US President Donald Trump’s time in the White House is coming to an end. But, as has become obvious over the past few weeks, he is unlikely to deliver a gracious concession speech.
Instead, the president has spent much of his time since the November 3 election plotting ways to undo what has turned out to be a rather clear victory for President-elect Joe Biden — all credible media outlets have given Biden 306 electoral college votes to the outgoing president’s 232. The successful candidate needs to amass 270 electoral college votes to win the presidency.
Time is simply running out for Trump. By December 8, all states are required to certify their results, with the electors in each state to cast their votes by December 14. The inauguration of the next president takes place on January 20 2021.
None of this should obscure the anti-democratic coup d’état Trump is attempting as he refuses to concede defeat. However, it is unlikely to succeed.
His legal challenges alleging fraud and misconduct are close to running their course. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against his claim that election “observers” were too far away in Philadelphia from workers counting ballots. In Georgia, a hand recount has finished with Biden confirmed the victor. And Michigan lawmakers appear ready to defy the president, who now seems intent on wreaking havoc on the certification process.
Trump’s efforts to undermine the legitimacy of the election are real. His attempt to influence Republican state legislators, in effect to persuade them to replace electors committed to voting for Biden with electors ready to vote for Trump, is profoundly undemocratic. Under a winner-takes-all system, Michigan’s 16 electoral college votes should be going to President-elect Biden, the clear winner of the state by almost three percentage points.
If Trump had succeeded in overturning the results, one could go as far as questioning America’s status as a liberal democracy. Not since Southern secessionists contested the legitimacy of Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 has a single actor been so nefarious in their attempts to undermine an incoming president.
Look no further than Trump’s actions on the transition. With over 250,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, and case numbers exploding around the country, one would think an orderly transition in which the incoming president is given access to experts knowledgeable about the country’s readiness for mass distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine would be an urgent and unquestioned priority.
But not in Trump’s White House. The General Services Administration, run by a political appointee of the president, must certify Biden as the winner before the incoming administration is given access to top public health officials.
Such certification will eventually take place, as the president simply runs out of options. We suspect he will grudgingly acknowledge he will not be president for the next four years, repeating a never-ending series of fabrications about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. His arguments will resonate with his “base” and will have consequences beyond this election cycle.
Analysis by the Pew Research Center finds:
While a 59% majority of all voters say elections in the United States were run and administered well, just 21% of Trump supporters have a positive view of how elections were administered nationally. Among Biden supporters, 94% say the elections were run and administered well.
The magnitude of these differences is stark and suggests Biden will have much work to do in bringing the country together — if indeed that is possible. Biden himself is attempting to restore moral leadership to a country torn apart by pandemic, racial division and illiberal tendencies in the executive branch of government.
Rhetorically, Biden has hit many of the right notes, emphasising themes of unity and national healing. How this will play out in a policy sense will be seen once he takes office.
Of course, Trump will continue to make life difficult for the incoming Biden administration. Some reports suggest he is already considering running for office in 2024.
So, it should not be surprising if the outgoing president leaves a number of surprises for President-elect Biden. Some press reports in the US are stating that on Middle East policy, trade with China, securing oil drilling leases in Alaska, and the Iran nuclear deal — which Biden may wish to rejoin — the Trump team is doing its best to reduce the incoming administration’s policy options.
Political theorist David Runciman argues that in democracies molehills are often made out of mountains. Vote counting, constantly updating vote tallies, failed legal challenges, recounts, the wearing effects of days of politics dominating life, Biden’s non-spectacular calmness, certification and the meeting of the Electoral College will turn this post-election mountain into a molehill as Trump’s attempted coup will eventually fail.
However, Trump has regularly shown us that, in the internet age, mountains can also be made out of molehills. The president’s lies and tweets have turned his presidency into a kind of reality TV show that has in turns transfixed, energised or horrified much of the world. Nevertheless, the show is in its final season and has not been renewed.
