Biden’s Conundrum

2021 / 01 / 27

Giorgi Badridze, Senior Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation 

Joe Biden is one of the most experienced politicians not just in America but in the whole world. He joined the Senate in 1973 at the age of 30, where he chaired the Foreign Relations Committee for many years. In 2009, he moved to the White House for two terms as Vice President. On January 20, 2021, at the age of 78, he became the oldest President in US history. However, the circumstances in which his presidency begins would pose a dire challenge to any leader. Below, I will discuss the main problems which President Biden has inherited. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic: The global spread of the virus affected the United States more adversely than any other developed nation. The pandemic has already claimed more than 400,000 American lives, and the daily toll now exceeds the casualties of both Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks. The economic implications of the pandemic include a recession and millions of lost jobs, which has already resulted in rising social tensions. The pace and efficacy of vaccination will determine the ultimate scale of the economic damage, but the price America has already paid demonstrates that the nation is facing the deepest economic crisis it has seen for decades. 

Polarization: The deepening political rift within American society could prove a greater challenge than the pandemic. It would be unfair to put the blame solely on Donald Trump – society was divided on many issues long before he came along. However, Trump inflamed and exploited polarization in every way he could during his tenure, and especially after losing the election, when he refused to acknowledge his defeat and convinced his supporters that the vote was rigged. He did so despite the fact that electoral administrations at all levels, and the Electoral College, recognized Biden’s victory as lawful, while the courts (including the Supreme Court, which is majority conservative, with two justices appointed by Trump himself) ruled that there was no evidence of vote-rigging. The same was confirmed by the Justice Department, which Trump repeatedly asked to “investigate the fraud”. As a result, the Attorney General, William Barr, was forced to resign.  

Trump’s claims and later his direct calls culminated in a mob storming the Capitol, not only leaving several people dead, but also resulting in the greatest harm ever inflicted on American democracy since the Civil War, as well on the international reputation of the nation.     

Together with the far right, the radical left should take its fair share of responsibility for the polarization – the fringes of both parties have been empowering each other for years. In any other country, without the strict two-party system, both groups would have established their own political parties, perhaps even several. The left would have created a kind of a socialist party (with possible radical extensions); and the right nationalists would have formed their own. Trump has already stated the possibility of creating a “Patriot Party”. This sounds more like blackmail, but if the Republican establishment finally dares to break with Trump, it is quite possible that by the next election, a significant faction could leave the GOP and form their own party.  In 2016, the Republican establishment succumbed to Trump – an alien figure to them – to avoid precisely such a threat, as Trump had indicated in no uncertain terms that if he failed to win the nomination, he would run as independent. This would eliminate any chance the Republican party winning. Thus, the 2016 victory proved Pyrrhic, as the unity of the Republican party is in greater peril than ever.  

The Democrats can also not boast internal harmony– before the 2016 election, their leaders refused to support the candidates from the left, and sided with the establishment representative, Hillary Clinton. Although Senators Sanders and Warren could not be described as ultra-radicals, their extreme left supporters could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton. As illogical as this may be, Trump owes his victory to this group of people, who punished their own party by staying at home on election day. Today, the situation has not changed much, although this time the left wing of the Democrats did vote for Biden, who is undoubtedly more “establishment” than any other candidate, and has always been a moderate. But the left’s loyalty is not unconditional. Perhaps this explains President Biden’s very first executive orders, directed at winning the hearts of the left, among them increasing the minimum wage, and shutting down the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

World Order and the Decline of the US Influence: The relative calm of the Post-Cold War period has been history for quite some time. Today, it is clear that Islamic extremism is neither the only nor the greatest threat to world stability and US interests, as some imagined in the 1990s and early 2000s. Despite huge problems created first by Al Qaeda and then by the “Islamic State” (Daesh), the greatest harm to global stability and US national security most likely was done by the weakening of democracy and the rise of authoritarian regimes worldwide. For the second decade, Russia is openly challenging the international order which emerged after the Cold War, while resurgent China is competing with the US globally. 

In such circumstances, a democratic, just and stable world order can be maintained only with American leadership, but instead, the United States chose to decline the international responsibility, first during the Obama presidency, and later retreated into virtual isolationism under Trump. This only emboldened the rivals of the United States.

