Trump wrecked Western world order, Biden can’t totally revive it

Source: Global Times Published: 2020/11/18 14:53:40

Amitav Acharya Photo: Courtesy of Amitav Acharya

Editor's Note:

The US election drama has been on for a while. It seems now the dust has settled. The significant number of votes for Trump shows he has a large following. How will this affect the new administration's domestic and foreign policy? Will the new administration's foreign policy be fundamentally different in comparison to the Trump administration's? Amitav Acharya (Acharya), distinguished professor of International Relations at American University, Washington DC and the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance, shared his perspective with Global Times (GT) reporters Yu Jincui and Lu Yuanzhi over these issues.

GT: It's been reported that Democratic candidate Joe Biden has won the presidential race with 306 electoral votes to Trump's 232. Does this result meet your expectations? Biden and Trump respectively won the most and second-most votes in the history of the US. What does this indicate?

To be honest, Biden's victory actually exceeds my expectations, because I did not believe in predictions about a Biden/Democrat landslide, due to what happened to Hillary Clinton's campaign four years ago. Even though Biden had led in national polls, the electoral college is a different thing. And I saw telltale signs of widespread Trump support in the US.

Of course, Biden was more cautious than Hillary Clinton and avoided big campaign mistakes, like Clinton's infamous "basket of deplorables" comment about a segment of Trump's supporters. Biden had no baggage like Whitewater, Bill Clinton impeachment, or major ongoing controversies like that over her use of a private email server. Hillary was also unlucky and was really doomed by the unexpected way then FBI director James Comey handled her email controversy days before the election. The controversy about Biden and his son's financial dealings was not going to stick, especially given even the much bigger and more visible financial and ethical lapses about Trump and his associates. 

Yet, Trump's electoral performance, where he got over 72 million popular votes, an increase over his 2016 performance, is significant. He retains a substantial cache of followers, not just his core base of ardent followers, but among male voters nationwide, and in the Republican party in general. This means he remains a major force in US politics.

GT: Trump up until now refuses to admit the result. What uncertainties will this bring to the power transition? There is a view holding that Trump's refusal to concede reflects the fact that US society is politically divided enough to bolster Trump's contempt for the president-elect and the US political system is degrading. How do you view this? 

The transition is already disrupted a bit, especially since the Biden transition team is not getting funding and other privileges that is due to a President-elect by the Federal General Services Administration headed by a Trump appointee. But it is still in the early days into the transition. More important, Biden is not getting the highly classified intelligence briefs, which creates concerns about US national security preparedness, although that may change soon 

The greater damage is to the US body-politic, Trump's refusal to concede is actually less significant than his loud and repeated claims of widespread electoral fraud, his rantings about the election having been stolen from him, for which no real proof has been provided. Such claims are strongly dismissed by state officials in charge of elections. The sort of accusations and conspiracy theories floated by Trump are calculated to undercut the legitimacy of the Biden presidency, but they also undermine US democracy both domestically and internationally. Many international observers are dumbfounded by statements and actions by a sitting president and likely to blame not just him personally but also see it - fairly or unfairly - as a fundamental issue with the US political system. I agree that Trump's actions degrade the US political system.

GT: Nearly half of the voters in the US have supported Trump, how will this affect the Biden administration's domestic and foreign policies? Biden vows to unite the US. Can he bridge the current division of US society?  

Trump is not going to fade away. Health permitting, he  may well run for the 2024 presidential election, mouthing the same conspiracy theories about electoral fraud in 2020 and claims of the presidency having been stolen from him. This means the fracture in the US body politics, which is not just ideological, but also a class divide, and a rural-urban polarization, would become deeper and more long-term. The Biden presidency, which may be one-term given his age, could not heal such deep fissures against a continued Trump-led populist onslaught. And things would worsen should the Republicans hold on to a Senate majority after the January Senate elections in Georgia. Biden's progressive and conciliatory agenda would be stymied by the obstructionist strategies of the Senate leadership. Biden would have little choice but to resort to increased executive actions to carry out his domestic agenda, which would in turn be heavily criticized by the Republicans and widen the gulf between the executive and legislative branches of the US government.

In terms of foreign policy, Biden has more leeway. He would move quickly to reverse some of Trump's more extreme policies such as the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization and more challengingly, may even revive the Iran nuclear deal. Biden would pursue a more multilateral approach, and restore US relationships with NATO and allies such as Germany. More important, he would restore, to a degree, lost US credibility and reputation internationally. While some of his international policies and actions would be controversial, the tone and manner of the Biden foreign policy would be fundamentally different.

GT: The past few years have seen a dramatic deterioration of China-US relations. How much does Trump play a role in the process? Compared to the Trump administration, will the Biden administration's China policy be fundamentally different? Under a Biden government, in which areas will China and US see eased relations? And in which areas will the conflicts continue or even be intensified?

I would urge caution in jumping into any conclusions about how the Biden administration will turn out for China. I was actually in Beijing in November 2016 when Trump got elected and I distinctly remember some Chinese analysts expressing hope, even enthusiasm, about Trump's victory, that he would be good for China. Such analysts considered the Democrats to be too ideological and protectionist in trade (which they tend to be), whereas Trump's background as an entrepreneur was supposed to make him more pragmatic, businesslike, and result-oriented. He was someone that China can do a deal with. Look how things have turned out. Unless one thinks in a zero-sum way that the damage to US international standing from the Trump presidency is a plus for China, I do not see how the current global economic and political situation is better for China than what was the case before Trump. 

