In the run-up to the US Presidential elections, Democrat candidate Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump has been steadily rising, and is well over 10%, according to various polls. There are over four months to the election, and it is way too early to predict the outcome, however, many believe that the mercurial Trump is likely to have an ace up his sleeve, and that his popularity within his core constituency is very much intact.[RVListenButton]
Interestingly, one area where Trump has a lead over Biden in the polls is in the handling the US economy. Trump also scores over Biden in terms of enthusiasm. Having said that, the current President is lagging behind Biden in terms of important issues like law enforcement and criminal justice issues, foreign policy, the coronavirus outbreak, race relations and keeping the country united.
Commentators, strategic analysts and policymakers the world over, are keeping a close watch on the US election. The question on everybody’s minds is whether Biden’s foreign policy will be similar to earlier Democrat Presidents like Clinton and Obama, or distinct, given the massive economic and geo-political changes which have taken place globally.
According to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton, whose memoirs The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir” have stirred up controversy, and come at the wrong time for Trump, a Biden Presidency would essentially mean ‘another four years’ of Obama’s foreign policy.
Biden has been part of the establishment and has been part of what is dubbed as the ‘Beltway’ , and would be preferred by US liberals, and the class of ‘East Coast Intellectuals’, who are dominant not just in academic circles, but the policy circuit as well. One major reason for this is the fact that Biden is likely to be less isolationist than Trump, and may be less abrasive vis-à-vis US allies.
In the changing economic and geopolitical environment, globally, the former Vice President will need to tweak his approach on complex economic and geopolitical issues (we may thus witness a significant departure from the policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama (attitudes towards trade had begun to change during the Obama presidency itself)
One strong reiteration of the above point is Biden’s stand on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, which was former President Barack Obama’s brainchild, and an important component of what had been dubbed as the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy which sought to contain China’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific region (The Trump Administration has sought to built strategic partnerships in Asia through the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ narrative). Biden said that he would only join a re-negotiated TPP (one of the first steps which Donald Trump had taken was to pull the US out of the TPP).
On China too, Biden is likely to be more hawkish than Obama, though maybe he is less predictable than Trump. Biden has already referred to some anecdotes in Bolton’s memoirs, where the Former NSA highlights the point, that Trump in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, lent support to draconian measures against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang
Interestingly, in spite of Trump’s tough stance against China on economic issues, such as the imposition of trade tariffs as well as sanctions against Huawei (only recently, Chinese telecom vendors Huawei Technologies Company and ZTE Corporation and affiliate firms were declared ‘national security’ threats).
A number of Chinese commentators seem to prefer Trump, firstly because he has a simplistic approach, with US business interests being his primary concern. The US President has also not been very vocal on Human Rights Issues. Apart from this, Trump has given mixed signals vis-à-vis US allies. On the one hand, the Administration has spoken about US working closely with its allies to take on China, on the other Trump has taken measures which have riled allies. A recent instance being the Trump Administration’s announcement of withdrawing US troops stationed in Germany.
Similarly, Trump’s call for reforming the G7 and including Russia was not taken to kindly by countries like Germany and Canada who believe that an expanded G7 should consist of democracies.
Trump’s rapport with authoritarian leaders
While Trump’s lack of gravitas in foreign policy has had an adverse impact on relations with US allies, he has got along well with authoritarian rulers like Russian President, Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator, Kim Jon Ung and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and even praised them. Trump has not just turned a blind eye to human rights violations in Xinjiang, but looked the other way, when it came to the brutal killing of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi (in 2018, the CIA concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, with whom Trump shares a close rapport was involved in the killing of Khashoggi)
In the midst of the pandemic, and India’s escalating tensions with China, the US President also suspended non-immigrant work visas, including H-1B (in recent years, Indians have received well over 2/3rd of the total H1B visas which have been issued) till the end of the year. Biden, on the other hand, has been an ardent advocate for closer economic ties with India. The former Vice President had also backed the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2008 (Biden was then a Senator), during his visit to India in 2013 he also spoke in favor of a greater role for India in Asia. Biden has recently stated, that if elected he would rescind the Trump administration’s ban on H1B visas, and would seek to strengthen strategic ties with India.
What has irked many in India however is Biden’s criticism of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), NRC (National Register of Citizens), and his support for the restoration of liberties in Kashmir on his campaign website. It would be important to note, that not just Democrats, even many Republicans have spoken against the increasing religious polarization in India in recent years, a US government report also underscored the need for religious pluralism, highlighting cases of discrimination against minorities. Many Indian commentators too have repeatedly argued, that pluralism is India’s strength, and cleavages will hamper India’s progress, so Biden’s remarks should not be perceived as being Anti India.
No US administration can afford to turn a blind eye to China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour, and neither can India’s strategic and economic importance be ignored. The US, under Biden is likely to cement strategic and economic ties with India, while ensuring that allies like Germany, France, Australia are kept in good humour. What could change under a Biden presidency, is the simplistic approach of Trump, where even links with allies are driven by short term economic gains. It is important to realize that US-India relations are driven by mutual interests, not just individual chemistry between leaders.
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Consulting Editor, Geopolitics with The Dispatch, Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst. He is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonepat, Haryana. He is a former SAV Visiting Fellow (Winter 2016) with the Stimson Centre, Washington DC. Mr Maini was also an Asia Society India-Pakistan Regional Young Leaders Initiative (IPRYLI) Fellow (2013-14), and a Public Policy Scholar with The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, Chennai (November 2013-March 2014). His research interests include; the role of Punjab in India-Pakistan ties, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the changing nature of Indian federalism. He is a contributor for a number of publications including; The Hindu, The Diplomat, Modern Diplomacy and The Geopolitics.