There will definitely be a push towards multilateralism and more global engagements that was derelict these past four years.
The years of 1944–1945 were seminal. The world both crumbled and began to rejig itself as new pacts and agreements were inked. Since then, the Bretton Woods agreement has seen Washington play a key role in shaping multilateralism through organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
Key alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which at that time was a US-Western Europe synergy against the USSR and its client states in Eastern Europe, were sacrosanct to US foreign policy. There was a consensus that Washington would continue to play a part in key issues pertaining to human rights, democracy, rule of law, climate change and having a say, if not directly, in maintaining regional peace and stability.
American foreign policy’s shibboleth has long espoused a sense of involvement in world affairs. If there was communism, it became Washington’s concern to preclude its pervasive effect; if there was lack of democracy, Washington got involved; if there was suppression of dissent and dictatorship brewing, it meant it aroused Washington’s ire.
There was a consensus that Washington would continue to play a part in key issues pertaining to human rights, democracy, rule of law, climate change and having a say, if not directly, in maintaining regional peace and stability.
Donald Trump’s election was an aberration in more ways than one. The 2016 elections saw a candidate who had never held public office — not even at the mayoral level — pip the most qualified candidate, possibly ever, to run for office. Since then, the anomalies have continued. Trump has eschewed a sense of multilateralism and global involvement that runs through Washington’s veins and adopted a path of economic nationalism and insularity.
Trump pulled out from the Paris Climate Agreement, backtracked on the Obama-Kerry hallmark of the Iran nuclear deal (known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)) — intended to bring Tehran to the negotiating table and was a chance to end the four-decade long acrimony. And the epitome of all, at a time of a cataclysmic health scare, Trump had played enough of “WHO says” and signalled formal withdrawal from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Even an article in the American Conservative cited that the, “Trump administration has irreversibly harmed America’s standing in the world. Trump and his nationalist rhetoric have ruptured America’s alliances, disintegrated her international partnerships, and destroyed all possible chance of working in concert with foreign powers.”
Trump’s whole rise to the highest office in the land has been propelled by a disenfranchised populace that believed and still does believe that globalisation has left them behind.
The deduction and foreign policy aberration are not unfathomable. Trump’s whole rise to the highest office in the land has been propelled by a disenfranchised populace that believed and still does believe that globalisation has left them behind. The hallmark of American ideals of free trade enterprise and supporting American multinationals overseas, ironically, has come back to be despised by a chief section of the multitude that abhors globalisation and resents American multinationals for shipping jobs overseas and hiring cheap labour at home.
Trump’s base from the heartland — the rust belt and the bible belt, if you will — has expressed a disdain for coastal elites and political establishment. So Trump, a billionaire who can’t relate to other billionaires in Manhattan, let alone the steel worker from Pennsylvania or the corn farmer in Iowa, spoke a rhetoric that played to the galleries.
Trump adopted an insular approach, and despite the myth of his aversion to trade deals, Trump wasn’t averse to such deals. Afterall, he claimed to have written the “best book” on deals. What Trump is averse to is, in fact, multilateral deals. Trump was and remains a transactional figure and thinks of diplomacy as real estate or showtime deals on ‘The Apprentice,’ which has a sense of grandiosity to it. His time in office showed that he didn’t have the patience to exercise foreign policy, with its labyrinth of nuance and complexities.
What Trump is averse to is, in fact, multilateral deals.
Broadly, one would think there would be some sense of political agnosticism as the long-term implications with US-ASEAN ties remaining strong, irrespective of Republican or Democrat, but Trump isn’t just a normal Republican; some would argue, he isn’t Republican at all. As Trump and Xi Jinping locked horns in a geopolitical kerfuffle that led to trade disputes between Washington and Beijing, tiny states like Singapore felt caught in the quagmire. The city-state, which has long prided itself for being an open trade entrepot sees itself with deep historical and cultural links to China, while espousing a Western-style economic relationship with Washington. For Singapore, it was being the proverbial grass, as two economic behemoths tussled.
As this author has argued earlier, Joe Biden’s whole platform while he ran for President was that he really didn’t have one. Sure, he ran as a centrist Democrat, and ran away from the progressive wing of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, while ballyhooing his successful tenure as Vice President to Barack Obama.
