By Digby Wren
Australia faces unprecedented regional trade and security challenges in the aftermath of the Trump presidency and a continuing pandemic calamity. The Morrison government has been in lockstep with the Trump administration’s ‘Strategic Adversary’ approach to China. How will President-elect Joe Biden’s approach differ from his predecessor’s and how can the Morrison government’s new era diplomacy manoeuvre successfully towards a more nuanced approach to its economic and security relationship with China?
On October 21st 2020, in the lead-up to the November 3rd US presidential election, Joe Biden released a guide to his foreign and domestic policy objectives titled, ‘Why America Must Lead Again – Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump’ (Biden, 2020). A brief analysis reveals a number of key challenges for Biden’s vision, exposes continuing flaws in US strategic thinking and, most revealingly, the US political elite’s assimilation of China’s leading role in the emergent global order. Biden’s vision is first and foremost a litany of Trumpian misdeeds including, diminishment of US credibility and influence, abandonment of US allies and partners, ill-advised trade wars, turning away from democratic values and abdication of American leadership (Biden, 2020).
Significantly, Biden’s plan for ‘leadership’ explicitly concedes that the US is but one [great] power in an emergent multipolar order and that the US will [selectively] abide by multilateral consensuses on climate change, mass migration, technological ‘disruption’ and infectious diseases. Conspicuous by their absence in Biden’s statements were Trump’s decisions to withdraw the US from the WHO, UNHRC, ICC and subversion of the WTO appellate process. Moreover, Biden uninspiringly wrapped these complex and urgent issues in tired clichés of authoritarianism, nationalism, and illiberalism, all of which are clearly components of the Trumpian ethos Biden derides.
Biden’s first flawed foreign policy assumption is that symptoms of US paralysis, such as hyper-partisanship, rampant corruption and extreme inequality, not to mention inept pandemic responses, are a ‘democratic dysfunction’ of all democratic governance models. Moreover, in another demonstration of belief in ‘US ‘exceptionalism’, Biden asserts that by salvaging and rebuilding the post-Trump [US] international reputation he will engender the mobilisation of US allies and [military] alliances to protect the economic future of the US therefore, restoring America to its divine mission as ‘leader of the free world’. Problematically for building global consensuses, Biden explicitly states that the ‘contest’ that defined the [US] past will also define its future. Thus, “the triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy” that birthed the international system “so carefully constructed” by the US “ will also be restored. Clearly, Biden has not understood that US domestic ills and foreign policy checks are directly linked to US failure to accommodate the vast majority of nations and populations that did not participate in the construction of the US-led ‘liberal world order’. This is a repeat of Wilson’s mistake in the aftermath of WWI that eventually led to WWII. Biden’s admission that he must address crucial domestic structural change, “[F]irst and foremost, we must repair and reinvigorate our own democracy”, quickly falters because he mistakenly conflates domestic issues with failures of foreign policy. Thus, the strengthening of the “coalition of democracies that stand with us around the world” is assumed to be the panacea for US ability “to be a force for progress in the world and to mobilise collective action” against external adversarial forces such as China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Venezuela.
Biden’s admittedly extensive proposed reform agenda starts with the domestic: remaking the US educational system; reforming the criminal justice system and enforcing US laws more benignly than the Trump administration. In order to ensure that “the White House is once again the great defender – not the chief assailant – of the core pillars and institutions of [US] democratic values” Biden proposes a to restore the Voting Rights Act; respect freedom of the press; protect and secure the ‘sacred’ right to vote and uphold judicial independence. Now that the US Supreme Court has a conservative majority and the Murdoch-controlled press is still vehemently neo-conservative and neo-liberal it may turn into a Sisyphean task.
Next on the list is reforming ‘human rights’ and the abuses of the Trump administration such as separating parents from their children at [the US] border. However, the Trump administration’s ‘abuses’ of immigration and asylum policies were in many ways a means to limit labour supply and thereby increase wages for low skilled jobs. Many Democrat voters do not see this link. Other human rights reforms include reaffirming the ban on torture, reducing civilian casualties and a focus on women’s rights. However, for the 96% of the world’s population not living in the US, Biden’s ‘human rights’ reforms, “commensurate with [US] responsibility [and] values”, will continue to lack credibility if they continue to be ‘weaponised’ to discredit foreign nations for US geopolitical ends and not accompanied by the checks and balances provided by membership of the UNHRC.