We are reminded of an article Rebecca Solnit wrote during the earliest days of the Trump presidency. In it, she presciently captures the predicament in which Trump now finds himself. Although his base and a large number of Republicans still support him, Trump has always surrounded himself with loyal followers reluctant to question their leader’s judgment and authority. This produces a form of isolation that is of Trump’s own making, a consequence of the man’s temperament and unwillingness to tolerate uncomfortable truths.
Reflecting on Trump-like leaders, Solnit explained:
In the end there is no one else in their world, because when you are not willing to hear how others feel, what others need, when you do not care, you are not willing to acknowledge others’ existence. That’s how it’s lonely at the top. It is as if these petty tyrants live in a world without honest mirrors, without others, without gravity, and they are buffered from the consequences of their failures.
Of course, sooner or later Trump will realise the presidency must be vacated. He will have to face the one thing in his life he has always tried to avoid: defeat.
Joe Biden’s election as US president presents Prime Minister Scott Morrison with the opportunity to reset Australia’s ailing relationship with China. Encouragingly, Biden has signalled his commitment to rebuilding global alliances and restoring a degree of certainty in foreign policy.
In his victory speech, President-elect Joe Biden talked about an “inflection” moment in America’s history, the opportunity to take a different course.
Australian policymakers should, likewise, take advantage of the Biden victory to reassess China policy settings that, under present circumstances, are not serving the country’s interests.
Emphatically, this is not an argument for a quiescent China policy that disregards Beijing’s bad behavior. Rather, it is a case for more nimble policy-making in Australia’s own national interests.
China’s further stifling last week of Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms by forcing the resignation of pro-democracy legislators is another sign of its disregard of international obligations under the “one country two systems” agreement that heralded the territory’s handover in 1997.
But whether we like it or not, whether it’s fair or not, whether China is a regional bully or not, Canberra needs to find a way to drag its relationship with Beijing out of the mire.
The Biden victory may facilitate this.
Canberra does not need to wait for a new American policy towards China to strive for a better balance between its foreign and trade policy interests and its security policy imperatives. Those efforts should begin now that the foreign policy deadweight of the Trump administration is being lifted.
The government has just signed a 15-nation regional trade deal that includes China, providing a potential avenue for improved relations. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is aimed at further liberalising trade in the Asia-Pacific.
Australia’s economic well-being demands a reset.
In its clumsy fashion, Beijing has sought to ease frictions. In an editorial foreshadowing a Biden victory, the Global Times, China’s nationalist mouthpiece, made an interesting reference to Australia
When the US-China relationship is about to see some changes there may be also a window for adjustment to the bilateral relationship between China and Australia. Australia is likely to be under less political pressure from the USA on key issues with China, and whether the Morrison government will continue to play tough with China will largely steer Australia’s economic prospects.
On the face of it, this represents a possible break in the clouds. It will reflect views at senior Chinese government level.
Former Australian ambassador to Beijing Geoff Raby had a point when he told the National Press Club that the China debate in Australia had been reduced to a binary argument between “sycophancy and hostility”. This stifles reasonable discussion of something in between. Raby said:
The main thing with diplomacy is not how loudly you speak but the outcomes you get.
He also made the sensible point that, for all the talk of alternative markets at a moment when China is restricting Australian exports, China will remain, for the foreseeable future, the world’s fastest-growing economy and dominant destination for Australian products.
Soaring iron ore prices in the first half of this year, as China sought to re-inflate an economy hit hard by the coronavirus, mask a slippage in Australian business with China more generally.
China’s economy is already springing back harder and faster from the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic than its competitors.
The International Monetary Fund predicts China’s economy will grow by 8.2% in 2021 and account for about a quarter of global growth.
These are the realities that are sometimes pushed aside by threat obsession within the Canberra political establishment.
Morrison could do worse than review an Asialink speech he made soon after he was elected prime minister to remind himself of principles he laid down then for dealing with China, and which appear to have been honoured in the breach since.
Then he decried a “binary prism” through which conflict between the US and China was seen as inevitable. He also rejected what he called the “fatalism of increased polarisation”.
“Australia should not sit back and passively wait our fate in the wake of a major power contest,” he said, while extolling the virtues of “regional agency” in which Canberra sought to work more closely with its like-minded neighbours.