Russia’s international behavior has been ever more assertive and aggressive since Putin came to power, enjoying the benefit of rising oil prices, which culminated in the 2008 August invasion of Georgia. In response, President Obama offered Putin a “Reset” as a goodwill gesture, which (not unexpectedly to Russia’s neighbors) was taken as a sign of weakness, emboldened him even more, and tempted him to invade Ukraine and annex Crimea in 2014.       

Russian aggression toward Ukraine prompted the US Administration and even Europe’s traditionally loyal-toward-Russia governments to review their attitude toward Putin – for the first time since the end of the Cold War, sanctions (even if weak) were imposed on Russia, and their policies somewhat toughened. But the arrival of Trump in the Oval Office showed Putin that he did not have to fear any real implications for his mischief. Although Trump did not abolish the sanctions, and even sold Javelins to Ukraine and Georgia, as well as opposing Nord Stream-2, the larger picture suggested that the United States was sliding into isolationism. With the exception of Israel and some Arab countries, no traditional US partnership, alliance or trade block escaped unscathed by Trump. The slogan “America first!” resulted in considerable damage to America’s national interests, as in the case of the abandoned Asia-Pacific Trade Deal (the world’s largest trade block combining 29% of the global GDP) in which China has now taken leadership. Every time there was a need to sort out problems arising from selfishness or the diverging interests of America’s European partners, Trump gave them more pretext to be skeptical toward the US. He was right to demand the fulfilment of the 2% defense spending commitment from NATO partners, but everyone could see that his concern was not that allies did not do enough for NATO, but rather that he did not believe in the alliance altogether.  He also publicly supported Brexit, often breaching diplomatic etiquette, and it would be hard for many European capitals not to notice that apart from Trump, only Moscow cheered so enthusiastically the weakening of the European Union, though it did so in a more discreet way.   

Thus, as domestically, Biden is facing monumental problems internationally. 

Biden’s Foreign Policy: At this stage, one can judge the future of the Biden foreign policy only by the statements he made before his arrival in the White House and by the foreign and national security team which he has assembled. In Biden’s own words - “America is back” on the international stage.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for the job of the Secretary of State, formulated the future Administration’s foreign policy slogan as “leadership, cooperation, democracy”. It should be emphasized that by “leadership,” no-one means hegemony, as the United States has neither the capability for it, nor the mandate or desire. What this means is America’s capacity to ensure that other players are not constantly tempted to breach international norms and destroy the rules-based international system. Like Biden, Blinken is convinced that American isolationism is bad not just for global stability, but that it harms the fundamental national interests of the United States itself.

History clearly demonstrates that in times when the world was not plunged into chaotic wars, there was always a leader which either by force or by negotiation (mostly with a combination of both) ensured the world order. At times, the world order was formed by more than one player, as during the Cold War. But always the essence of the order, its stability and fairness, was ensured by the leader of the given era. Despite the fact that even though the world has never been ideally harmonious or entirely fair, even under American leadership, today, in the absence of it, there are only two, much worse, alternatives: a chaotic international order, or a Chinese-dominated new order (and regionally – by Russia). 

Another disease which has been spreading in the West in the past decade is the massive export of corruption by Russia and a number of other authoritarian countries. Many Western financial institutions have been turned into laundromats for illegal money, while oligarchs with close ties to the most repressive regimes enjoy all the benefits of Western life. These are people who actively collaborate in looting their own countries and in ruthlessly suppressing the democratic right of their peoples. Therefore, the fight against international corruption and strengthening of democracy should be treated as a national security issue.

Thus, the return to international leadership is among Biden’s priority goals. He has to restore the allies’ faith in America, and show their adversaries that breaking international norms, and particularly assaulting the US and its allies’ interests, will have consequences. In this, the Biden team will benefit from its own experience of the 2009 “Reset”, and also from the aggravated situation which resulted from Trump’s simultaneously passive and chaotic foreign policy.

But all this will become realistic only after Biden (and the nation as a whole) restores America’s reputation, which has been badly damaged. Partners should see that American society has started healing and uniting, and that four years later they will not see another isolationist president which could leave them on their own. The world must see that America can overcome the recession and once again become an engine for the world economy. Only in this way will its traditional allies and opponents see that America is truly back.  

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