Beware walking into a dead end: Biden’s foreign policy

Feb 1, 2021

It is easy for a president to promise a new era and a return to old values. But there will be few takers for the notion of US supremacy, even if the US is led by a decent, elderly man who prefers international cooperation on his terms to lies, threats and pomp.

Early last week, Xi Jinping, China’s president, delivered his first major speech on international affairs since Biden’s victory on November 3. While lining himself up with many of Biden’s declared aims – including coordinated global action to combat climate change, a revival of the United Nations and multilateralism, and peaceful dialogue – Xi would have no truck with one of Biden’s main aims, a return to American global leadership.

While Xi did not use the term ‘American exceptionalism’, his nuanced address made it clear such thinking would lead to conflict and a “dead end”.

At the same time as Xi delivered his concept of international relations to this year’s World Economic Forum, live by video link from his Beijing desk, a note published by Foreign Affairs, the journal of the US Council on Foreign Relations, under the headline ‘Delusions of Dominance’ stated bluntly, “Biden can’t restore American primacy – and shouldn’t try.”

These messages serve as a cautionary reminder that while the departure of Donald Trump from the White House may have been largely welcomed internationally, a reshaping of international relations is unlikely. Biden’s promise to introduce policies that reverse the damage Trump did to America’s foreign relations provides hope, but the timeline and roadmap for his ambitions have not been spelt out, and the strategy is thin.

It is easy for a president to promise a new era and a return to old values. But there will be few takers for the notion of American supremacy across the oceans, even if the US is led by a decent, elderly man who prefers international cooperation on his terms to lies, threats and pomp.

The return to old values requires examination. It is three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union elevated the US to the world superpower. American policymakers have since lived in the grip of Middle East conflicts, including the Iraq war, the Syrian disaster, the never-ending bloodshed in Afghanistan, the fight against Islamic State, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Obama promised a pivot to Asia but decided not to join the Trans-Pacific partnership. Against his pleading, Australia and 84 other countries signed up to the Beijing-based Asian infrastructure investment bank, as did all the US’s major allies except Japan.

Biden will draw comfort from Xi’s declared support for renewed global action on climate change, support for the United Nations and the World Health Organisation, his declaration that fundamental disagreements should be resolved through discussion and cooperation rather than confrontation, and his rejection of a trade war.

Other passages in the Chinese leader’s 30-minute peroration reject any attempt to interfere with the way China conducts its policies or seeks to halt its march to greater prosperity. He told Davos participants, which included four G7 leaders, it was essential “to abandon ideological prejudice in favour of win-win cooperation”.

Then he added a telling sentence: “There will be no human civilization without diversity, and such diversity will continue to exist for as long as we can imagine.”

Xi continued:

“Difference in itself is no cause for alarm. What does ring the alarm is arrogance, prejudice and hatred; it is the attempt to impose hierarchy on human civilization or to force one’s own history, culture and social system upon others.”

Xi’s warning  has not changed Washington‘s plan to corral the Asia Pacific and other democracies in an American-led challenge to Chinese and Russian behaviour. Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, told his confirmation hearing that he believed the Trump administration took “a proper stance” towards China. Blinken said he would advocate a continued tough line on China, seeking to boost the US position by improving relations with allies, promoting human rights and democracy. It is beginning to look as if Biden may be walking into Xi’s dead end.

This approach may not win universal appeal, except perhaps in Australia, although the  Coalition could expect to take a double hit from undue obeisance to Biden’s leadership goal. This could come from extended Chinese sanctions on Australian imports, a request for more support for the US military onshore and offshore, and a much bigger effort to combat climate change.

Morrrison will be receiving Biden’s invitation to an international climate summit to be held on Earth Day, April 22, designed to coordinate an international response to bringing forward tighter targets for carbon  emissions to 2030, one Canberra will struggle to meet. The White House on January 28 produced a detailed  planning document expanding on Biden’s mid-week slew of climate change executive orders. These include proposals to end all subsidies to fossil fuels, a $2 trillion clean energy package for conversion to solar and wind power genera and a move away from diesel and gasoline vehicles.

Countries in South East Asia, especially those like Vietnam that are wary of economic dependency on China, will want to feel, as well as hear, the perceived benefits of a re-pivot to the region. Since it seems unlikely the US will join the TPP, they will want to quantify future trade patterns.

The other big problem for Biden is a practical one. He has to prioritise controlling Covid-19, effectively putting into action Trump’s slogan ‘America First’, and will have to spend billions on the manufacture of vaccines.

As he does this both Xi and President Vladimir Putin are urging immediate action to make vaccinations more global, lending support to the WHO’s contention that some Western countries are acting selfishly. Putin also told the Davos meeting that growing economic inequality could spark conflict “unpredictably and uncontrollably”.

A nasty spat has already erupted between Germany and Britain, after AstraZeneca, the producers of the Oxford vaccine, said it could not fulfil contracted supplies to Germany. This led the European Union to threaten to curtail exports of the Pfizer vaccine to the United Kingdom. By mid-week, Britain had vaccinated 10% of its adult population compared with only 2% of EU citizens.

It is widely anticipated that Europe will be the primary focus of Biden’s new foreign policy. However, although his election was warmly welcomed in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, restoration of Transatlantic unity will not be a ‘slam dunk’.

Angela Merkel is playing down the idea of Biden restoring American leadership in the world, suggesting there are significant differences to resolve, including the long-standing dispute between the US and the EU over corporate tax avoidance and that governments, not Silicon Valley behemoths, should regulate social media. She welcomes the Biden-Putin agreement to extend the Strategic Arms Treaty by five years.

Merkel was not in favour of abandoning the Nordstream 2 gas project, or sanctions in general. When the EU backed US sanctions over Russian encroachment on Ukraine, retaliation by the Kremlin cost the bloc hundreds of millions in lost food exports.

Biden inherits, as the Foreign Affairs note says, a long-standing US grand strategy that is so systemically broken that no tonal adjustment can fix. “In seeking to rescue American diplomacy he will find, if he takes a hard look, that the burdens of primacy contradict his own goals.”

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