A ‘human rights’ case in point is the continuing US’ approach to Central America. Notwithstanding the ‘irony’ that the US itself requires ‘extensive reforms’ to ensure democracy, Biden has released plans for a ‘comprehensive’ four-year, USD$4 billion regional strategy that requires the region’s poverty stricken countries to contribute their own resources and undertake significant, concrete, verifiable reforms in order to address corruption, violence, and endemic poverty. Unsurprisingly, Biden’s commitment does not address the ‘root causes’ driving immigrants to the US southwestern border. What Biden has not realised and, therefore not addressed, is that the root causes for the existence of powerful drug cartels, human trafficking, political and economic corruption, violent policing and the endemic poverty and destitution – that drives “people to leave their homes” – in Central America is a direct consequence of US domestic demand for drugs and cheap labour, a history of political subversion of the regions democratically elected governments and numerous and continuing military and para-military interventions that undermine the national security of the regions states and therefore cripple their post-colonial efforts to economically develop.
Not content with the misguided mix of domestic and foreign policy initiatives to address corruption, [US] coercion, bribery and political interference that Central American governments have not been consulted about, Biden seeks to re-establish global leadership by “tackling the self-dealing, conflicts of interest, dark money, and rank corruption that are serving narrow, private, or foreign agendas [that] undermine [US] democracy.” The newly invigorated [archly] ‘conservative’ Supreme Court is unlikely to assist with such efforts having already ruled to allow private funding of political campaigns. The likely outcome is lengthy political battles in Washington and ongoing skirmishes with large ‘trusts’, corporate interests and, in particular, the special interest groups that include evangelicals, the gun lobby, libertarians and a host of secretive organisations such as the KKK. Rightly, Biden notes that a lack of transparency in the [US] campaign finance system and extensive money laundering, creates significant vulnerabilities. As part of his idea for a ‘Global Summit for Democracy’(see below) Biden has, to his credit, proposed to close financial loopholes and make efforts to regulate tax-havens.
Unfortunately, Biden quickly reverts to US ‘exceptionalism’, “democracy is not just the foundation of American society [but] also the wellspring of [US] power [because] it strengthens and amplifies [US] leadership”. Implicit in this linkage is that the US is the sole arbiter of whether non-US governance models are ‘legitimate’. Moreover, Biden resurrects ‘utilitarianism’, “[the] engine of our ingenuity that drives our economic prosperity.” Biden’s, “decisive steps to renew” the ‘core values’ of ‘exceptionalism and utilitarianism’ are, however, most assuredly not enough to “prove to the world that the US is prepared to lead again.”
Biden boldly asserts that his reinforcement of the US democratic foundation will have sufficient weight to inspire action amongst the world’s democratic leaders and put “strengthening democracy back on the global agenda.” Forgetting that his domestic reforms are designed to rid the US of political corruption – “an insidious pandemic […] fuelling oppression, corroding human dignity, and equipping authoritarian leaders with a powerful tool to divide and weaken democracies across the world” – Biden, states that Donald Trump presided over “the most corrupt administration in modern American history.” Yet, the irony of the US role in political corruption around the world is lost on Biden, “the world’s democracies look to the US to stand for the [US] ‘values’ that unite the country [and ordain the US] to truly lead the free world.”
The irony of the US situation only grows as Biden asserts that US leadership is to be confirmed at a global ‘Summit for Democracy’ organised and hosted by the US. Its objective is to renew “the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world [and] bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen [their] democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” It seems that Saudi Arabia, Poland, Hungry, Vietnam, Brazil, South Africa, Egypt, Thailand, Turkey, Pakistan, Myanmar, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and a host of other governments will be excluded on either one or both criteria. In fact, it looks like only members of, NATO (except Turkey), the ‘five-eyes’, the QUAD and the G7 will make the cut to join the exclusive new US-led ‘democracy club’.
