Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is set to become the 46th president of the United States. However, far from the definitive repudiation of President Donald Trump (and his policies) that most Democrats hoped for with a landslide victory, the 2020 election was a close call. This was evident with Trump winning about 7 million more votes than his 2016 tally, Republicans increasing their chances of holding-on to the US Senate by successfully guarding vulnerable seats and even gaining a seat in Alabama, and Democrats slipping in the US House of Representatives to the “thinnest majority in about two decades.”
With the election results reflecting the polarisation of “two broad voting coalitions”, chances of Biden pursuing an ambitious domestic agenda without facing intense political gridlock are low. Not to mention, the pressures Biden could face from within his own party to jettison moderate positions — which could also further limit chances of any bipartisan understanding.
However, on crafting a prudent foreign policy to address the excesses of American internationalism, there is scope for Biden to cooperate with forces across-the-aisle and progressives within the Democratic Party.
Excesses of internationalism
In the post-Cold War timeline, bipartisanship on Cold War-era assumptions for sustaining American primacy largely continued. This included, maintaining unparalleled US military capabilities, championing free trade, and seeking the liberalisation of emergent powers.
Overtime however, this had counterintuitive results. In militarising US foreign policy, the over emphasis on hard power was evident in the “shock and awe” campaigns through the first Gulf War, intervention in the Balkans, and the post-9/11 Global War on Terror (GWOT). Further, in an effort to “prepare Americans for a world in which global economic forces failed to respect national boundaries”, free trade agreements only hampered America’s manufacturing base. While NAFTA displaced 851,700 jobs between 1993-2013, normalisation of trade with China cost 3.2 million jobs between 2001-13. Lastly, the liberal internationalist agenda of shaping China’s rise into a “responsible stakeholder” (despite its repeated deferral of reforms against pegging its currency at low levels, incentivising state-owned entities, and necessitating technology transfers), only fed its ascent as a near-pear competitor to the US itself.
Thus, although often deemed to be an aberration, Trump’s conservative nationalist movement around these issues was arguably a belated — yet entirely natural, consequence of the inextricable domestic impact of America’s actions abroad. Certainly, Trump wasn’t the first to highlight the excesses of American internationalism, especially since opposition to protracted wars began to brew in the final years of George W. Bush and was at the heart of Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency. However, the systemic hold of American internationalism favouring an activist US foreign policy proved to be uncompromisable, which Obama himself described as the “Washington playbook” in one of his parting interviews.
Thus, despite his push to end Bush-era wars, further entrenchment in GWOT efforts, intervention in Libya, ten-fold increase in drone warfare, and expansive reading of post-9/11 Authorisations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs), only reaffirmed military power as the tip of the proverbial spear. Similarly, on China, the quest for cooperation on global governance encompassed the Obama administration ending its early imposition of tariffs on Chinese tires, and informed its ambivalence on transgressions such as Beijing backtracking on its pledge to not militarise the South China Sea. On trade, Obama unveiled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — a trade agreement between 12 Pacific-rim nations to underscore the US as a “Pacific power”, which only went on to become a rallying point for progressives in his own party’s turn for greater attention to the working-class.
However, with Trump breaking the policy inertia on US internationalism by first altering his party’s worldview, opportunities for a renewed bipartisanship have emerged — as progressives on the Left are now similarly stressing on the inextricable link between foreign and domestic priorities.
The ‘America First’ foreign policy has gradually altered the Republican Party’s worldview, which otherwise championed internationalism. For instance, Trump’s conservative nationalist approach to “stop endless wars and bring our troops home” has increasingly garnered support from prominent establishment Republican lawmakers. During the campaign, Biden similarly promised to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East”. This was aimed at progressives in his party, who fear a Biden administration would merely engage in foreign policy restoration (to pre-Trump years) and not its reinvention owing to his past record on supporting military engagements. In echoing Trumpian opposition to nation-building abroad, progressive groups had urged Biden to adopt a foreign policy which “utilizes our military solely for the defense of the people of our country.”
Subsequently, the Biden campaign’s policy platform pledged to “repeal decades-old authorizations for the use of military force and replace them with a narrow and specific framework that will ensure we can protect Americans from terrorist threats while ending the forever wars.” This bold pronouncement was indicative of prominent progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s idea of foreign policy being “an enormous area” for pushing Biden “in a more progressive direction”.
Further, with his 2016 assertions over free trade hollowing-out the industrial mid-West, Trump withdrew the US from the TPP on grounds of it being detrimental to the American worker. This was another instance of Trump remaking the Republican worldview, as prominent lawmakers hailed the decision, in contrast to their party’s orthodoxy on supporting free trade. Whereas, like most Democrats, Biden criticised Trump’s decision. However, in face of progressives that similarly rally against the ills of free trade, he has not committed to rejoining the deal without first pushing for tougher labor and environmental rules. Going a step beyond Hillary Clinton’s 2016 about-face on the TPP (after initially calling it the “gold standard“) to appease progressives, Biden also pledged not to sign any trade deal that doesn’t include “major investments” in jobs and infrastructure, and labor and environment advocates on the negotiating table. In addition, Biden has proposed an “offshoring penalty surtax” and a 10% tax credit for companies manufacturing in the US.
On China, Trump ended the US’ post-Cold War policy dissonance on the degree of cooperation and competition with Beijing. Beyond rallying Republicans in support for a confrontational US policy towards China, one may argue, Trump also influenced a rightward shift across-the-board, on the need to address the China challenge.
This was evident with prominent Democrats supporting Trump’s initial impositions of tariffs against China, assisting Trump’s global campaign against Chinese primacy in the telecommunications domain, and complementing Trump’s policy with timely Congressional mandates on acting against China’s civil-liberties record. However, differences over the ideal approach to do so emerged during the presidential campaign when progressives frowned at Biden’s attempt to out-hawk Trump on China. In stressing that there are ways to address the China challenge which “is not racist and not nationalistic”, progressives informed Biden’s approach that is predicated on rigorous domestic investments.
Echoing Trump’s call to ‘Buy American and Hire American’, Biden’s ‘Buy American’ economic plan proposes US$ 300 billion investment in “Research and Development and Breakthrough Technologies — from electric vehicle technology to lightweight materials to 5G and artificial intelligence — to unleash high-quality job creation in high-value manufacturing and technology.” This, coupled with another US$ 400 billion bid to “power new demand for American products, materials, and services and ensure that they are shipped on US-flagged cargo carriers.” Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that Republicans could get behind such a holistic undertaking to confront China, which centres on strong government interventions (in contrast to their traditional apprehensions on ‘Big Government’). Sen. Marco Rubio for instance, has similarly argued for a government-led effort with tax incentives, rigorous investment, and regulatory rollbacks in the “same industries China is trying to dominate via their Made in China 2025 initiative”, because simply recalibrating America’s trading arrangements is “not enough.”
Certainly, a renewed bipartisan consensus may not occur overnight. Moreover, it could be riddled with new fault-lines, as with progressives wanting to go one step further on discouraging military engagements by also pushing for cuts in defence spending. However, on the broader aims of opposing lengthy military engagements abroad, pursuing free trade that takes cognisance of the working-class, and holistically confronting the China challenge, there is much scope for a renewed convergence of the American Left and Right.
Kashish Parpiani is a Research Fellow at ORF’s Mumbai Centre. Views are personal.
The article first appeared in the Observer Research Foundation website.
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