A Biden administration is likely to tone down the kind of ideological rhetoric that the Trump administration has recently adopted, condemning, in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's words, "China's virulent strain of communism" and insisting that "the world cannot be safe until China changes." But there would be limits to how far Biden can change US China foreign policy, at least in the short term. There are some well-known and deep-rooted factors shaping US policy towards China which cut across the Republican-Democrat divide, especially negative perceptions of China in areas of trade and technology transfer, and China's policies towards maritime territorial disputes. 

But unlike the unpredictable and inconsistent Trump (who alternately highly praised and aggressively condemned China over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic in a matter of a few weeks), we might see a more steady and predicable US position and policy towards relations with China. The US might go from a Cold War rhetoric to a "cold peace" approach that could leave room for a business-like relationship, allowing the two countries to sit down for negotiations, no matter how tough they might be, to stabilize their relationship. This I believe is good for the US, for China and for the international community as a whole. And a US administration that is less hostile to globalization and trade, more supportive of international cooperation, and more moderate in its dealing with the international community, is as a whole good for China, even if continuing criticism of China in the US persists. It is also likely that US and China will restore or even increase cooperation in climate change and global health, even as economic relations remain tense. 

GT: How will Biden's victory change the future of the US and the world? You said in your book that, "The age of Western hegemony is over. Whether or not America itself is declining, the post-war liberal world order underpinned by US military, economic and ideological primacy and supported by global institutions serving its power and purpose, is coming to an end." Do you still hold such view?

I stand by my prognosis about the "End of American World Order," made first in the 2014 edition (updated in 2018) under the same title. The victory of Biden has increased the relevance of my earlier analysis and prognosis. To be sure, as president, Biden would pursue a more internationalist foreign policy. He would go some way into re-embracing what some analysts call "Liberal Internationalism" or the Liberal International Order (LIO), an order where Western and US-created rules of international relations prevail. 

I would expect much talk in the US in the coming weeks about President Biden reviving the LIO. However, and this is important, I don't think the LIO can be revived in the sense of being restored to its pre-Trump state.

There are several reasons for this. First, the crisis and decline of the LIO predates the Trump presidency. As I had written in the first edition of "The End of American World Order (2014)", two years before Trump's victory, the LIO was already undermined by long-term structural factors, especially the global economic and technological power shift away from the West and to Asia, as well as the emergence of ideas and approaches to governance and economic growth which challenged Western free-market and liberal democracy model, including state-led economic growth models in East Asia. 

Trump was thus never the cause, but a symptom or consequence of that decline. As I had also predicted after Trump's 2016 victory, he has since pushed the LIO closer to the precipice, so to speak, with his policies against economic globalization, multilateral diplomacy and promotion of liberal democratic norms and values, which are bedrocks of the post-war LIO. 

Moreover, there has been a significant rise in populist sentiments in both the West (including Europe and the US) and other parts of the world as a backlash against rampant globalization. And the steady proliferation of radical non-state actors, including extremist groups, also threatens the LIO and would continue to do so.

Biden can restore some elements of the Liberal International Order, such as multilateralism, but any talk of a LIO 2.0 is farfetched. 

Any such revival of the LIO would be limited. It would be "sub-systemic" rather than the dominant and defining model of international relations. It would have to compete and co-exist with other types of attempts to develop international and regional cooperation and order-building, including that by China, Russia and some of the regional powers and associations. The idea of "Liberal hegemony" is a dead thing.

This does not, however, mean the US would not have a critical role to play in world affairs. But its role, as well as that of China, would be shaped by the reality that we are witnessing; the long-term, but unmistakable, emergence of a pluralistic world. 

COVID-19 has undermined two conventional ways in which international relations experts view the world. The first is that the world is going to be dominated by one, two, three or four powers, or their ideological systems. In fact, the world is neither "multipolar" nor "bipolar" (US-China). A "bipolar" or "multipolar" order means that there are two or more Great Powers ("power" being defined in terms of military and economic capabilities) in the international system, and more importantly, it is they who would decide major outcomes in world affairs.  

COVID-19 has shown that smaller and medium sized countries have done better jobs than most big powers, whether in the West or the Rest, in controlling the pandemic. And there are also other consequential actors, including corporations, international institutions, social movements and people directly themselves armed with social media. 

Second, COVID-19 has also shown the true nature of global interdependence. The world is not "polycentric" which implies multiple centers of gravity somehow isolated from each other. 

In reality, linkages among nations are increasingly complex, shaped not just by trade or investment flows, but also by common vulnerability to rising transnational threats, from climate change to pandemics. 

Against this backdrop, both the US and China should take a global approach to building world order, keeping in mind not just their own national interests or their bilateral relations, which would remain competitive, but the interests of other nations. This means each time one side adopts a policy to compete with the other, it should consider how this might impact other nations, and avoid policies that would damage common interests.

Trump for all his rhetoric to "make America great again" not only failed to do so, but also made America look decidedly "un-great," rather petty and vengeful on the international stage. The Biden presidency cannot make the LIO "great again," because it is irrevocably past its glory days. But the Biden administration has a decent chance to restore and rebuild the US' image and influence, and contribute significantly and immediately to restoring global health and economy ravaged by COVID-19.  

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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