The purpose given by Biden for the summit, is to gain “commitments in three areas: fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in [democratic] nations and abroad”. Ominously, the ‘trinity’ of stated objectives point to sidestepping the UN, and other multilaterals, to form an ideologically motivated global ‘security/military’ alliance that could easily be (re)purposed to confront US-designated strategic adversaries such as China, Russia, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Venezuela. To ‘galvanise’ the invitees, Biden has promised to issue a presidential policy directive that establishes combating corruption as a ‘core’ national security interest and democratic responsibility.” Naturally, Biden will “lead” the efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies. However, concrete initiatives such as unwinding EU, UK and US tax havens, ensuring the independence of the SWIFT system, a commitment to cease US long-arm-jurisdiction and the removal of US primary, secondary and tertiary sanctions will mean confronting the members of his exclusive new ‘democratic club’ and challenging the obduracy of global political and corporate elites, the globes ultra-rich and criminal organisations.
Biden intends to include civil society organisations “that stand on the frontlines in defence of democracy”. One supposes that they will not include Wikileaks, or those based in non-members of the new ‘democracy club’. Further, will protections be extended for ‘whistle blowers’, Huawei executives detained under spurious international arrest warrants or include the US rejoining the International Criminal Court (ICC)? Unconvincingly, Biden also includes technology companies and social media giants, “which must recognise their responsibilities and overwhelming interest in preserving democratic societies and protecting free speech.” Here again, Biden’s proposals are a hypocritical continuation of Trump administration policy. The technology and social media companies he is targeting are not US corporations. Chinese tech giants Tencent, Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei, Tik Tok and others will be further ‘securitised’ and subject to US and ‘democratic club’ bans, sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction, because they empower “the surveillance state, gutting privacy, facilitating repression in China and elsewhere, spreading hate and misinformation, spurring people to violence, or remaining susceptible to other misuse.”
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” better describes Biden’s approach to China.
If China has its way, it will keep robbing the US and American companies of their technology and intellectual property. It will also keep using subsidies to give its state-owned enterprises an unfair advantage and a leg up on dominating the technologies and industries of the future. China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future. (Biden, 2020)
For Biden, Revitalising the US middle class is essentially an extension of the Nixon- Reagan-Trump era view, that the international economy is not a “fair playing field”. Biden intends to remove “trade barriers that penalise Americans” by ensuring that it is “the US, not China” that writes the rules that govern trade. Biden’s plan “to gain access to the ninety-five percent of the world’s population beyond US borders does not bode well for the WTO. Instead of re-empowering the WTO, he seeks to increase the number of bi-lateral trade arrangements, where the size of the US economy provides regulatory “enforcement” advantages over industry standards, labor conditions and environmental provisions. Trade arrangements with Canada and the EU will apparently no longer be Trump-defined “national security threats”, but key members of the exclusive new ‘democratic trade-bloc’, “to take on the real [China] economic threat.”
“China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations” and US efforts “to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge,” are cited to “build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China,” and “shape the rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor, trade, technology, and transparency.” The ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan is transformed into “Make America the Global leader Again.” First off the block is the Trumpian argument that to arrest China’s ‘theft’ of jobs and, by supporting an economic contest against China, the US middle class will benefit from reductions in domestic wealth inequality. Therefore, the US will make “enormous investments in infrastructure”, upgrade ‘skills’ education, provide affordable health care, increase the minimum wage and fund research and development in clean energy, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, 5G, high-speed rail and bio-medical sciences.
Meanwhile, to gain time the US and, the exclusive new ‘democratic club’ it leads, will continue penalisation of China’s globally successful technology, social media and fintech enterprises, such as Tencent, Huawei, Tik Tok and Alibaba in order to protect US technology monopolies Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google and inflate their stock market valuations to aid their global expansions. However, both domestically and in the EU, there is growing concern about US tech and social media corporations. Further monopolisation of domestic and EU markets by US tech and media, ongoing privacy concerns about data transfer to the US and potential damage to EU exports [to China] through secondary and tertiary sanctioning of ‘technology’ will not be welcomed.