This was all sensible stuff.
However, Australia’s alignment with Trump’s chaotic “America First” foreign policy has overwhelmed talk of a Morrison doctrine that emphasises regional connections. In the process, global alliances have been trashed.
This in turn has tested Canberra’s ability to apply basic principles of statecraft by maximising its strengths and minimising its weaknesses in an era in which power balances are shifting.
In all of this, the national media have played a role in amplifying the views of those who would have you believe the country is under constant existential threat. Voices calling for a more measured approach to dealing with China have been drowned out.
A low point was reached this month when a government senator in a Senate committee demanded Chinese-Australians giving evidence about difficulties in a hostile environment were asked to denounce the Chinese Communist Party. This implied a “loyalty test”.
Clunky Australian interventions on critical issues such as Huawei and investigations into the origins of the novel coronavirus have facilitated China’s strategy of portraying Canberra as Washington’s handmaiden for its own self-serving reasons.
Australia’s conspicuous and injudicious lobbying of its Five Eyes partners to exclude Huawei from a buildout of their 5G networks caused more trouble than it was worth.
Morrison’s heavy-handed intervention – after a phone call with Trump – in presuming to appoint himself co-ordinator of a global investigation into the origins of COVID-19 added further to Chinese disquiet.
An inquiry under World Health Organisation auspices was going to take place anyway. Why Morrison took it upon himself to take the lead in instigating an inquiry at a particularly sensitive moment for China remains a mystery.
In their efforts to get a handle on the form Biden foreign policy might take, Morrison and his advisers could do worse than review the president-elect’s contribution to the journal Foreign Affairs in which he laid out his blueprint for American global leadership.
This is a comprehensive description of how Biden’s foreign policy might evolve in a world that has changed significantly since he served as vice president in the Obama White House. It also demonstrates that Biden would not be outflanked on China policy by his opponent.
His proposal for a global Summit for Democracy to “renew the spirit and shared purposed of the nations of the free world” would be a welcome initiative.
Biden’s reference to how to meet the China challenge is worth noting.
The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of US allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to co-operate on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change.
This is the Biden carrot-and-stick formula. Too often in the recent past, the Morrison government has found itself aligned, whether it likes it or not, with the wrong end of the American stick.
Note: this article was updated on November 16 to take in the trade deal announcement.
Back in March, Joe Biden lamented “the international system that the United States so carefully constructed is coming apart at the seams”.
“As president,” he declared, “I will take immediate steps to renew US democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world.”
Among the closest allies of the US, none arguably has more at stake in Biden making good on his promises than Australia.
The international system Australia wants repaired is one defined by rules and consensus. As a middle-ranking power, it has long recognised its national interests are best protected by international agreements and the rule of law, rather than one in which might makes right.
At the heart of Australia’s desired international trade system are multilateral trade deals, rather than bilateral deals which tend to favour the stronger nation, and a strong international authority – namely the World Trade Organisation – to negotiate rules and adjudicate disputes.
Donald Trump’s presidency undermined both. His “America First”
polices were grounded in grievances about other nations playing the US for “suckers”. He obstructed the WTO, turned his back on multilateral deals and started trade wars.
A Biden presidency promises a return to multilateralism. But it remains to be seen how it approaches the WTO.
As president, Trump rapidly undid decades of mutilateral trade negotiations.
In his first week in office he withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multilateral trade deal intended to strengthen economic ties between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore, Peru, Vietnam and the US. (The agreement was modified and signed without the US as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.)
Trump’s trade war with China was also an exercise in power over principle. Both the escalating tariffs and the truce struck in January, known as the “Phase One Agreement”, repudiated established free-trade principles.
Along with commitments to reduce “structural barriers”, China is required to buy an extra US$200 billion in specified American goods and services over two years in return for the US cutting tariffs on $US110 billion in Chinese imports.
This worries Australian exporters.
