Can it get worse after Trump?

When Joe Biden is in the White House and Donald Trump is back in his tower or at his resort, some things about the Trump years will be missed.

As newly elected leaders usually do, Biden has promised to govern for all Americans and, as Obama did, he has spoken of ‘hope’. His supporters certainly hope Biden will reverse Trump’s destructive policies. But if Biden meets some of their expectations, he won’t pursue them all. The usual excuses will be offered, that his progressive legislation is frustrated by Republicans in Congress. They are likely to oppose his budget and his appointments. He may only last four years.

Biden’s program doesn’t commit the Democrats to a health-care system of the kind Bernie Sanders wanted, nor to affordable higher education. He has not proposed renewal of America’s ageing infrastructure. A program to create jobs would seem an obvious priority, but he hasn’t offered one. Although he promised that climate change would be on his agenda on Day 1, that is more likely to mean a US-convened climate summit, rivalling Boris Johnson’s postponed Glasgow, than an explicit commitment to a Green New Deal. He inherits the pandemic that Trump ignored.

When Trump has gone, the joy and relief felt by international observers may wane somewhat. Biden and Kamala Harris have said little about their plans for foreign relations, apart from promising to restore the US to its former position of respect in the world. That they seem not to know why the US has been losing such respect is not a good start. Biden seems to imagine America returning to doing the things it once could, and shows little inclination to move US foreign policy forward.

He hasn’t mentioned mending the multilateral fences Trump broke with the WTO, the WHO, the TPP, the ICC and the ICJ. On the JCPOA which Trump abrogated with Iran, Biden offers renegotiation, which the Iranians reject. Israel always wants US pressure on Iran and the Palestinians, and will continue to get it from Biden. Oil and gas politics are unlikely to change, so American efforts to disrupt exports from the Middle East and Russia to Europe in favour of more expensive American shale oil will continue, as will US sanctions against countries which resist them.

The Pentagon is opposing Trump’s last effort as Commander-in-Chief, to bring home the last 4500 US troops from Afghanistan, 500 from Somalia, and those who remain in Iraq and Syria. Trump bragged that he is the first president since Jimmy Carter not to have started a war – even if he was responsible for the Mother of All Bombs being dropped on Afghanistan and for Iran’s top military officer being assassinated. But at least he tried for détente of a sort with Russia, China, and North Korea. Instead of fighting foreign wars, Trump would prefer to invoke the Insurrection Act and deploy troops against rioters and protesters in American cities.

Biden’s long record in public life – starting as an opponent of the Vietnam war in 1972 and becoming a firm anti-communist CIA supporter as he rose in politics – suggests that he is likely to shun any proposition that the US might soon be fighting no wars abroad. He won’t promise a complete troop withdrawal from the Middle East, and has talked about expanding US cyber-warfare and drone capacities. No major cuts in defence spending are expected under Biden, Stars and Stripes has assured its military readers. The main beneficiaries of this will be the weapons makers who gave $2.4 million to Biden during the 2020 election campaign, and only $1.6 million to Trump.

Biden won’t diminish the determination of the US, urged on by Australia’s ASPI, to encircle China with military threats. Nor has he mentioned a constructive appraisal of the Belt and Road Initiative, which enables China to build infrastructure links and economic influence across East and Central Asia without firing a shot. Reunification of Korea will continue to be too hard. Instead, Biden promises to make it clear to Beijing that Washington won’t back down. He says he will ‘reinvigorate’ the United States as a Pacific power by increasing the US naval presence and deepening ties with Australia, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea.

Not long ago, Biden was pleased to have pushed for the removal of Venezuela’s socialist president Nicholas Maduro, whom he called a tyrant, and was among the first to recognize the regressive leader Juan Guaido. Biden responded to the US-led NATO bombing of Libya in 2011 by happily claiming that the war in which ‘we didn’t lose a single life’ provided ‘a prescription for how to deal with the world as we go forward’. In that year he called Julian Assange a ‘cyber-terrorist’, which means that under the Patriot Act the WikiLeaks publisher could be judicially murdered. The prospect of Biden pardoning him, as Obama pardoned Chelsea Manning, seems remote.

Biden is expected to appoint three warlike women as Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, and head of the CIA: Michele Flournoy, Susan Rice, and Avril Haines. As Obama’s Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012, Flournoy was an advocate of wars of aggression and pre-emptive strikes in defiance of international law and the UN Security Council. As National Security Adviser and Ambassador to the UN under Obama, Rice asserted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was concealing them. Haines, as Obama’s CIA Deputy Director, spared CIA personnel from reprisals for spying on the Senate’s torture investigators, and was part of the team that redacted its landmark report. She later supported, as Trump’s CIA director, Gina Haspel who was directly implicated in CIA torture operations. No-one has even mentioned closing Guantánamo Bay, as Obama promised to do.

For Australia, so long conditioned to relying on US leadership, even Trump’s, the Biden years may prove a policy vacuum which we will have to fill with policies of our own.

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Dr Alison Broinowski AM is Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform. She joined the Australian Foreign Service in 1963, lived in Japan for a total of six years, and for shorter periods in Burma, Iran, the Philippines, Jordan, South Korea, the United States of America and Mexico, working alternately as an author and Australian diplomat.

Since leaving the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, she has received a PhD in Asian Studies from ANU, and has continued to lecture, write, and broadcast in Australia and abroad on Asian affairs and cultural and political issues.

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