subsequently face criticism for not doing more to stop the genocide in Rwanda.
Following his election as British prime minister in 1997, Tony Blair—a former prime minister of the United Kingdom and one of the agreement’s original architects—proved to be a collaborator in US activity. While Clinton and Blair’s liberal interventionism would eventually draw criticism, some of it justified, their acts nonetheless constituted a time of unmatched Western confidence, belief, and power.
In 2023, Biden is no longer leading from the same position of authority. The US is still the world’s most powerful nation, but it is not without rivals. Russia is more belligerent than it was in the 1990s, and China is on par with it economically, if not militarily.The limits of Western power in the multipolar world of today have been made clear by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. The majority of nations in Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East have declined to join Washington’s sanctions against Russia, while only Western nations have done so.
Clinton arrived to Northern Ireland eager to resolve the long-standing issue between Britain and Ireland and to strengthen the Western alliance as it pursued a US-led “New World Order,” while Biden’s challenge is merely maintaining the frail Western coalition. In fact, Biden has every right to be annoyed that he needs to step in at all. Brexit, a harmful objective for the Western coalition in which two of Washington’s allies, Britain and the EU, have turned on one another in mutual recrimination, is to blame for the Northern Irish impasse that threatens peace in the region.
Decline of the West
Years of fighting and recriminations over Brexit have only made the Western alliance more fractured at a time when Biden would prefer that these important Western partners were working together to confront shared Russian and Chinese concerns.
Rishi Sunak, the current Conservative prime minister of Great Britain, has a more accommodative stance than his more anti-EU predecessors, but Biden is well aware that Sunak was a prominent proponent of Brexit and approved of the standoff with Brussels while he was chancellor. Sunak has been hailed by Biden as a security partner in the new US-UK-Australia anti-China AUKUS coalition, but this is not a Blair-Clinton or Blair-Bush collaboration. Brexit has diminished Britain’s influence and importance to the US, which has undermined the Western alliance. Of course, Brexit was not the only instance of Western self-destructive behaviour that has damaged the standing of the US and its allies internationally. The invasion of Iraq by Bush and Blair, followed by the 2008 financial crisis and Western governments’ responses to it, was undoubtedly the beginning of the slide.
The lack of adherence to former President Barack Obama’s “chemical weapons red line” in Syria in 2013 as well as the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 and the polarising nature of US politics that followed hurt American confidence. US soft power is still being hurt by the regular news coverage of mass killings and enraged pro and anti-Trump rallies.
Since Clinton’s visits to Northern Ireland, the world has changed, and the West is now less powerful. This is the fact that Biden must face even though he is not to blame for it because many of the events happened before his time and/or were beyond of his control.
Although he may yet be able to persuade stubborn unionists while serving as president of the United States, the current situation prevents him from sharing Clinton’s optimistic outlook for the future. Instead of trying to sell the Western order to the rest of the world like Clinton did, Biden only wants to keep it together.
(The author is a post-graduate student in International Relations at Kalinga University, Raipur. The opinions expressed are the author’s own)