The US shopping list for China includes more American seafood, grain, wine, fruit, meat and energy – all markets in which Australia is a significant exporter to China. As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd asked at the time the deal was signed:
How can the US pursue another $US32 billion of American beef, wheat, cotton and seafood – all listed in the agreement – without Australian exporters becoming collateral damage?
The deal, as the Minerals Council of Australia rightly noted, undermined “the principles of free trade which have underpinned Australia’s bipartisan approach to trade policy for many decades”.
The Trump administration has also continued the slow strangulation of the World Trade Organisation, on the grounds it doesn’t serve American interests.
The US has blocked every recent appointment and reappointment to the WTO’s Appellate Body, which hears appeals to WTO adjudications. Appointments require the agreement of all of the WTO’s 164 member nations, and the Appellate Body requires three judges to hear appeals. US obstruction reduced the number of judges to just one by December 2019, meaning it simply cannot function.
It’s important to note that US antagonism to the WTO predated Trump. The Obama administration also blocked appointments it considered would not sufficiently represent US preferences. But the Trump administration certainly upped the obstructionism.
Indeed, just days before the 2020 election it blocked the appointment of former Nigerian finance minister Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala to head the World Trade Organisation. A highly regarded development economist with a 25-year career at the World Bank, Okonjo-Iweala is widely considered to be an outstanding candidate to lead the WTO. The United States stood alone in objecting to her appointment.
Dropping opposition to Okonjo-Iweala and other appointments so the WTO’s processes can function would be an important symbolic and practical first step for Biden. It would reassure Australia and others that global rules still matter.
How quickly, and on what terms, Biden returns the US to multilateralism remains to be seen.
He has acknowledged the importance of deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership to ensure an increasingly powerful China “doesn’t write the rules of the road for the world”. But he has also pledged to not enter any more international agreements “until we have made major investments in our workers and infrastructure”.
For Australia – and other US allies – it is important that the US return to the multilateral negotiating table sooner rather than later. For global stability, long-term interests need to override the temptation of short-term expediency.
For “America to lead again” there’s a long and difficult diplomatic road ahead. The international trade system and the WTO are not perfect, but a world without rules would be far worse.
With all states called by US media, Joe Biden won the Electoral College by 306 votes to 232 over Donald Trump, an exact reversal of Trump’s triumph in 2016, ignoring faithless electors. Biden gained the Trump 2016 states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia; he also gained Nebraska’s second district.
While Biden’s win appears decisive, he won three states – Wisconsin (ten Electoral Votes), Arizona (11) and Georgia (16) – by 0.6% or less. Had Trump won these three states, the Electoral College would have been tied at 269-269.
If nobody wins a majority (270) of the Electoral College, the presidency is decided by the House of Representatives, but with each state’s delegation casting one vote. Republicans hold a majority of state delegations, so Trump would have won a tied Electoral College vote.
Wisconsin (Biden by 0.6%) will be the “tipping-point” state. Had Trump won Wisconsin and states Biden won by less (Arizona and Georgia went to Biden by 0.3% margins), he would have won the Electoral College tiebreaker.
The national popular vote has Biden currently leading Trump by 50.9% to 47.3%, a 3.6% margin for Biden. This does not yet include mail ballots from New York that are expected to be very pro-Biden.
Biden is likely to win the popular vote by 4-5%, so the difference between Wisconsin and the overall popular vote will be 3.5% to 4.5%. That is greater than the 2.9% gap between the tipping-point state and the popular vote in 2016.
Prior to 2016, there had not been such a large gap, but in both 2016 and 2020 Trump exploited the relatively large population of non-University educated whites in presidential swing states compared to nationally.
This article, written after the US 2016 election, has had a massive surge in views recently.
Relative to expectations, Democrats performed badly in Congress. In the Senate, Republicans lead by 50-48 with two Georgian runoffs pending on January 5. In the House, Democrats hold a 218-203 lead with 14 races uncalled. Republicans have gained a net seven seats so far, and lead in ten of the uncalled races.
Before the election, Democrats were expected to win the Senate and extend their House majority. The House would be worse for Democrats if not for a judicial redistribution in North Carolina that gave Democrats two extra safe seats.
