Guest: Ed Luce, U.S. National Editor and columnist at the Financial Times
President-elect Joe Biden wants to restore “moral leadership” at home and abroad — but will domestic chaos, a shifting international order and four years of “America First” thwart his plans?
President-elect Joe Biden intends to ditch Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine when he steps into office on January 20. But his vows to embrace multilateralism, respect diplomatic channels and restore U.S. leadership on the world stage face a host of challenges. The Biden Administration will square off with a familiar adversary in Moscow, a more assertive China, a nuclear-armed North Korea, and multiple hotspots around the globe. The alienation of long-time allies and the proliferation of power vacuums will make it harder for Biden to tackle climate change, international trade deals and the ongoing pandemic. And, the next government will have its hands full back home amid historic polarization, discord over racial injustice and skyrocketing COVID cases.
How does Biden plan to recapture the U.S.’ seat at the head of the global table? Ed Luce joins Altamar to help explain how the next administration could approach challenges back home and abroad. Luce is an associate editor of the Financial Times, as well as its chief U.S. commentator and columnist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he served as the outlet’s Washington bureau chief and as its South Asia bureau chief based in New Delhi.
“America cannot lead internationally unless it is reforming domestically. That is the great Gordian knot for the future of the world that America in general, and Biden in particular, has to find a way of cutting,” says Luce. He argues that the decline of America’s liberal democracy began long before Trump, citing previous decades of political gridlock, economic downturn for many American families, and federal institutions ever more distant from the people: “I very much hope that when Biden was talking about Trump being an aberration, he didn’t mean to say everything was fine before Trump was elected.”
Nevertheless, according to Luce, “[Biden] will be quite an active foreign policy president,” and his personability will play no small part: “He is a people’s person… that impact will be quite real and tangible, even if Biden is not a particularly innovative or reformist foreign policy president. We underestimate just how refreshed America’s allies and partners in Asia and across the Atlantic will feel by that, and indeed, in the Western hemisphere.” Luce thinks Biden “will find it hard to depart radically from… the foreign policy position of the Obama administration, but I think he will pursue it more effectively notwithstanding his age.”
The first order of business for Biden is tackling the coronavirus and vaccine development, “his major domestic priority that also has a foreign policy implication,” says Luce. “The vaccine diplomacy and competition that is going on between China, Russia, and the West is incredibly important to break through, in order to not leave the impression that Africa basically was saved by China or Central Asia was saved by Putin. There’s got to be very constructive ways of dealing with the fact that it’s American private sector research that’s leading the world here, and it should be made available to the world.”
Luce hopes for a pivot from the Biden Administration on how to engage with Beijing: “America, and the West in general, desperately needs a rethinking of how you approach China. I think what Biden will do is something that is necessary, which is work with partners multilaterally and do this in groups. That’s very important and that’s what Obama was doing, but it clearly has to be more than that.” When it comes to Moscow, the “Biden Administration is going to be quite tough on Russia….It’ll be a more unified, consistent, coherent, and predictable way of conducting relations with Europe and with Russia.
How Biden engages with the Middle East, however, “has to be measured first by the desire to rejoin the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), the Iran nuclear deal. That is of critical importance to how other players — like Israel, Saudi Arabia — respond to the Biden Administration.” According to Luce, “if there’s one country that should most fear this change of administration, it’s probably Saudi Arabia, simply because of the closeness of relations between MBS and Jared Kushner and the Trump Administration in general with the House of Saud.”
Biden has also promised to confront the risks of climate change, which means more than caring about the environment: “The area that a lot of people around the world would like to see leadership in is climate change…Climate change is our economy, climate change is international relations, climate change is so much more than just a discrete issue, particularly after COVID — it’s changed our focus.” But real action from the next administration will be tough while facing a divided Congress and potential Republican Senate majority: “In order to do more than just symbolically rejoin the Paris deal, you need the Senate to cooperate. You need to get stuff enacted.”
Even if Biden’s style will differ greatly from his predecessor, Luce believes in swift action. Though the next administration won’t follow Trump’s style of “execution done in a haphazard way,” he warns that Biden “shouldn’t worship the altar of process. There’s got to be decisions here. History’s moving quite quickly.”
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