In the last four years, President Donald Trump has reviewed and, many argue, irretrievably weakened the international commitments of the United States. Under the circumstances, should the American elections matter to the world, when the US itself seems to be turning inwards?
In many ways, the US elections matter much more than perhaps at any time since World War II. With just over two weeks to go, and with the most rancorous campaign in contemporary history, the elections are gripping global attention. We could, as a consequence of the result, see a gradual renewal of the American global imprimatur, or a speedy erasure of Washington’s international footprint.
The “promise” of four more years of Trump is one of the US retreating into an isolationist shell, and becoming even less engaged internationally. The US could also become more protectionist, opportunistic, and unilateralist in the advancement of its narrow self-interest. Not surprisingly, Trump’s leadership invites very low levels of global support. The irony is that this would happen at a time when the world needs a more globally engaged America.
Isolationism is not a new tendency in itself — the narrative of isolationism is part of any 101 course on American history; from the farewell address by George Washington, in September 1976 (“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world.”) to the 7th President Andrew Jackson (let the world be, but respond with overwhelming force to a threat), there is a mixed legacy of quarantining the US from the outside world.
It was this strand of thinking that prevented Woodrow Wilson’s internationalism from sustaining itself, and America’s failure to join the League of Nations after World War I. Trump has, of course, customised isolationism in his own image: a combination of victimhood, exceptionalism and entitlement; blaming the outside world for all the ills of the unique United States; and his slogan of America First — and often alone — aimed at providing a quick unilateral fix to deep and complex problems that need considered global solutions.
The last four years have, for instance, witnessed an American unilateral withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, Iran nuclear deal, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, UNESCO, UN Human Rights Council, World Health Organization (WHO), Open Skies Treaty, and Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and a weakening of many multilateral institutions and relationships with long-standing allies, including those in Europe.
All of this has happened at a time when the world needs much greater global robustness from a calmer United States, and indeed many more multilateral arrangements (which are backed by Washington’s long-term commitment) on a range of critical issues from climate change to arms control, to trade negotiations to the fight against Covid-19. With Joe Biden, were he to be elected, we could see a slow return of the US to its more engaged, multilateral posture, but it would take a full term (and more) before we could expect a return to status quo ante, after the inscrutable ferocity of the Trump years.
Are we on the cusp of a new cold war, and could we witness a strategic decoupling between China and the US? How would a Trump or a Biden administration respond to a more belligerent Beijing?
The American financier and advisor to several Presidents, Bernard Baruch, coined the term “cold war” to describe the tensions between the United States and Soviet Union after World War II. But the present-day international system hardly mimics that period; even the most parsimonious analysis would reveal the complex levels of interdependence that continue to exist between China and the US. But while the Soviet Union and the US never used force against each other directly, on present evidence there is a real possibility of a clash between Beijing and Washington in the Indo-Pacific — today, the centre of economic gravity as well as the cradle of primordial instincts.
What is clear is that American domination is being seriously challenged, for the first time since 1990, by another state, China. This is firmly and finally the end of the “End of History” thesis. And China’s assertion is one issue on which Biden and Trump are closer in their views than is often recognised. While Trump has publicly berated Beijing, Biden’s aide Anthony Blinken has explicitly stated: “China poses a growing challenge. It’s arguably the biggest challenge we face from another nation state.”
In sum, whether it is a Republican administration or a Democratic one, we are looking at a period of profound uncertainty, economically and strategically. What, however, is revealed by most economic models is that given the huge costs of economic decoupling, it is unlikely that most supply chains (built on extremely competitive Chinese manufacturing capacities) will be able to transition out of the mainland even within the life of the next Presidency, in any significant manner.
The danger is that this rivalry, this “new cold war”, is built on two “myths”: a growing perception that American domination is in deep decline, and that China has arrived as a challenger. It is precisely these kinds of misperceptions that have historically led to major wars in the international system.
Domination or hegemony here refers to the overwhelming capacity that was enjoyed by the US through the first decade after the end of the Cold War to shape the international system through a combination of sanctions, incentives, and even soft power.
While the US may not enjoy the same degree of unfettered influence, its decline seems to be vastly exaggerated — and often so by China’s decision makers. Remember that on almost every measurable index, the US, as an economic or military or technological power, is ahead of China, and is likely to remain the leader until about 2050.
On the contrary, the weaknesses of China are often underestimated. In the erratic behaviour displayed by Xi Jinping, China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao, we find the abandonment of Deng’s prudent 24-character strategy, “Conceal your strengths, bide your time”.
On present evidence, Xi believes that China’s time has come, and that it needs to assert itself across the continent and in the oceans. China no longer seems sensitive to its reputation being scarred as a Wolf Warrior. The Chinese leadership is ostensibly not recognising deep internal weaknesses as impediments to China’s assertiveness externally. An erratic and impetuous Xi, faced with an impulsive and equally erratic Trump, could potentially go to war based on misperceptions. In contrast, Biden may give negotiations and diplomatic engagement a good chance to arrive at a peaceful outcome even on issues that seem zero sum.
How do Biden and Trump differ on pressing global issues like trade and climate change?
ON TRADE, Biden will bring greater consistency of policy and more cooperation with other countries. But the persistence of structural tensions in international trade will prevent an early reversal of Trumpian unilateralism. First, the relative free-trader Biden is perhaps more deeply committed than Trump to reversing the decline of American industry and the working class — recall the Biden-Obama bailout of the American car industry during the great recession. Biden too has a “Made in America” plan, although he may rely more on subsidies and preferential procurement than on tariffs.
Second, Democrats share Republican concerns about the Chinese threat and the perception of China’s recourse to unfair trade practices — ranging from stealthy protection, state support and industrial espionage — which may make the reversal of Trump’s tariffs on China difficult unless China undertakes significant reforms.
Third, even with allies like the EU, long festering disputes, such as the one on subsidies to Airbus and Boeing, will not be easily resolved without greater mutual acceptance, if not greater mutual concessions.
Finally, the weakening of the WTO by the Trump administration, especially by undermining its dispute settlement mechanism, too has its roots in durable US aversion to multilateral disciplines and the perceived overreach by the WTO Appellate body.In all these areas, Biden may find it hard to rapidly roll back Trump’s measures and abandon his tactics. But he is likely to favour a gentler, negotiated route to
ON CLIMATE CHANGE, a collective action problem that needs immediate attention, the differences between Biden and Trump seem stark. Biden wants to return to the Paris climate accord and move toward net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with the interim objective of decarbonising the power sector by 2035. Biden also wants to invest $2 trillion in green areas, including infrastructure, transportation and auto industries, housing and construction practices, nature conservation efforts, and work in environmental justice, creating one million jobs in the process.
Trump has emphasised clean water and air as his goals and earmarked $38 billion towards “clean water infrastructure”. The President has remained a sceptic on climate change, and his administration wants greater US production of oil and natural gas.