New York Times analyst Nate Cohn has an article on the polls. Biden was expected to greatly improve on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance with non-University educated whites and seniors, but the results indicate that Trump held up much better with these demographics than expected.
Trump also had large swings in his favour in heavily Latino counties such as Miami Dade, Florida; polls suggested a more modest improvement for Trump with Latinos.
After the 2016 election, most polls started weighting by educational attainment, but this did not fix the problem. Cohn has some theories of what went wrong. First, Republican turnout appears to have been stronger than expected. Second, Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media may have convinced some of his supporters to not respond to polls.
A third theory is that coronavirus biased the polls’ samples, because people who followed medical advice and stayed home were more likely to respond to pollsters and more likely to be Democrats. Polls had suggested Biden would win Wisconsin, a coronavirus hotspot, easily, but he only won by 0.6%.
While US polls understated Trump in both 2016 and 2020, it is not true that international polling tends to understate the right. At the October 17 New Zealand election, polls greatly understated Labour’s lead over National. Polls also understated UK Labour at the 2017 election.
In a privately conducted Victorian YouGov poll reported by The Herald Sun, Labor led by 55-45 from primary votes of 44% Labor, 40% Coalition and 11% Greens. Premier Daniel Andrews had a strong 65-32 approval rating, while Opposition Leader Michael O’Brien had a terrible 53-26 disapproval rating. The poll was conducted from late October to early November from a sample of 1,240. Figures from The Poll Bludger.
A Victorian Morgan SMS poll, conducted November 9-10 from a sample of 818, gave Labor a 58.5-41.5 lead, a seven-point gain for Labor since the mid-October Morgan poll. Primary votes were 45% Labor (up five), 34.5% Coalition (down 5.5) and 11% Greens (up two). In a forced choice, Andrews had a 71-29 approval rating, up from 59-41 in mid-October. Morgan’s SMS polls have been unreliable in the past.
At the October 31 Queensland election, Labor won 52 of the 93 seats (up four since 2017), the LNP 34 (down five), Katter’s Australian Party three (steady), the Greens two (up one), One Nation one (steady) and one independent (steady). Labor has an 11-seat majority.
Primary votes were 39.6% Labor (up 4.1%), 35.9% LNP (up 2.2%), 9.5% Greens (down 0.5%), 7.1% One Nation (down 6.6%) and 2.5% Katter’s Australian Party (up 0.2%). It is likely Labor won at least 53% of the two party preferred vote. The final Newspoll gave Labor a 51.5-48.5 lead – another example of understating the left.
Labor gained five seats from the LNP, but lost Jackie Trad’s seat of South Brisbane to the Greens. Two of Labor’s gains were very close and went to recounts, with Labor winning Bundaberg by nine votes and Nicklin by 85 votes.
In last week’s federal Newspoll, conducted November 4-7 from a sample of 1,510, the Coalition had a 51-49 lead, a one point gain for Labor since the mid-October Newspoll. Primary votes were 43% Coalition (down one), 35% Labor (up one), 11% Greens (steady) and 3% One Nation (steady). Figures from The Poll Bludger.
Scott Morrison is still very popular, with 64% satisfied with his performance (down one) and 32% dissatisfied (up one), for a net approval of +32. Anthony Albanese’s net approval jumped eight points to +4, but he continued to trail Morrison as better PM by 58-29 (57-28 previously).
A YouGov poll in former Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon’s seat of Hunter had a 50-50 tie; this would be a three-point swing to the Nationals from the 2019 election. Primary votes were 34% Labor, 26% National, 12% One Nation, 10% Shooters and 8% Greens.
The world may have expected the chaos and uncertainty of the US presidential election to end when Joe Biden was declared the winner last weekend. But these are not normal times and Donald Trump is not a conventional president.
Concessions that used to be a part of the political process have been replaced by baseless allegations of voter fraud and election stealing, loud, all-caps shouting on Twitter and plans for a “Million MAGA March” on Washington.
The courts are the proper venue for candidates to challenge the results of elections. But a legal process requires evidence of illegality — and as of yet, the Trump campaign has produced very little.
