The 2020 US Election, Biden Presidency and Implications for New Zealand to Navigate Between Big Powers

By Manqing Cheng, Doctoral Researcher, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Auckland

The long-term pain caused by the 2020 presidential election to American society, politics, and economy is another milestone in the decades-long collapse of American neoliberalism, financialized capitalism and the consequent decline of the US influence in the world. American politics are increasingly divided and this pattern will continue. The street protests by supporters on both sides showed how polarised American politics are. This is not just a split between Democrats and Republicans, it is a split between elites and the grassroots, between whites and minorities. Trump came to power by means of populism. After taking office, he continued to foment and incite populism and advocate “America first”. He released a lot of negative energy on international affairs and muddled bilateral relations. All of these will constrain the policy implementation of the new administration.

What Will a Biden Administration Look Like?

On November 23, US President-elect Joe Biden unveiled a list of key cabinet appointments. The prospective cabinet appointees and their policy positions offer a glimpse into the general foreign policy orientation of the Biden administration.

First, Biden supports multilateralism. The current US government, with anti-globalization and populism as its core, has systematically withdrawn from the international pacts in the past four years, eroding the global economic and security institutional framework created by the US policy elites over the past 70 years to highlight the unique and leading role of the U.S. The Biden administration will focus on the combination of international legitimacy and its own strength, and return to the strategic track of "institutional hegemony". Biden's declaration on many occasions that he will rejoin the Paris Agreement and the WHO on his first day in office is a sign of the foreign policy u-turn. The return to the multilateral mechanism will be an essential element of his diplomacy. "Returning to the group and resuming the treaty" in order to "fill the hole and repair" will become a challenge for the Biden administration. For Biden's team, “return” is more than engagement and is more about "leadership," rebuilding America's system of democratic alliances and networks of partnerships to ensure its global leadership. Biden pays more attention to the status and role of allies than Trump and will lead allies to reshape international economic and trade rules in the multilateral field. Securing leadership through international cooperation will become a guide to the Biden's diplomacy.

Second, Biden believes that the number one risk for the U.S. is Russia not China. China is the biggest competitor of the U.S. Biden is unlikely to seek to establish a Cold War relationship with China. The current political consensus in the U.S. is that its economy and trade cannot compete with China’s, which makes everyone at risk. Thus, no matter how the election goes their attitude towards China will not be optimistic. Despite this, Biden advocates dialogue with China, which will leave more room for problems to be discovered and differences to be managed, rather than the abrupt unilateral actions taken by the trump administration without any consultation. The relationship between China and the U.S. is likely to remain in a state of managed/controllable competition over the next four years. However, there would be further changes in their attitude towards Russia. Biden's team is deeply hostile to Russia, and its diplomacy will return to the track supported by American policy elites. The new administration will try to unite America's European Allies by playing up the Russian threat and continue to push Russia out of Europe’s security-building process and accelerate the pace of rebuilding NATO. In the New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) the U.S. and Russia are at odds; the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), a political legacy of Obama, may be revived; the conflict between the U.S. and Russia in Ukraine and the crisis in the Middle East are also likely to intensify. Given that Washington's credibility has been battered, they may find it hard to renegotiate.

Third, Biden will try to ease and repair strained relations with American allies, particularly with Europe. Competition of international rules and geopolitical rivalries will be the theme of Biden's major-power diplomacy. In this case, US allies would strengthen their checks and balances against China, especially in terms of technology and national security. Biden’s team planned its China policy under the premise of the "all-dimensional dispute" between China and the U.S. A tough line will still be the main keynote of its China policy. The adjustment process of focusing defence and foreign resources on the Asia Pacific region will continue. Although the current U.S. government has created too many conflicts in China-related issues, which to some extent limits the flexibility of the new government in dealing with China, the new government has a desire to cooperate with China to quickly resolve domestic issues such as the pandemic and economic recovery. Biden will place greater emphasis on fighting with China over rulemaking in many areas, including international economy, global health security, climate change, 5G and new technologies of artificial intelligence. Biden wants to restore relations between the U.S. and the European Union, further develop the US leadership in NATO, and, ideologically, wants everyone to believe that the country is still defending free markets and democracy around the world. In terms of posture, style and rhetoric, the new government will show the importance of alliances and respect for allies. In terms of specific tactics, the new government would manage economic and trade frictions. ‘Smart and tough’ will be the internal consensus to ensure that rules with US orientation are implemented into the legitimacy of international actions.

