The election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States intimates a reversion to Washington’s default liberal and progressive values, especially in foreign affairs. After forty years in Beltway politics, Biden has the profile of the classic political insider. As another insider, Larry Summers explained to Yannis Varoufakis in 2015, “there are two kinds of politicians: insiders and outsiders”.
Outsiders like Trump, Boris Johnson or Varoufakis himself might “prioritize their freedom to speak their version of the truth”, but, Summers continued, “they are ignored by the insiders”. The insiders in both domestic and international politics are, as Christine Lagarde, another insider, later informed Varoufakis, the “adults in the room”. The insider elite in politics, economics, academe and the media follow a sacrosanct rule “never turn on other insiders and never talk to outsiders about what insiders say or do”. The reward for maintaining the rule is, “a chance … of influencing powerful people and outcomes”.
In foreign policy terms, the return to what Washington (which voted 95 per cent for Biden in November) considers normal service will mean a revival of the preferred Wilsonian liberal rules based order that both the Obama and Clinton presidencies embraced and the academic establishment, like Brookings and the Harvard Belfer Centre, continued to advance throughout the Trump interregnum.
Trump’s instinctive Jacksonian America First approach to foreign policy that eschewed international institutions, like the WTO, which no longer served American interests will be reversed. Shortly after Trump’s defeat the Belfer Centre’s eminence gris, Joseph Nye, called for the US to “rediscover the importance of international organisations” and revive its fading “soft power of attraction”. From this progressive perspective the US will once more constitute the beacon on the hill bringing universal norms of democracy, social justice and human rights back to the fore in international and regional colloquies.
Trump developed much closer ties with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel
Indeed, as soon as he had secured sufficient electoral college votes, Biden announced America would re-enter the multilateral Paris climate change agreement that Trump had withdrawn from the previous week. The symbolism was clear. America would be reengaging with the international organisations it had largely created during the 1990s pursuing once again, as another liberal world order Woodrow Wilson scholar, John Ikenberry, contended “an institution building agenda” that employs “institutions as a mechanism to lock in other states to desired policy orientations”. What might this back to the future exercise in progressive democratic institutionalism mean for Trump’s nationalist foreign policy agenda which, from this insider perspective, undermined US prestige as the indispensable global power?
Starting across the Atlantic, Biden will reverse Trump’s dismissive treatment of NATO, and disparaging view of the European Union, especially those European leaders he and his most trusted foreign policy advisor, the Paris educated, Tony Blinken admire, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Democrat international institutionalists still regard the European Union central to a progressive post-national European regional order irrespective of its democratic deficit, and unaccountable bureaucracy.
The new administration consequently views Brexit as a disturbing form of populism and Boris Johnson as Trump lite, or, more precisely, a racist “shape shifting creep” as a former Obama press advisor described him. Johnson has not been forgiven for his remarks about Obama’s hostility to the UK and he will be sent to the back of the queue when it comes to any bilateral trade deal. It is also clear that the Democrats will take a punitive line if a hard Brexit sees the UK government’s pursuit of a single market abrogating treaty protocols with the EU covering the Irish border.
Revived US commitment to international treaties and institutions together with Biden’s Irish catholic ancestry will see Sinn Fein assuming a higher Washington profile than English Conservatives with their colonialist imperialist baggage that the new Vice President particularly despises. The UK might discover very quickly that their special relationship is special only in the sense of a rather difficult and intellectually challenged child and the relationship an essentially disciplinary one. The Slovaks, Poles and Hungarians can expect similar reprimands for their populist enthusiasm for conservative politicians who adopt unacceptable nationalist attitudes to immigration and diversity.
Its virtuous internationalism might very quickly make America miserable again
Moving East, Biden’s team will declare a hard line on Russia and Syria, but also have little time for Erdogan’s Ottoman Sunni expansionism. However, it is not only in the western Mediterranean that Biden and Blinken’s policy reset might potentially exacerbate tensions in an area Trump largely ignored. Trump significantly reversed Obama’s rapprochement with Iran and developed much closer ties with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel. A revival of the Iran nuclear deal, the abandonment of which Biden considers “a profound mistake”, will only give much needed oxygen to Iran’s regional proxies in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria further destabilising an already volatile region.
It is, however, in reviving Obama’s multilateral pivot to Asia that the new dispensation will face the most profound challenge to its institution building and soft power agenda. Trump dumped Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership which envisaged a multilateral trade deal with a variety of Asian and South American partners. Instead, Trumpism directly challenged China’s growing regional hegemony and its manipulation of international institutions from the UN to the WHO and WTO.
Trumpism further preferred bilateral to multilateral agreements forging closer ties with Japan, Australia and India and courting regimes with unsavoury human rights records or illiberal governments in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, whilst ignoring regional multilateral arrangements like ASEAN and APEC. As Xi Jinping acted with growing impunity in the South China Sea and across the McMahon line in North East India , and, more recently, sanctioning Australia for questioning its political influence, Trump secretary of state, Mike Pompeo proposed an alliance of independent littoral states stretching across the Indo Pacific to contain China’s global influence and hard power.
The new Biden administration will also seek to build alliances in the Indo-Pacific but along with a democratic and human rights bias which might further alienate South East Asian states which have always found US democracy promotion an unwarranted interference in their internal affairs. Even India, Asia’s largest democracy might find that Kamala Harris is not quite the supportive “chitty” the Hindu nationalist government in Delhi assumes.
In other words, a deluded internationalism that treats the world as it ought to be rather than it currently is, offers the worrying prospect of a rerun of Obama’s sanctimonious foreign policy and the tried and failed end of history idealism that did so much to encourage the rise of revisionist powers like Russia, Iran and, of course, China in the first place.
The Washington blob, it seems is back and as Talleyrand observed of the Bourbon Monarchy restored after the fall of Napoleon, it seems to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Its virtuous internationalism might very quickly make America miserable again. Americans and European conservatives more generally might soon be looking back on Trump’s realist appreciation of the national interest with regret.
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