Even if Joe Biden becomes President, which seems increasingly likely, this does not mean a return to the world we knew before Trump.
The temptation to believe the United States will now resume its place as leader of what is sometimes laughingly called “the free world” ignores the reality that the world is facing a set of challenges very different to those in which that language made some sense.
In some major ways Biden will return the US to a more predictable and conventional international position. Expect the US to re-join some of the international organisations Trump has discarded, certainly the World Health Organisation for a start. Biden will return the US to the Paris climate process and possibly resume the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Importantly the White House will no longer seem to prefer tyrants to democrats, and Biden will presumably eschew bromances with such dictators as Kim Il Sung. One hopes he will be less subservient to Benjamin Netanyahu, although domestic politics might mean the US retains its embassy in Jerusalem, while making comforting noises about a “two state solution”, which no one really believes in any longer.
Biden will abandon the nationalist language of Trump’s “America First”, but he is unlikely to return to the swaggering sense of American mission that marked George W. Bush’s presidency. The one achievement of Donald Trump was that he showed restraint in using American military force, much to the disappointment of his one-time advisor John Bolton, whom one hopes is now consigned to the outer reaches of hell, or at least Fox News.
None of this will much affect Australia, although it will presumably be easier for our eminently sensible Foreign and Defence ministers to deal with their counterparts under Biden. For Prime Minister Morrison things may be slightly tougher.
Remember when Morrison seemed to bond with Trump—who called him “the man of titanium”—and adopted some of his anti-globalism rhetoric? Over the past year Morrison’s rhetoric has subtly changed; like Julia Gillard he came to the top job with little prior interest or experience in foreign policy and, one hopes, he shares some of Gillard’s ability to learn quickly.
Biden’s centrist Democratic politics are, after all, close to the sensible centre of the Liberal Party; only a handful of government members, such as Eric Abetz, George Christensen or the lugubrious Kevin Andrews, would feel at home with Trump’s Republicans. But the one issue where Morrison will need to adjust is climate policy.
Almost certainly the most important shift in American posture globally under Biden will be a recognition that climate change matters and that governments need respond. Biden showed some courage in making this a plank of his campaign, possibly losing a few votes in Pennsylvania and Texas as a result.
A United States that seeks to lead on global warming will be an awkward ally for Scott Morrison. The upside is that it might give enough backbone to Anthony Albanese to stare down his own coal lobby and accept the need for Australia to adopt meaningful emission reduction targets.
The commentariat were divided as to whether China wanted a Trump or a Biden presidency; my hunch is they didn’t much care but they would prefer a more rational adversary, namely Biden. The mainstream Australian media and political world has been mesmerised by growing tensions between China and the United States, which is increasingly depicted as the Cold War round two.
But the world is far more complex than this view of a duopoly suggests, and the problems it faces are multi-faceted. It is extraordinary that after a year marked by climate-related catastrophes and a global epidemic, mainstream discourse still concentrates on traditional great power rivalry, rather as if we were back in Europe in 1914, and the Taiwan Straits were Sarajevo.
Yes, China is a rapidly growing aggressive autocracy, which is determined to expand its influence. Yes, it might under certain circumstances use military force, particularly against Taiwan. It has already indicated its ability to attack the Australian economy by careful restrictions of trade, although the losses are probably less than those resulting from the collapse of tourism and international students due to Covid.
There is little Australia can do to counter the rise of China, nor to temper the increasing repression with which it controls its population. What we can do is take the concerns of countries in our region more seriously, which in terms of the Pacific, for which Morrison professes great empathy, means a real set of policies to reduce carbon emissions.
All of which means showing more independence from the United States and more willingness to not follow their lead on every issue. In practice even Liberal governments have often done this. But the perception, both domestically and in Asia, is that we are, as George Bush put it, their deputy sheriff.
This is not a promising role given the deep divisions and dysfunction that beset the current United States. Earlier this week the Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass tweeted that: “Whatever the ultimate outcome of this election, this is a deeply divided country along political and cultural lines alike. Bodes badly for governing at home and for building a consensus as to the country’s role in the world. Sobering by any and every measure.”
I had hoped that the lesson for Australia of the Trump Presidency would be to remind us that the interests of the United States and Australia are rather different, and we should view the US as another foreign country rather than a benevolent protector concerned for our welfare. Let’s hope that the inauguration of a less autocratic and narcissistic President doesn’t lead us to forget that basic point.