The writer is director of the US and Americas programme at Chatham House
Rebuilding America’s tarnished image abroad has been a key priority for Joe Biden’s administration. But the longer that America’s borders remain closed, the more the administration is squandering an opportunity to harness America’s soft power abroad.
The harsh reality of America’s border closure appears far more out of step today than it did when President Biden first extended Donald Trump’s border restrictions in January. Six months into the first year of the Biden administration, global awareness of America’s successful vaccine rollout sits alongside images of a nation that is wealthy, healthy and open for business. Yet it isn’t: at present non-US citizens who have been in the UK, the Schengen area, Ireland, South Africa or Brazil in the previous 14 days are barred from admission regardless of their vaccine status.
In the US, most states have lifted Covid-19 safety measures. Growth is expected to be 6.5 per cent in 2021, and domestic travel is rapidly returning to its pre-pandemic levels. Despite suffering a national tragedy of more than 600,000 deaths and one of the world’s worst Covid responses in the first 10 months of the crisis, today the US tops “resilience lists” for countries emerging from the pandemic.
This turn of fate, following on the heels of President Biden’s election, means that Europe’s expectations of the US today are exceptionally high. This comes after a period in which public opinion across most of Europe dropped to lows not seen since the George W Bush presidency. But heightened expectations mean that the risk of disappointment and disillusionment is great as well.
That America’s exclusionary border policies look set to remain in place while many European countries open their borders to US citizens will tap into sentiments that the US sees itself as exceptional. It will also undermine the credibility of America’s professed commitment to restoring multilateralism and repairing relations with Europe. For many Europeans, reciprocity is integral to the legitimacy of multilateralism.
America’s rhetorical commitment to open societies will ultimately be difficult to sustain if its borders remain closed. In an era where nativist and nationalist politics continue to threaten societies across Europe, and with elections looming large in both France and Germany, the Biden administration would benefit from moving swiftly to open the country’s borders. Europe’s citizens, tourists and corporations are integral to the fabric of the transatlantic partnership and are good for the US economy. Reassuring them that America is back not only in the rest of the world, but also for the rest of the world is becoming increasingly hard to do.
Some may say that science hastens caution. Infusing policy with science is a top priority for the Biden administration, as well as for the UK government. But America’s border closures appear to be impervious to science. Fear of the Delta variant dominates discussion of border policy, but the variant already represents a quarter of all new cases inside the US. Containing its spread is already a domestic problem.
Ultimately, the US decision to stay closed to Europeans will exact a heavy toll and before long Europe’s goodwill will begin to dissipate. That UK prime minister Boris Johnson has handled Britain’s reopening so badly gives the US a bit of a reprieve. But it takes little to trigger anti-American sentiment.
The fact that US citizens living in Europe have continued to enter the US throughout the pandemic does not help, even if this exception is legally required and morally justified. As vaccines mitigate the health risks of travel, exceptions based on citizenship do little to warm Europeans to their American counterparts. Instead, the US’s Covid border policies are yet another reminder that the distinction between citizens and foreigners will continue to guide America’s relations with the world.
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