In order “to place the US back at the head of the table” and “mobilise collective action on global threats”, Biden harnesses another of the Trump administrations arguments. Because US power, interests and values are being displaced by China, global Hobbesian chaos will ensue. Past US leadership failures are excused with comments that “American leadership is not infallible” and the US is “overly reliant” on military might. Thus, “the strongest military in the world” will withdraw from Afghanistan and Iraq, cease supporting the Saudi war in Yemen and only defend US vital interests with “smaller-scale missions” that are “sustainable militarily, economically, and politically”. Diplomacy, exclaims Biden, is “the first instrument of American power” and will ensure the new ‘democratic collective’ is “writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity.”
However, to regain global ‘leadership’ Biden must first undo “Trump’s unbalanced and incoherent approach [that] defunds and denigrates the role of diplomacy. The fact that the UK, Australia, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and other countries have aligned or acceded to Trump’s foreign policy that “[pulled] out of treaty after treaty, reneging on policy after policy, walking away from US responsibilities, and lying about matters big and small,” seems not to matter. Yet, Biden says Trump has “bankrupted” and “alienated” the US from democratic allies and treated NATO “like an American-run protection racket.” NATO, it seems, is a “sacred” commitment “at the very heart of US national security” and the “bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal,” an “alliance of values.”
Ignoring the warnings of Kissinger and others about creeping NATO expansion, Biden asserts that it exists “to counter Russian aggression,” “impose real costs on Russia for its violations of international norms” and, in stark contradiction of foreign interference fears at home, to subvert “President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic authoritarian system.” Beyond NATO, Biden’s exclusive ‘democratic club’ includes Australia, Japan, South Korea and deepening partnerships with India, Indonesia and, despite creeping annexation of the ‘West Bank’ and human rights violations against Palestinians, Israel. Latin America and Africa too, are to be pulled “into the broader network of democracies,” “to seize opportunities for cooperation in those regions.”
Biden’s confidence-building measures rely on proving “that the US says what it means and means what it says,” and he points to climate change, a renewed threat of nuclear war, and disruptive technology.” Starting with climate change, he will “rejoin the Paris climate agreement on day one,” and make “urgent investments at home […] to have a clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050.” Noting that the US is responsible for only fifteen percent of global emissions and, omitting that the US makes up only four percent of global population, he will “leverage [US] economic and moral authority to push the world to determined action.” To achieve these lofty goals, Biden promises to “convene a summit of the world’s major carbon emitters, rallying nations to raise their ambitions and push progress further and faster.” Again, the irony is lost on Biden. The major carbon emitters are the members of his exclusive new ‘democratic club – trade-bloc’. Notwithstanding, the obvious domestic challenges he will also be locking in “enforceable commitments that will reduce emissions in global shipping and aviation [and] pursue strong measures to make sure other nations cannot undercut the US economically as we meet our own commitments.
[the US will insist] that China – the world’s largest emitter of carbon – stop subsidising coal exports and outsourcing pollution to other countries by financing billions of dollars’ worth of dirty fossil fuel energy projects through its Belt and Road Initiative. (Biden, 2020)
The hypocrisy of Biden’s circular argument is astounding for a number of reasons: 1) why should poor developing nations have no right to access cheap energy via China’s BRI, which is aligned with the UN 2030 Sustainability Goals; 2) the world’s most populous nation, China, has much lower per-capita emissions than the US, Canada, Australia, other new ‘democratic club – trade-bloc’ members and, the oil producing nations; 3) China is making rapid strides in renewables, is the leader in the manufacture and adoption of electric vehicles, solar cells and batteries, annually replants forests greater in size than most of the rest of the world combined and, has ‘environmental protection’ enshrined in its constitution. The Paris Climate Agreement is not a forum in which the US and the exclusive new ‘democratic club – trade-bloc’ can force China to bear responsibility for its inability to hasten ‘green’ economic transformations.