So, then, how long can Trump string things out — and, more importantly, what’s the end game?
Lawsuits can be filed for a number of reasons after an election: violations of state law by local election officials, discrimination against voters, political manipulation of the outcome or irregularities in the ballot counting process.
In one case filed in Pennsylvania, Republicans sought to stop the vote count in Philadelphia on the grounds Trump campaign officials were not allowed to be close enough to the ballot-counting process.
Under questioning from the judge, the Trump campaign lawyers were forced to admit a “non-zero number” of Republican observers were present. The judge, clearly exasperated, responded by asking, “I’m sorry, then what’s your problem?”
The most interesting – and perhaps most viable – case concerns whether a state court can extend the time limit for mail-in ballots to arrive.
In this case, the Trump campaign challenged a decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to allow mail-in votes received up to three days after election day to be counted.
A group of Republican attorneys-general filed a brief at the US Supreme Court this week urging it to take up the case.
Amy Coney Barrett, the newly appointed Supreme Court justice, did not participate in the earlier decisions, and it remains to be seen if her vote would change the outcome should the case reach the court.
Hoever, this may all be a moot point, as there are likely not enough late-arriving ballots for Trump to make up the sizeable gap to Biden in the state.
Attorney-General William Barr has also inserted the Department of Justice into the post-election drama, authorising investigations by US attorneys into alleged voter fraud across the country. The move outraged the top official in charge of voter fraud investigations, prompting him to resign.
The Department of Justice has historically stayed out of elections, a policy Barr criticised in his memo, saying
such a passive and delayed enforcement approach can result in situations in which election misconduct cannot realistically be rectified.
The department’s about-face is important for several reasons. It changes long-standing practice, as Barr himself admits. The general practice, he wrote, had been to counsel that
overt investigative steps ordinarily should not be taken until the election in question has been concluded, its results certified, and all recounts and election contests concluded.
Of course, Barr has ingratiated himself with Trump before, most notably in his 2018 memo to the Justice Department expressing concerns over the Mueller investigation.
Many had wondered why Barr had remained unusually quiet for so long on the election. It appears he is back, and willing to support Trump and the Republican cause.
Given Trump and Republicans have very little chance of overturning the result through these tactics, the question remains: what is the goal?
Yes, this all could be explained simply as Trump not liking to lose. But setting such indulgences aside, the reason for this obstruction appears to be two upcoming US Senate runoff elections scheduled for January 5.
Under Georgia law, a runoff is required between the two candidates that came out on top if neither wins 50% of the vote in the state election.
The Republicans currently hold a 50-to-48-seat edge in the Senate, meaning control of the chamber now comes down to who wins the two Georgia runoffs.
The positions taken by Republican senators in recent days are telling — they have stood firmly behind Trump’s challenges and gone out of their way not to congratulate Biden on his victory. Republican Senator John Thune of South Dakota put it bluntly,
We need [Trump’s] voters […] we want him helping in Georgia.
The Senate plays a crucial role for the Biden presidency. If it remains in Republican hands, this could leave Biden with few avenues to implement his favoured policies on the economy, climate change or health care and would deny Democrats the ability to expand the Supreme Court.
Already, it’s clear the focus of the GOP is shifting toward Georgia. The two Republican Senate candidates this week called for the resignation of the secretary of state, a fellow Republican, repeating Trump’s baseless claims over voter fraud in Georgia.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, this was done to appease Trump
lest he tweet a negative word about them and risk divorcing them from his base ahead of the consequential runoff.
The long-term implications are momentous. The US is already bitterly divided, as demonstrated by the large voter turnout on both sides in the election. This division will only deepen the more Trump presses his claims and signals he won’t go away silently.
If half the country buys into his claims of a stolen election, the real danger is the erosion of democracy in the US as we know it.
The election of Joe Biden represents not only a repudiation of Donald Trump and his divisiveness, but an embrace of centrism and a mainstream approach to government and policy.
On the global stage, as at home, Biden is likely to follow a familiar script. Most obviously, he will embrace America’s alliances and strengthen its engagement with multilateral institutions. Rhetorically at least, he will give human rights and democracy a much more prominent role in Washington’s approach to the world.
