Meet the new boss
In parts of the Holy Roman Empire, a new elector was obliged not only to attend the funeral of his predecessor but to bury the body. In the weeks leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration, Donald Trump’s opponents may wish for the finality of interment. The election result is understandably seen as a form of deliverance by many in the US. The view is not uncommon in the rest of the world, either. When the count was called for Biden, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried the news under the headline ‘Demonstrativ staatsmännisch’: a Biden victory represents a return to dignity and rectitude.
Trump was often derided as an isolationist by the imperial bureaucracy, for whom the term is a stock insult. His opponents liked to say he was tearing down the US-led ‘liberal international order’. On election night, when early vote counts implied Trump was winning, the former State Department analyst Aaron David Miller tweeted that ‘champagne corks are popping’ in Riyadh, Jerusalem, Moscow, Ankara and Beijing. In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin wrote that Biden held the promise of salvation from the Trump days: ‘a return to a bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that moderate Republicans and Democrats have long championed’.
In fact the Trump administration’s foreign policy was more orthodox than is generally admitted. Many of his appointees were old regime hands: his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, was a Reagan-era official; the director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, ran a torture site in Thailand under George W. Bush; Trump’s fifth secretary of defence, Mark Esper (fired yesterday), was formerly an adviser to Barack Obama’s defence secretary Chuck Hagel. Having pledged to ‘get out of foreign wars’, Trump did nothing of the sort. He pursued the global assassination programme established under Obama. The US-backed war in Yemen, begun while Biden was vice president, continued. The military budget increased.
Trump did not get along with the diplomats at the State Department, but his administration did very little that was out of the usual line of business. He maintained the traditional US-dominated alliance structure in Europe, and expanded it in the Pacific through the Quad (an informal arrangement with Australia, Japan and India). His administration supported coups in Latin America and set up the Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework to ensure US dominance. In the Middle East, he pursued the traditional American goal of strangling Iran, and prevailed on the Gulf monarchies to recognise Israel.
Trump’s America was disdainful of international co-operation on terms other than its own, but that, too, was nothing new. The US imposed sanctions on the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in September, over an attempt to apply international law to US citizens. More than thirty years ago, Reagan’s America refused to accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice when it ruled in Nicaragua’s favour against the US. Trump’s disputes with the foreign policy intelligentsia were for the most part matters of style, not principle. Dismantling American hegemony would have been a historic act, but Trump never considered it.
The one ostensibly distinctive part of the Trump programme was the trade war with China, but this, too, predated Trump and will survive him. Lighthizer may be out of a job, but the US is still absorbing Chinese and European surpluses. Biden will be just as unwilling as Trump to limit capital flows into dollar debt, which impoverish workers but inflate the prices of assets owned by the rich, and maintain US power over the international financial system. Given that Biden supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has spoken of his admiration for Dick Cheney, it seems unlikely that he will pursue a quietist strategy on China.
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Biden pledged that under him America would ‘lead again’, a message not so very different from Trump’s. Biden may be less enthusiastic about photo opportunities with the autocratic heads of American protectorates, but he will support them. He has pledged to rejoin the Paris Accords but no one expects him to usher in the transformation of the industrial world’s infrastructure that would be required to avert the climate crisis.
The election was watched in every part of the world because of American power, but foreign policy played almost no part in the campaign. It is not contested ground and US political factions, apart from the dissident margins, have nothing to debate. To some extent this is inevitable in a great power: Augustus’ policy of restricting the Roman Empire’s eastward expansion was followed by every emperor until Trajan. In most respects, Trump’s foreign policy was a continuation of Obama’s (itself largely a continuation of Bush’s), despite the vindictive sentiments that brought him to power. When the obligatory ‘Biden doctrine’ comes, it will, for the most part, show continuity with Trump.
US foreign policy has been fairly stable for 30 years. Biden’s desiccated promise is of minor corrections in management style and a more congenial tone. Without a transformative vision, the task will continue to be to prevent things the US disapproves of from happening. A sense of relief at the election result should not lead to a muting of criticism of US hegemony.