In more ways than one, this is Obama 3.0, one that the Republicans feared around Hilary’s run in 2016. Biden is likely to govern as the moderate Democrat, forwarding key legacy issues from the Obama era, such as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, at a time where healthcare has been accentuated. Biden will likely push to rejoin the Paris Agreement and raise the specter on the perils of climate change — the California wildfires will help provide the latest arsenal. JCPOA could be back on the table, much to the chagrin of Mitch McConnell, who will wrangle the GOP hawks to stall any perceived appeasement to Tehran.
Biden is likely to govern as the moderate Democrat, forwarding key legacy issues from the Obama era, such as the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, at a time where healthcare has been accentuated.
But there will definitely be a push towards multilateralism and more global engagements, that was derelict these past four years. As Timothy McLaughlin recently stated: “the Trump administration, by contrast, has largely neglected the region, never appointing an ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-country regional bloc, or to Singapore. Regional meetings were disregarded, and a planned summit of Southeast Asian leaders in the US, similar to one held by Obama, never materialised due to the pandemic.” As Tony Blinken, Biden’s key foreign policy adviser and Obama-era staffer, now rumored to be Biden’s Secretary of State at the time of writing, had tweeted earlier that Biden will engage ASEAN and take a keen interest in the region.
There is an overwhelming tacit agreement in policy circles in Washington that Biden will continue to be tough with China, with a sort of a quintessential iron hand, velvet glove approach. While Biden won’t take the cantankerous Trump caravan down trade wars and Twitter tirades, there is a wariness on Beijing’s unchecked assertiveness, given tensions in the South China Sea, East China Sea, border disputes with India, Taiwan in the crosshairs and suppression of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
Obama was a key ally in US-ASEAN relations, especially in his pivot to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. For instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) around 2013 was Washington consolidating its ties with ASEAN countries as Beijing’s belligerence continued to hover around the region. In many ways, Trump pulling out from the TPP, was sort of scoring an own goal, or worse conceding the game to China without Beijing needing to step onto the field.
There is an overwhelming tacit agreement in policy circles in Washington that Biden will continue to be tough with China, with a sort of a quintessential iron hand, velvet glove approach.
More than a sense of multilateralism with ASEAN, policy cognoscenti feel that it behooves Washington to be a strong bulwark against China in the region, particularly with the Indo-Pacific strategy. As China seeks westward expansion through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing will look to economically cajole more client states, through projects such China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka. The United States, through the Indo-Pacific Strategy is Washington saying, “we see your BRI and raise you the Indo-Pacific.”
Many allies and key partners particularly in the Western World, want to see the United States break this hiatus and rejig itself to play a leading role, and not necessarily a dominant one. The Indo-Pacific strategy is a linchpin of US foreign policy, and from South Asia to Southeast to Australia to North Asia in Japan, there will be more economic integration and military exercises such as the Quad (between India, Australia, Japan and the United States) in the region.
There is almost a sense of conviction that unlike Trump, Biden is going to have no faux sense of affinity for strongmen like Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin, as Washington will take the stick and leave the carrot when it comes to Pyongyang and Moscow.
The Indo-Pacific strategy is a linchpin of US foreign policy, and from South Asia to Southeast to Australia to North Asia in Japan, there will be more economic integration and military exercises such as the Quad.
However, not everyone in Asia is eagerly anticipating a Biden administration. Recently, a leading diplomat in ASEAN publicly stated that “Obama’s pivot to Asia was a good idea, but it was never properly implemented.” While multilateralism and global engagement will be the welcomed poker chips to the table, there is a sense of concern that Biden will play the same Obama hand, of not being assertive when it comes to Beijing. So much so that the leading diplomat stated, “we will look back on Trump with nostalgia” — almost unfathomable for many to think that diplomats in Asia will be able to look at Trump’s one-term chaotic administration and its lack of economic engagement with the region with any affinity whatsoever.
It remains to be seen how much Biden evolves from his erstwhile Obama era mould as the “deputy,” to a new avatar as Commander-in-Chief. Either way, Biden will signal to Washington’s allies that ‘America is open for foreign policy business again.’