In short, he is likely to pursue a global role much more in line with how the US has acted globally since the end of the Cold War. While it might be tempting to assume Biden will run foreign policy as a continuation of the Obama administration, there will be some points of continuity but also key changes. And some very significant challenges will remain.
One area of continuity, with both Obama and Trump, will be the centrality of Asia to US global strategy. This is in part for the same reasons his predecessors made the region a priority: it will be the most consequential part of the world for decades to come. But it is also because stretched US finances will mean the country will be unable to sustain a significant European presence or the kinds of policies it has pursued in the Middle East.
For Obama, the “pivot” to Asia was a choice about where to focus efforts. For Biden, the scarcity of resources will focus the mind on Asia. It will also mean a scaling back of US activity in those other theatres.
The biggest foreign policy question facing Biden will be how to approach the People’s Republic of China. Under Trump, the US moved toward a posture, on paper at any rate, of full-spectrum strategic competition. The 2017 National Security Strategy described China as intent on eroding Washington’s global advantage, and the US would reorient the instruments of national power to contest that effort.
In practice, Trump’s China policy was incoherent and inconsistent. Trump himself pursued a peculiar relationship with Xi Jinping, even allegedly encouraging the herding of millions of Uyghurs into concentration camps.
Biden is unlikely to move US China policy back to its “engage but hedge” setting of previous years – the mood in the US has hardened decisively, and not only because of Trump. However, the way the US competes with China is likely to change and there will be a need for co-operation. Biden won’t wind back the trade conflict significantly and moves to delink the two economies will continue, particularly in high-technology areas.
The US will continue to work to limit China’s ambitions to change Asia’s regional order, but it is likely to try to build on some areas of common interest to improve co-operation. The aim will be to advance their shared goals on that issue but also mitigate against the more damaging consequences of geopolitical competition.
This is most like to occur in relation to climate change. The Biden administration will put a very high premium on this vast threat and to advance that agenda meaningfully will require collaboration with China. So expect a more moderated approach to competition with the PRC but not an end to contestation in the region.
North Korea was the scene of Trump’s most high-profile foreign policy gambit. While nuclear testing has stopped, it is increasingly clear that, in spite of protestations to the contrary from the president’s Twitter account, North Korea has a functional nuclear weapon capability.
The US-DPRK relationship, such as it is, has become highly personalised and the move away from Trump raises questions as to whether North Korea will revert to its bombastic past form – it has described Biden as a “rabid dog”. The most likely scenario will be a Biden administration that learns to live with a nuclear North Korea and, in contrast to Trump, works closely with its allies in South Korea to co-ordinate their approach.
The return to normality in Washington will greatly hearten America’s allies. They will no longer be ignored or, in some cases, overtly disparaged by the president. The Biden administration will place a strong emphasis on the role allies play in its foreign policy ambitions. It will value the alliances, rather than debase them, and use the reach they allow and political support they create to drive a more strategic approach to managing China.
But this greater value will not come cost-free. A financially constrained US will expect allies to do more to advance their shared security interests than they have in the past. This will be most evident in Asia, where treaty allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea will be under renewed pressure to play a more expansive, risky and expensive role in the region’s geopolitics. For Australia this will be a challenge in terms of both its capacity and its risk appetite.
A Biden presidency will restore dignity to US leadership and bring a much more integrated approach to managing its global interests. It will also act in stable and predictable ways.
But Biden will inherit an America whose power and credibility are in decline. The global institutions that the US built to stabilise international order and advance its interests are in a parlous state, and not only because of the attacks of the Trump presidency. It faces a global stage with ambitious emerging powers that have shrewdly used the incoherence of the Trump presidency to advance their position.
Biden’s election symbolises a return to orthodox ways in Washington. His instincts, and that of his foreign policy team, will be in line with how the US has approached the world for many decades.
We know the Trump approach has undermined US power and prestige. What remains to be seen is whether Biden’s instincts are the right ones in a dangerous and unstable global environment.