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OP-ED: Are values back in US foreign policy?

  • Published at 08:58 pm January 31st, 2021

The presidency will test Joe Biden's judgement, temperament, and instinct

No presidential transition in the United States is likely to prove more abrupt and dramatic as between former President Donald Trump and newly elected President Joe Biden. Within minutes of formally taking office, Biden signed a slew of executive orders, formalized a policymaking team, and reset the course of domestic and foreign policies.

In reversing Trump's nationalist, unilateralist posture and relaunching internationalism and multilateralism, Biden is rebalancing US interests and values. His arrival at the White House is not as much about "America is back" on the global stage but more about "values are back in American foreign policy".

Biden comes into office with good fortune because his immediate predecessor was deliberately divisive and infamously belligerent in his governing style. Expectations of the Biden administration are necessarily high because the Trump era has brought US credibility and prestige in the world so low. On the flip side, because he is starting from a low base of global regard for US action and behaviour, Biden also has a lot of upside to be gained in the near term.

What Biden has done with the 17 executive orders reviewing and reversing the Trump policy moves was par for the course in view of his election pledges. Some of these executive prerogatives were low-hanging fruits, such as taking Covid-19 seriously with mandatory mask-wearing on federal property and setting up an office to specifically deal with the pandemic.

Rejoining the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Agreement had long been on the cards, and other relief measures to slow or stop the Trump government's xenophobic and nativist policies were to be expected. The hard work for the Biden administration will be to decide which parts of the Trump policy platform to retain and build on with nuances and tweaks and which to discard and chart a new course.

For example, Trump's blustery and erratic style belied his government's Middle East policy successes, a consensus among experts that the region is better off, less at war, with more peace and diplomacy over the past four years compared to earlier. Many in Asia will also say that Trump succeeded in keeping China off-balance, even though they may not have liked his trade and technology war against Beijing.

When Barack Obama came to office, he fundamentally re-oriented US policy at home and abroad away from George W Bush, who qualitatively deviated from Bill Clinton. Trump did the same to Obama, and now Biden has done a U-turn on Trump. These fluctuations are partly but not wholly explained by the ruling camps, as the Republican and Democratic parties take different stands on different issues.

The risk, however, is that going back and forth at the top with a polarized society down below could become a long-term pattern, further eroding the centre ground where moderation, compromise, negotiation, professionalism, and stability is located.

It is also worth watching whether the Trump phenomenon and its blatant nationalism and nativism is ephemeral, an aberration for the Republican party. Despite losing the presidency, Trump won a record number of votes, and had an opportunity to reshape his party for good. But the political implosion towards the end of his rule with the pro-Trump riots and occupation of the Capitol may lead to a contest for long-term influence over the Republican party.

Although these are early days, President Biden's policymaking team suggests a technocratic administration with well-established experts from the likes of Berkeley and Harvard universities, among other higher education institutions and think-tanks.

These public and policy intellectuals and cerebral places are exactly what Trump called "the swamp" that needed to be cleansed because it harbours vested interests and policy hands who benefit from the intersection of personal expertise and public policy.

So the Biden administration will also be a test for technocratic and professional management of the world's premier administration. If Biden can avoid the shortcomings of his former boss and ex-President Obama, who himself was a policy intellectual in charge of a steeply expert policy team that came up short in many foreign policy areas, particularly China, then the new president will be remembered better and held in higher regard compared to his two immediate predecessors.

A key policy expert among President Biden's appointments is Kurt Campbell, who played an instrumental role in the Obama administration's "pivot" geo-strategy, later renamed the "rebalance." Campbell is slated to be the top hand on Asia policy, the so-called "czar" on Asia and the Indo-Pacific.

Because the Obama team fared poorly on Asia, as evidenced by China's uncontested trespasses and construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea from 2012, many will be watching whether the return of Obama holdovers in the Biden administration will be more effective this time.

At issue will be how American values and interests are recalibrated. The Trump bar is low as Trump never really promoted rights, freedoms, elections, and democracy. Yet how much higher the Biden bar will rise depends on which countries and regions are under scrutiny.

The US under Biden will also face criticism for its own internal flaws and divisiveness, as seen during the riots and mayhem in early January. However, the US also can be seen as having proven its democratic worth by putting down and bringing accountability to the lowest chapter in its political history.

As the US restores its democratic credentials, its pro-democracy values abroad will have some weight behind them. From four years of relative neglect, democratic values are back but likely to be gauged differently across countries, depending on expectations and circumstances.

Countries that never had multiparty democratic outcomes, such as China, North Korea, or Vietnam, will probably encounter periodic condemnations of rights issues without explicit calls for democratization.

Countries that have slid back from democratization into an authoritarian descent, such as Myanmar, Malaysia, and Thailand, will face more direct criticisms about human rights and democracy. To democratically aspiring societies everywhere, the Biden administration will be seen as a boon to their hopes and a boost to their efforts. 

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is an associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science. This piece first appeared in the Bangkok Post and has been reprinted under special arrangement.

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