By K.M. Seethi*
With Joe Biden’s assumption of office as 46th President of the United States, there are expectations of a ‘liberal internationalist’ foreign policy set to emerge from Washington. However, the new team in the White House knew from the first day in office that this would not have been possible without constant recalibration. Many would have little dispute that Donald Trump was a president with very little intellectual endowment and international morality. They would still see him as a bumbling misfit in the White House whose four years in office were blemished by arrant mismanagement of both national and international affairs. Hence the dismantling of the Trumpian policy regime would have the virtue of resuscitating a win-win ‘liberal international’ order.
According to Dan Pfeiffer, “Whenever Trump did something that hurt someone or said something that offended everyone, there was something we could do. It was possible to turn the anger into activism, to undo the damage and right the wrong.”
Pfeiffer, the author of Un-Trumping America: A Plan to Make America a Democracy Again is one of the most perceptive observers of American politics (who also served as senior adviser to President Barack Obama). He called ‘Trumpism’ a “plutocracy in populist clothing.” Two days before Trump quit the office, Pfeiffer tweeted: “Beating Trump has been the organizing principle for the progressive universe for the last four years.” In less than a few hours after Donald Trump bragged —in his farewell address to the nation on 20 January 2021—that “We reclaimed our sovereignty by standing up for America at the United Nations and withdrawing from the one-sided global deals that never served our interests”, the new incumbent in the White House, Joe Biden, started undoing the damage that his predecessor caused to the nation through a series of reckless policies.
On the first day in office itself, President Biden stepped in with a spate of executive orders to rescind the policies of the Trump administration—that ranged from revisiting the climate change policy (which included rejoining the Paris Agreement), the management of the COVID-19, reentering the World Health Organization (WHO), to halting the controversial border wall and sensitive immigration issues.
One of the highest priority issues Biden stressed throughout the campaign was a review of all regulations and executive actions that patently affected the environment or public health. President Biden thus declared his resolve to rejoin the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement by reversing the Trump administration’s lopsided policy. The Paris accord aims to reduce global warming and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
The US was among 194 countries that signed the Agreement when Barack Obama was President. Trump annulled this decision two years later arguing that it was a “symbol of reassertion of our sovereignty.” He said that the accord put the U.S. at a disadvantage due to regulatory and financial burdens it would put on American business corporates. Trump also blamed China, Russia and India as ‘filthy’ nations, arguing that the agreement was unfair to the U.S. which “must pay for nations which benefitted the most.”
Now that a new instrument of acceptance of the Paris Agreement by the US—expressing its consent to be bound by the Agreement—was deposited with the UN Secretary-General, it was notified that the Paris Agreement would enter into force for the United States on 19 February 2021, in accordance with its Article 21 (3).
In a summit held in December 2020, the countries emitting half of all global carbon pollution committed themselves to carbon neutrality, or net-zero emissions. Upon the US decision to rejoin the accord, the UN Secretary-General reminded that “The climate crisis continues to worsen, and time is running out to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and build more climate-resilient societies that help to protect the most vulnerable.”
The new White House team, which consists of ‘liberal internationalists’ knows that environmental security is fundamental to the health and human security in the world and a concerted global action alone can sustain peace and development across the world.
The fact that health security is one of the top priorities of the Biden Administration is testified by its immediate focus on the pandemic, among the executive actions signed by the new President—which mandated masks and physical distancing on federal property and by federal employees.
The White House also issued a comprehensive anti-COVID-19 strategy, pledged a genuine ‘wartime’ strategy to expand vaccine distribution, supplies and testing. Biden’s $1.9 trillion rescue plan is part of this grand strategy to combat the coronavirus pandemic which already claimed more than 4.20 lakh lives with the largest number (more than 25 million) of infection cases in the world.
The President’s executive order extended the federal eviction freeze to support those struggling from the COVID-19 economic consequence, set up a new federal office to coordinate a national response to the pandemic and reinstated the White House’s National Security Council directorate for global health security and defense, an office Trump had shut down. It may be recalled that Biden had criticised his predecessor for the incompetent response to the worst public health crisis in 100 years.
President Biden also reversed the process of withdrawing from the WHO. Last year, Trump had threatened to put a permanent hold on U.S. funding for the organisation unless it conformed to substantial changes. He had criticised the agency for its handling of COVID-19 and its relationship with Beijing. Trump also accused the WHO chief of “waiting too long” to declare COVID-19 a public health emergency.
President Biden announced that the U.S. will fulfill its financial obligations to the WHO as well as restore sufficient American staff who work with the organization. The US also plans to join the COVAX alliance—an initiative led by the WHO and two other groups, that seeks to secure greater access to COVID-19 vaccines for poor countries.
Right from the beginning of the election campaign, Biden has been forthright in his position on the issues of immigration. He said he would restore the credibility of the nation as a migrant-friendly country. Naturally, six of Biden’s 17 executive orders, memorandums and proclamations deal with immigration. He ordered efforts to preserve Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a programme that has sheltered hundreds of thousands of people who landed up in the US as children from deportation since it was put in place in 2012.
Biden also extended temporary legal status to Liberians who escaped from the civil war and the Ebola outbreak. While halting the work on border wall with Mexico, Biden sought to ensure that the interests of asylum-seekers would be taken care of. With this, the Trump administration’s contentious ‘remain in Mexico’ policy necessitating asylum-seekers trying to enter the U.S. from the southern border to wait in Mexico for American court hearings would be suspended. The executive order ending the restrictions on travel and immigration from some predominantly Muslim countries and few from other parts of the world came as a relief to many. During Trump’s first week in office, the ‘Muslim ban’ at first restricted travel from seven Muslim-majority nations—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Later a few more countries were added to the list which included Nigeria, Myanmar, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania, North Korea and some Venezuelan officials and their relatives.
President Biden called these actions as “a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.” The order directs the State Department to recommence visa processing for those countries and develop a plan to address people affected, such as those who were denied entry to the US.
The new administration also brought in an order asking federal agencies to prioritise racial equity and re-examine policies that bolster systemic racism. Biden repealed an order issued by Trump that required to exclude noncitizens from the census and mandated federal employees to take an ethics pledge that would commit them to upholding the independence of the Justice Department. Biden sought to take all lawful steps to ensure the adoption of the US Supreme Court ruling elucidating that LGBTQ people are among those protected from workplace discrimination.
Notwithstanding the fresh lease of life offered by President Biden on a number of issues bequeathed from the past, the new administration surely confronts an array of intractable economic challenges, intensified by the coronavirus pandemic. Even as tens of millions of people remain unemployed and hundreds of thousands of small businesses have been crushed, the wealth of the capitalist oligarchs have ascended to extraordinary levels—thanks to the ceaseless flow of capital from the Federal Reserve and global central banks—adding to the enormous accumulation of debt.
Joe Biden assumed office at a crucial global economic juncture. The World Economic Forum has recently brought out its 2021 Global Risks Report that warned that in a critical period of pandemic, “job losses, a widening digital divide, disrupted social interactions, and abrupt shifts in markets could lead to dire consequences and lost opportunities for large parts of the global population.”
As a leading economic power, the United States cannot but see this economic scenario as a challenging, if not an inhibiting factor, in its global engagements. The success of the new administration depends on how effectively it negotiates with countries in the European Union, on the one hand, and China and other East Asian countries, on the other.
The expectation is that with a team of ‘liberal internationalists’ in the Biden administration, there would be more room for diplomacy, international cooperation and constructive engagements, rather than a return to a ‘self-help’ system of international relations.
*The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He also served as Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University. He can be contacted at [email protected]