Rethinking America

A Different World for Joe Biden

Four years after Joe Biden concluded his tenure as Vice President of the United States, as U.S. President he encounters a very different world.

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Takeaways


  • Given that technology determines geopolitics, China is well-positioned for the future.
  • The main legacy Trump is bequeathing to Biden is a new kind of a Cold War -- Cold War 2.0 -- which the new President will need to manage and redirect.
  • The world is not going to see a return to the foreign policy of the Obama Administration. Too many things have changed.
  • The task ahead for Biden is further complicated by the task of selling his agenda to a domestic audience that is disoriented, nervous and inward-looking.

Joe Biden has a long track record in foreign policy, security and intelligence matters, due to his 36-year long years of serving as a U.S. Senator and eight years serving as Barack Obama’s Vice President.

And yet, during the Trump regime the world has changed in critical ways, which the new President will need to take on board.

Over the past four years, democracy has continued deteriorating around the world. In fact, it has been doing so for 14 years running, according to the annual Freedom House indexes.

Low global regard for the U.S.

During Trump’s stint in the White House, the perception and trustworthiness of the United States has suffered in many parts of the world, including among its allies and partners, according to the Pew surveys.

Ratings in various countries are at the lowest level of the last two decades. Biden expects to restore international trust in his country, but this will not happen automatically or come at no cost.

As Anne Applebaum argues, the U.S. “is no longer the world’s most admired democracy …is more often perceived as uniquely dysfunctional, and our leaders as notably dangerous.”

China no replacement

The U.S. climbdown is not due to China replacing it in global status. The latter’s international image has suffered a great deal due to the pandemic.

China, ever alert, will try to restore a favorable image by donating or cheaply selling its vaccines against COVID-19 to developing countries, while for the time being the West is doing little in this regard.

The economic chessboard

Various forecasts predict that by 2024, when Biden’s mandate comes to an end, China will become the largest economy in the world, followed by the United States and India.

China is already a great technological power. And given that technology determines geopolitics, China is well-positioned for the future.

The military chessboard

China’s official military spending has been growing between 7.2% and 8.1% per annum, maintaining its share of overall government spending. This rate of expansion fell to 6.6% in 2020, probably due to the effects of the pandemic.

U.S. military spending grew by 20% under Trump, from around $606 billion in 2016 to $721 billion in 2020. Even so, the United States has squandered public money on ill-advised wars that it effectively lost. While the U.S. toiled around in Iraq and Afghanistan, China was investing strategically – in technology.

The global governance chessboard

Under Xi Jinping, China has become ever more assertive and politically authoritarian. It has also continued penetrating the institutions of the general world order. And it has been very active in simultaneously building another, more regional order in parallel.

Its most recent success was the launch of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, RCEP, with 15 countries in Asia. That stands in sharp contrast to Donald Trump torpedoing the Transpacific Partnership, TPP, which had been launched by Barack Obama.

The main “legacy” which Trump is bequeathing to Biden is a new kind of a Cold War, Cold War 2.0, which the new President will need to manage and redirect.

Meanwhile, despite Trump’s very determined efforts, the U.S. trade deficit with China has not changed. Mutual investments have remained steady as well. Interdependence continues to be a reality.

The global terrorism chessboard

With regard to terrorism, ISIS, or Islamic State, has not disappeared, but it has lost the territorial base for its so-called caliphate.

Joe Biden is well aware of the prevailing wisdom in Washington that the U.S. government is spending too much on the fight against terrorism (which devours prodigious sums) – and not enough on its military rivalry with China (and to a lesser extent with Russia).

The regional chessboards

Meanwhile, the U.S. extreme self-centeredness under Trump has strengthened the EU (the latter is also thanks to Brexit).

Dealing with the EU without the UK as a member will be different from what Biden remembers from earlier times.

There has also been a resurgence among “medium-sized powers”, often led by autocrats/ nationalists who aspire to dominate their own regions. These countries include India, Turkey, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia, which seeks to play a more global role.

The pandemic also exacerbates an older trend, the proliferation of failed states, especially in Africa.

Conclusion

The world is not going to see a return to the foreign policy of the Obama Administration. Too many things have changed.

The task ahead for Joe Biden and his new team, even if it is drawn largely from the Obama Administration, will have to devise a new agenda for the United States in a world that has been transformed over these last four years.

This is further complicated by the task of selling that agenda to a domestic audience that, as a result of Trump and the pandemic, is disoriented, nervous and inward-looking.

Editor’s note: This article is based on an analysis published at Elcano Royal Institute: Four years on: the world has changed for Biden (and for everyone)

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About Andrés Ortega

Andrés Ortega is senior research fellow at the Elcano Royal Institute, a major Spanish foreign affairs think tank.

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