On nonproliferation and nuclear security, Biden again blames the ‘freely elected’ Trump for the US “abandoning the deals it negotiated” with Iran, North Korea, Russia and Saudi Arabia. A return to the JCPOA, may be generally acceptable for Iran, however, it will require lengthy new negotiations over sanctions and nuclear material and face fierce resistance in the US. A denuclearised North Korea, seems improbable unless the US agrees to a phased withdrawal of its forces, as it agreed to do jointly with the USSR seventy-five years ago. The New START treaty will certainly help stabilise [nuclear] relations with Russia, however, while NATO creeps ever eastwards, and Biden’s policy (see above) is to destabilise the Putin administration, not more can be expected. Russia is critical to the JCPOA, Syria, Libya, Ukraine and a host of other conflict localities, due in large part to Obama-era policies that Biden is unlikely to reverse.
Biden’s approach to ‘disruptive technology’, such as 5G and artificial intelligence, is disappointingly, to continue the ‘securitisation’ policies of Trump. However, Biden frames his policy as the “promotion of greater democracy and shared prosperity”, implying that China is harnessing its technology prowess to “curb freedom and opportunity at home and abroad.” Thus, the US will join together with the exclusive new ‘democratic club – trade-bloc’ “to develop secure, private-sector-led 5G networks.” Clearly, the Trump/Pompeo era ‘Clean Network’ and bans and sanctions on Tik Tok, Tencent and Huawei, including the sale of semiconductors and equipment for semiconductor design and manufacture using ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ are to stay in place. In fact, Biden doubles-down on the securitisation of technology by stating that “we must ensure that these engines of progress are bound by laws and ethics, as we have done at previous technological turning points in history, and avoid a race to the bottom, where the rules of the digital age are written by China and Russia.” Once again, the logic and purpose are to control standards, dislocate supply chains, exclude market access and, most importantly, gain time at China’s expense, while the US and its exclusive new ‘democratic club – trade-bloc’ forge “a technological future that enables democratic societies to thrive and prosperity to be shared broadly” by ‘disrupting’ China’s advances and commercial success in technologies “that reshape the economy and society.”
In his pursuit of US global leadership, Biden admits that without the exclusive new ‘democratic club – trade-bloc’ his “ambitious goals” cannot be achieved. However, he continually conflates US interests as ‘global interests’, US economic, political and social weaknesses as a product of external forces and, ‘loss of [US] leadership’ as the singular result of Donald Trump’s four-year presidential term. Nothing could be further from the truth. Biden is, whatever his true intentions, obscuring the self-inflicted demise of the US political experiment.
We must once more harness that power and rally the free world to meet the challenges facing the world today. It falls to the United States to lead the way. No other nation has that capacity. No other nation is built on that idea. We have to champion liberty and democracy, reclaim our credibility, and look with unrelenting optimism and determination toward our future (Biden, 2020).
Biden’s final exhortation is in fact a call to continue US revisionist policies that are rooted in the failed Wilsonian moment after WWI, post-WWII hegemony, the collapse of the USSR and ‘the end of history’(Fukuyama, 1989). The formation of an exclusive new ‘democratic club – trade-bloc’ is the language of the ‘Cold War’, a refusal to abandon ‘US exceptionalism’ and, one last throw of the unipolar dice to avoid a multipolar international system where ‘[US] might does not determine right’. Thus, Biden’s assertion, that to ensure US leadership, the answer is, “more openness, not less: more friendships, more cooperation, more alliances, more democracy,” is in reality, a call to more hostility, more bifurcation, more ideological confrontation, more economic decoupling and less interest in the livelihoods of the vast majority of humanity that does not live within the exclusive new’ democratic club – trade-bloc’ of former imperial and colonial powers that have ruled the world for over three hundred years.
The lesson for Australia and the Morrison government, is that US foreign policy is an outcome of its domestic dynamics. The bluster of the Trump administration has obscured US retreat from its semi-global empire. For Australia, the ‘free and open’ Indo-Pacific arrangements have effectively passed Australia’s security and trade relationships with China and the US to Japan and more broadly increased the gravity of East and South-East Asia. The signing of the RCEP and Morrison’s recent rejection of economic containment following the release of China’s fourteen complaints, demonstrates the beginnings of the move away from the Washington consensus to a new multipolar Tokyo consensus.
BIDEN, J. R. 2020. Why America Must Lead Again. Foreign Affairs. Washington: Foreign Affairs.
FUKUYAMA, F. 1989. The End of History? The National Interest, 3-18.