Synopsis–But the notion that this will somehow keep the incoming Joe Biden administration only embroiled in domestic issues may not be accurate. On the contrary, it may just hasten the process of resurrecting institutional linkages with partner countries, precisely to affirm the opposite of what radical Donald Trump supporters sought to do on January 6 — strengthen the US’ democratic credentials.
The US is undoubtedly passing through a turbulent period. But the notion that this will somehow keep the incoming Joe Biden administration only embroiled in domestic issues may not be accurate.
On the contrary, it may just hasten the process of resurrecting institutional linkages with partner countries, precisely to affirm the opposite of what radical Donald Trump supporters sought to do on January 6 — strengthen the US’ democratic credentials.
The first approach will likely be Europe, which currently has drifted away largely due to outgoing president Trump’s indignation towards its traditional allies. The fact that the European Union (EU) under German presidency has gone ahead and firmed up an investment deal with China even as the US was in transition is seen as a marker of how big a gap Biden has to bridge.
Incoming National Security Adviser (NSA) Jake Sullivan even put out a line while the EU-China talks were on in late-December that the new administration would be open to ‘early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices’.
But that didn’t stop Brussels or Berlin. Many in EU reportedly justified this by pointing to Trump’s ‘phase one deal’ with China.
For Biden, Europe is more than just about securing common interests. It’s about reviving the common identity construct built around liberal democratic values that form the core of all post-World War 2 structures of cooperation, be it economic or military. And that’s why starting its global engagement agenda by getting Europe on its side on security, trade, climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic will be priority for the US, since it will feed into the domestic campaign of rebuilding America.
In fact, the entire 2020 Biden campaign was centred on the principle of reviving institutional democracy in the US, one which the Biden camp had argued that Trump had desecrated, disrespected and disregarded. Europe is at the heart of that ‘reimagining America’ narrative, but not the only one. Which is why powers like Japan, Australia and India will also matter in due course.
The Ins and Outs
External orientations in US domestic policy are important. Of late, more focus has been on the opposite — the impact domestic priorities have on foreign policy. While not undermining the importance of internal policy priorities, many US administrations have gained greater institutional heft by leveraging US global power. This power apparatus has always functioned and expressed itself through economic and military alliances woven by an intricate web of structures and processes that have come to inform global institutions. Biden will need to make this work for him rather urgently, even more so after January 6.
What will help Biden is the stake the rest of the world has in keeping the US’ democracy narrative alive, an argument often lost in the rancour and clamour of US domestic politics. In other words, many countries will actively cooperate with Biden to ensure Washington regains some of its institutional heft and clout. Here, the current global security and economic environment plays an important role. The rise of China has increased insecurity among nations.
And this spreads across Asia, from the Himalayas to the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. That the US acts as a bulwark against non-democratic regimes like China is an assurance essential at a time when the world is coping with a global pandemic. This is one area where even the outgoing administration is not holding back. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this weekend the lifting of restrictions in interactions between US and Taiwanese officials. Now, that may just have been another move to irk China. But it surely will be something the Biden administration will have to reconsider, if at all, with caution.
At a broader level though, Biden will find many countries like India willing to come forward with all they can in cooperating with the US on combating Covid-19, given the difficult situation there. The same holds true on climate change and, perhaps, trade. Simply put, Biden will find a climate conducive enough to build partnerships and, thereby, strengthen the US’ global currency.
The one issue to be watched carefully after the incidents of the last week in Washington will be the way in which the new administration will craft its global democracy narrative. Will it be sharply liberal democratic that will frown on anything non-liberal? Or will it be more accommodating of other democracies, and seek to enforce compliance from autocratic regimes?
Paying the Capitol
A Biden White House will have to be cautious in responding to disorder elsewhere, while at the same time use its institutional strength to make effective interventions to uphold rights where essential, like in Hong Kong. Either way, the events of January 6 in no way will force the US to turn inwards.
Rather, they may help reorient Washington’s external outlook in a manner that brings back institutional balance in the US. And going by Biden’s political response to the storming of the US Capitol, the pace at which he is staffing his administration, and the representative nature of his appointments so far, indications are that Biden, the president, will be both calibrated and institutional in approach.
Views expressed are author’s own