In the past decade or so, the United States has changed very quickly. The U.S. is becoming more and more divided and contradictory. Civil war remains a horrible fear instead of a real possibility. Since the Senate is still in the hands of the Republican Party, the U.S. will face a prolonged and paralyzed stalemate between decadent capitalism and restless citizens. The U.S. can neither satisfy nor appease its citizens. It may take a long time for the U.S. to organize itself back from such a state of discontent. Under the pressure to contain the outbreak and restart the economy, they will devote considerable energy to addressing their domestic agenda. The need for diplomacy to serve domestic needs will be a more pressing goal for the new government. At present, the current U.S. government's policy of tearing at home and engaging in confrontation with abroad is self-defeating. Biden won over many voters with his campaign for unity and overcoming internal and external divisions. Fighting the pandemic, restoring the economy, resolving ethnic differences, and addressing climate change are the four priorities identified by him, all of which are closely related to the resolution of the deep political, economic and cultural divisions existing in the U.S. To achieve this goal in office, Biden’s team has no choice but to increase diplomatic planning and action, pooling international resources by working with others while demonstrating American leadership so as to solve domestic problems as effectively and economically as possible. International solutions to domestic problems is likely to become the hallmark of Biden's diplomacy. Therefore, the new U.S. government will alternate between focusing on domestic issues and engaging in international provocations to distract attention from them.

Biden could bring about some superficial changes, such as return to the WHO and the Paris Agreement, or even return to the Iran nuclear agreement, and reboot the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). But he, like the Democrats before him, will be a puppet of the U.S. State Department and the Department of Defence. Even if they win, they won't be much different from what they were before. The economic system based on neoliberal and financialized capitalism will not change.

What does the new America mean for New Zealand?

The global outbreak of COVID-19 shows that the US governance capabilities are gradually deteriorating. The 2020 election has only exacerbated the crisis of American governance which has shaken its institutional foundation. American citizens who once took pride in their ancient constitution now realize that it is not possible to govern 21st-century society with an 18th-century constitution. From such lesson of the U.S., it is arguably reasonable to presume that it is not easy for Biden to revive the middle class. In the incoming round of globalization or power politics, a global competition among different nations would be the respective government's capability to govern their own state well, meeting the domestic needs of their own people.

On the one hand, the world is frustrated with the growing inability of the traditional international system, led by the U.S., to become a leader in world development. On the other, due to the efforts of the whole society, New Zealand, Singapore, China and other countries have brought the pandemic under control in just few months and have now mostly returned to normal life. The shift of power does not come from the conflict mode based on the logic of "Thucydides Trap", but from the governance mode founded on the axis of “who can better solve their own domestic problems”.

The government of New Zealand and its people should always put national interests at the top of the foreign relations. Like the Cold War, the superpowers exerted pressure on other countries and the big powers demanded others to support one side or the other. One country should never place its national interests under the superpowers and should avoid being involved in the ideological battles among great powers. Though a small country with a small population, an independent nation should not be willing to become a pawn in others’ struggle for hegemony and interests. What New Zealand can do is to maintain an open mind, keep the communication channels open, engage in reasonable dialogue, make friends with the wiser people in both the U.S. and China, and keep an eye on countries and forces that can cooperate in mutually beneficial development. All in all, future rivalry among big powers will depend on who can continue to grow the middle class and expand the market.

There are also lessons to be drawn from the turmoil within American society. Democrats and Republicans have been locked in a standoff for the last 30 years. They’re not in the best interest of the people and they‘re constantly pushing the whole political system. Movements and demonstrations led by social organizations and workers are constantly strengthened. Some issues raised by the social movement, including how to view the struggle of the people from the low-income groups and working class, should also be of concern to the New Zealand government. In all these social disturbances and major events, one of the big challenges is how can the social movements initiated by the people truly promote the beneficial development of social movements, so that the political system or political tools can be better developed for the working class in the future. In the US’s case, although people vote Democrat, they don't necessarily support Biden. They are more anti-Trump, anti-authoritarian or oppose the rise of fascism that Trump represents. We are not talking about the current situation, but the situation inside New Zealand in the post-pandemic era, such as unemployment rate, domestic consumption, and housing affordability, etc. We hope to see these social movements and demonstrations can bring about an awareness of citizenship, a collective identity in face of crisis, and systematic reforms throughout the country, including capitalism and some institutional changes.