No government will be watched as closely as that of United States President-elect Joe Biden’s. After four rollercoaster years of Donald Trump, the world will look for proof of the new Democratic President’s claim, “America is back.” Despite an emphatic election victory and an administration of Washington veterans, the going will not be easy.
The political guerrilla war Trump is still waging against Biden is a warning the Republican Party will remain irascible and irrational. The Right may yet control the Senate and have a good chance of recapturing both houses in the 2022 midterm elections. Biden has indicated he is a one-term president which would confer lame duck status by early 2023. The president-elect wants to resurrect the spirit of bipartisanship of yore. But Trump is working hard and dirty to ensure that doesn’t happen.
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Biden’s foreign policy strategy is to spend as little time on foreign policy as possible. He believes the US needs large-scale social engineering at home if it wants to avoid throwing up another populist like Trump. He wants to cut defence spending and has ambitious plans to rebuild America’s infrastructure, green its energy and transport, and revamp its health care and educational systems. But how will he do all this while also facing off the “Death to America” bloc of China, Russia, Iran and Turkey? That will be his primary global challenge.
The Biden strategy is to revive the US’s alliance structure, the most extensive of any country in the world and pooh-poohed by Trump. Which is why he keeps talking up Europe and NATO. He will also be softer on Israel, India and other countries who are strategically close to the US but ideologically distant from the Democrats. Biden will seek to create coalitions of the willing to, say, counter China on 5G technology or Belt and Road infrastructure. But he will downplay military responses, so expect the US to push for the Quad to be more about supply chains and less about aircraft carriers. At the same time, Washington will try to work closely with Beijing and Moscow on multilateral issues. Biden has called for partnering with China on “climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security.”
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All this sounds good on paper. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating and Biden may yet choke. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has already warned that if Washington wants to work, it must look the other way when it comes to Xinjiang and Hong Kong – both of which will be the world’s human rights black holes this coming year. And both governments have already begun sparring over Taiwan. The president-elect has said he sees Russia as a greater threat than China. A more positive element is Biden’s plans to revive nuclear talks with Iran. Tehran is already readying to expand oil production in expectation of an easing of sanctions.
What is good for the Narendra Modi government is that India fits in nicely with a lot of what Biden wants to accomplish on the world stage. And what Biden’s team doesn’t like about India, largely civil rights issues on the domestic front, will be small fry compared to the unpleasantness of other governments. The incoming US president has said he plans to hold a climate summit – here Modi can expect a seat at the high table – and another of democracies – where he should expect a private lecture on what Biden has called “democratic backsliding.” Biden has said he won’t be doing trade agreements in a hurry just as well as New Delhi doesn’t do FTAs well.
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Biden takes oath of office on January 20 and will face two immediate tests. One is getting his senior personnel choices approved by the Senate. The other is showing he can handle the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out better than Trump handled any aspect of the pandemic. After that, he needs to push through his domestic agenda despite dogged and exhausting opposition from the Republicans. Then there comes the rest of the world.
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