Much of America is breathing a sigh of relief that, gracefully or otherwise, Trump will soon vacate the White House. Allies of the United States – not just governments but much of the commentariat – are expecting a less turbulent and more predictable international environment. That may be wishful thinking.
There is no denying that Trumpism has been a recipe for policy incoherence, administrative chaos, and vulgar, often untruthful discourse. Biden’s team will no doubt restore a measure of civility to American diplomacy and craft a set of domestic policies designed to repair some of the damage inflicted on health, environment, and race relations.
Yet, even here the signs are less than reassuring. Yes, we can expect climate change to be given a higher priority in foreign policy. The appointment of US Secretary of State John Kerry as special presidential envoy on climate change signals a willingness to return to the international negotiating table.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, Obama committed the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% by 2025, from 2005 levels. The Biden administration will renew that commitment and may even set a goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
But let’s not forget, what can be done on the international stage depends largely on what happens domestically. Soon after his inauguration Biden is expected to use executive leverage to reverse some of Trump’s most egregious decisions, which erased or loosened nearly 100 environmental rules and regulations.
He may not, however, be able to reinstate all these rules. And, even if he can, this will not be enough to meet the net zero emission target. Eventually, a comprehensive legislative network will be needed. It is not clear how Biden proposes to do this, if, as seems likely, he is faced with a hostile Senate and an obstructionist Supreme Court.
Behind and beyond these institutional roadblocks lies the bigger hurdle – fossil fuel interests. Intense lobbying by coal, gas and oil companies, and the utility and transportation sectors, coupled with large donations to political parties, has been remarkably successful. Nothing said during the election campaign suggests Biden is of a mind to neutralise the fossil fuel lobby’s formidable political muscle.
As for Washington’s future engagement with the world, we may be in for a torrid time. When formally announcing the members of his national security and foreign policy team last week, Biden chose as his opening words ‘America is back’.
Which America is this, we may ask? Is it the America that took us to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya? Is it the America that has steadfastly invoked external threats to justify in peacetime the deadliest military arsenal in human history?
Much has been made of America’s commitment to a rules-based international order. Yet, US administrations have made a habit of overthrowing foreign governments, whether by force or other means. Over the last 67 years, it has attempted regime change in 58 separate instances, that is, the equivalent of one every 14 months.
The defining feature of America’s presence in the world since 1945 has been the growth of its ‘national security state’. Though presidents come and go, the security apparatus has developed a mind of its own, and tentacles that reach into virtually every area of policy, every institution of government, and a great many foreign governments.
It is entirely possible that Biden has other ideas about future US security policy. He may favour a gentler, wiser, less interventionist America, less intent on reviving its ambition for hegemony. If so, he has yet to spell them out.
All we have at the moment are a few broad-brush sentences. The words he used to introduce his security team are nevertheless cause for concern, and merit restating:
‘It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back. Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Once again, sit at the head of the table. Ready to confront our adversaries, and not reject our allies, ready to stand up for our values.’
We can only assume that the primary adversaries he has in mind are Russia and China. If so, the idea of confronting them raises troubling questions: confront them in response to what, by what means, and with what objectives?
There is, it seems, little appreciation that we are witnessing a shift in the centre of economic and geopolitical gravity from West to East, in part the result of East Asia’s renewed economic dynamism.
More importantly, the West-centric world in which first Europe and then the United Stated held sway, is slowly but steadily giving way to a new world in which other civilisational centres are emerging or re-re-emerging. This calls for new forms of dialogue and accommodation both across and within major civilisations.
Sadly, there is no indication that the incoming administration is aware of, not to say favourably disposed to, these possibilities.
In many ways, Biden’s choice of cabinet members is itself instructive. Antony Blinken (secretary of state), Avril Haines (director of national intelligence), and Jake Sullivan (national security adviser) all went to Ivy League schools, and were closely associated with the Obama administration. They are all quintessential products of the security and foreign policy establishment.
They all speak of an America that can resume global leadership as if they know what leadership entails at this historical moment. They assume the world is yearning to be led and to have the United States as its leader. This can be hardly true of Russia or China, and it is difficult to see either Germany or France meekly complying with US preferences and priorities.
Put simply, there is no evidence that the Biden administration is alive to the immense challenges posed by a rapidly transforming world. Significantly, neither the president-elect nor his appointees have referred to the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. Nor have they indicated much interest in reaching out to other countries with a view to breathing new life into existing international institutions, in particular the United Nations.
Insofar as Biden and his entourage have referred to multilateralism, it has been primarily in the context of international military alliances and regional formations closely aligned to US interests and priorities.
They have been conspicuously silent on the institutions, decision making processes and resourcing needed to manage, or better still prevent, the financial, environmental and humanitarian crises that have become a regular feature of the international landscape.
They have waxed lyrical about their commitment to US values and human rights, implying that they will respond loudly and forcefully when these standards are violated by adversaries. But they have said little about how they propose to handle gross human rights violations by friends and allies, as is presently the case with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Thailand and the Philippines .
It is fair to say that the Obama administration assumed office in January 2009 with a much grander vision and loftier rhetoric, but managed to deliver little in the ensuing eight years. It is conceivable that the Biden administration will assume office in January 2021 with a humbler agenda and still end up achieving more. Australia would be unwise to base its future on the strength of that assumption.