Biden Presidency

31.01.21 Publication:

Four years ago it was said, probably accurately, that Hillary Clinton may have been the only
Democratic Party candidate that Donald Trump stood a chance of beating. Now, something
similar can be said about Joe Biden: Donald Trump was probably the only Republican this
78-year-old uncharismatic Washington insider could have beaten, and even then the
decisive factor in Biden’s favour was likely the coronavirus pandemic. On such chances are
electoral outcomes made. Which should remind us: although the personality of the
occupant of the White House matters greatly, it is the longer-term trends in a country and in
the world that matter much more, especially for foreign policy.

For that reason, the key question in looking ahead at the presidency of Joseph R
Biden and asking what he and his Cabinet might achieve in global affairs must be the longer-
term trends rather than simply the personality of the man in the Oval Office. Will President
Biden accommodate his administration’s policy to those longer-term trends and find a way
to fit America’s interests to those of the world? Or will he try to fight the long-term trends,
causing unpredictability and perhaps conflict as he does so?

All presidencies are, in truth, a mixture of both of these tendencies, of
accommodating to long-term trends and of fighting against the trends, along with having to
react to unforeseen events. President George W Bush entered office in 2001 pledging to
step back from activist American behaviour around the world, but the terrorist attack of
9/11 forced him to change approach less than nine months after entering office, embarking
on the country’s two biggest military conflicts since the Vietnam War. He attempted to
actively promote democracy and defeat the spread of weapons of mass destruction but
ended up confirming the long-term trend of declining American power.

President Barack Obama tried to accommodate his country to long-term trends by
his “pivot to Asia” and by seeking to withdraw the United States from his predecessor’s
military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Middle East, while at the same time
fighting trends by pressing for global nuclear disarmament talks. His presidency, however,
was really shaped by the 2008 global financial crisis that just pre-dated his election,
weakening the US economically while also exposing deep political divides within the nation.

President Donald Trump came to power by exploiting and even exacerbating those
political divides. In office, his foreign policy emphasis was on fighting the trend of the
decline of American global power by acting aggressively against both US allies and rivals
alike, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific
Partnership, and opening direct talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Yet he also
accommodated long-term trends by reducing the US military presence in the Middle East
and leaving both Russia and China more freedom of manoeuvre in their regions. He didn’t
say that that was what he was doing, but that is what the outcome was: for example,
compared with 2016 China now has greater control over the South China Sea, has more
influence over North Korea, and has greater economic influence in South-East Asia, having
even joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership free trade arrangement.

Given that Joe Biden was Obama’s vice-president and comes from the US political
mainstream, it is safe to predict that his intended balance between these tendencies will be
towards the accommodation of long-term trends rather than trying to fight them. As every                                      commentator has remarked, this will mean a renewed emphasis on maintaining and
working within US alliances in Europe and East Asia. What every commentator has also
added is an expectation that Biden will follow closely the Trump administration’s tough,
adversarial policy towards China, on the argument that one of Trump’s achievements has
been to change the political narrative towards China in a bipartisan way.

Yet it is fair to ask oneself: What does this actually mean? Biden will rebuild
alliances. He will take an adversarial approach to China. So does this mean he will use
stronger US alliances to confront China, perhaps by ganging up on China on chosen issues?
But what if the allies disagree with this approach? The European Union concluded a new
investment agreement with China right at the end of 2020, not bothering to wait to consult
the incoming Biden administration. And what if the US actually needs to collaborate with
China on some issues, as it does over climate change, which is another of Biden’s emphases.
Unlike Trump he does not plan to fight the trend towards a global approach to mitigating
climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but rather to rejoin it. How can he
collaborate with the Chinese if he is also confronting them, treating them as strategic rivals?

We are just a few weeks into the Biden presidency, so it is too soon for there to be
any clues to this conundrum. As we also know, Biden’s biggest task is to tackle not just the
pandemic health and economic crises but more importantly the deep political divide that
Trump has exposed, exploited and exacerbated. Just as the Obama administration was
shaped by the 2008 financial crisis, so the Biden administration is bound to be shaped by
this legacy and challenge.

In foreign affairs, my suspicion is that the answer to the apparent contradiction will
lie in the Biden Cabinet’s approach towards China. Politically, he has to talk tough. But in
practice, I doubt if he will really choose to be confrontational. His position will be more like
Japan’s: to engage, to accept the reality of Chinese power but also to defend America’s
national interests strongly whenever necessary. There is no real option of a so-called “new
Cold War” nor of “containment”, to use a cold war term.

As his closest adviser on Asia, Kurt Campbell, wrote recently in Foreign Affairs, the
real US goal in the region must be one of balancing Chinese power, of maintaining America’s
presence so as to prevent Chinese hegemony from developing; and to assist that by
ensuring that countries in the region see America as having legitimacy in its actions and
intentions, ideally a greater legitimacy and trust than China does. That was really the
purpose of Obama’s “pivot to Asia”.

Biden’s task will be to make the Obama pivot real, credible, clearly permanent and,
above all, a presence that is supported by America’s allies including Japan, South Korea,
Singapore, India and Australia. It is not a matter of confronting or containing China but
rather of balancing China. We shall see how it goes.