By Harsh V. Pant
As America prepares for the transition from the tumultuous era of Donald Trump to what many hope would be a more sedate and serious Presidency of Joe Biden, there is as much nervousness about the challenges in future as there is a sense of anticipation about impending changes. But while politicians often have the luxury of campaigning in poetry, they have to govern in prose and respond to policy issues of the day in real time.
Mr. Biden, as much as he would have liked, will neither have complete autonomy from his predecessor nor a clean slate from which his policy options might emerge. He will have to respond to an America which Donald Trump has transformed, for better or for worse, and he will have an international environment, which, too, has been changed in the last few years, partly by Mr. Trump’s policy choices and partly by the strategic realities evolving at an unprecedented speed.
Domestically, Mr. Biden has his task cut out to reach out to Mr. Trump’s supporters, a majority of whom still believe that the new President has not been elected by fair means. Such a continuing support base for Mr. Trump will constrain the ability to usher in the transformational agenda that Mr. Biden may like to effectuate in his initial days. And politically, this would make it all the more difficult to govern from the middle ground of American politics.
A different world
This will have grave implications for Mr. Biden’s foreign policy approach as well. In a number of his foreign policy statements, Mr. Biden has, not surprisingly, harked back to Obama-era policies. But the world has moved on and it is not readily evident if the Obama-era template can actually work in a world fundamentally disrupted by forces that post-dated Mr. Obama — Mr. Trump is only one of them.
Mr. Biden has an ambitious restorationist agenda wherein he wants the U.S. to rejoin multilateral institutions, work closely with allies and partners, as well as build America’s domestic capacities. Whether he will have enough space to manage this remains to be seen.
In an interesting intervention recently, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned that the Biden administration should not return to the old Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 as it can spark an arms race in West Asia. His argument is simple: with Iran’s nuclear capabilities grown and a new window of opportunity with the Abraham Accords, today’s West Asia is not what it was in 2015. The convergence between Israel and Sunni Arab states against the perceived Iranian threat has led to the creation of a new axis with far-reaching implications for the region’s future. So, while Mr. Biden may like to revive the old Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), other stakeholders are signalling that they are not interested. Also warning against the revival of the JCPOA, the UAE’s ambassador in Washington has argued that the U.S. ignored the concerns of its West Asian partners in the 2015 pact.
A big votary of the Paris climate accord, one of the first priorities for Mr. Biden would be to bring the U.S. back to the agreement. But beyond that, his ability to bring about a significant shift in America’s environment policies will be restricted by the lack of a considerable majority in the U.S. Senate; there may also be a serious divide between progressive and moderate Democrats within his own party.
Mr. Biden has also expressed his desire to reform the World Trade Organization and appoint members to its Appellate Body, but that would be difficult to accomplish given the new power equations and the growing clout of non-western states. Greater multilateralism, however attractive, will not be easy to achieve in the new political environs of the U.S. and the world.
While there will be a lot of talk for a greater transatlantic partnership, to what extent the countries will be able to coordinate their actions on trade and technology vis-à-vis China remains an open question. Even as Mr. Biden’s team expressed its reservations about the EU’s investment pact with China, and his National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan called for “early consultations with our European partners on our common concerns about China’s economic practices”, the EU, in a seeming hurry, went ahead and concluded the agreement with China.
Mr. Trump’s tariff war against China would also be difficult to scale back, especially as China has made it clear that it is in no mood to initiate structural reforms demanded by Washington. Phase one of Mr. Trump’s trade deal with China has not really gotten off the ground, and the country’s lack of compliance with key aspects of the deal will confine the Biden administration to an arrangement where he may have to continue with most of the tariffs put in place by Mr. Trump. Recognising this challenge, Mr. Biden has already indicated that he does not intend to make any “immediate moves” regarding the Trump-era tariff structure.
Even in his last few days, Mr. Trump did not shy away from ratcheting up the pressure on China by continuing to blacklist Chinese companies from U.S. markets and by new policy moves on key issues such as Tibet and Taiwan. He passed the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020, which calls for establishing a U.S. consulate in Tibet and building an international coalition to ensure that the next Dalai Lama is appointed by the Tibetan Buddhist community without China’s interference. Days before departing, Mr. Trump also managed to challenge the decades-old U.S. policy on Taiwan, when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that while U.S. relations with Taiwan would remain unofficial, they would no longer be shackled by “self-imposed restrictions”.
With his moves, Mr. Trump has severely restricted Mr. Biden’s space for manoeuvre — he can either continue with Trump-era policies or face political backlash for being soft on China. The Trump legacy will continue to haunt Mr. Biden long after his predecessor has left the White House. It is possible that for all of Mr. Biden’s rhetoric, his next four years would be spent trying to get out of Mr. Trump’s shadow, both at home and abroad.
This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu