Both Trump and Biden seem to have jumped into the 21st century from a completely different era — a time when the ability of the United States to determine the fate of other sovereign peoples was not indisputable. They consistently tried to integrate their power into the changing landscape of multipolar global politics. In other words, Biden is trying to do consistently what Trump did erratically and with his hands bound by internal sabotage, , writes Valdai Club Programme Director Timofei Bordachev.
By virtue of its combined power capabilities, the United States continues to occupy a central place in international politics, and developments inside the country inevitably become the most important factor in world affairs. Even if we deny the significance of what is happening inside this huge “billiard ball”, the transformations taking place there inevitably affect its movement and, therefore, we must take them into account. Therefore, the mere fact that the United States is the only country besides Russia to have large, terrifying stockpiles of nuclear weapons (and at the same time have decisive influence on the world financial system), is already a sufficiently solid reason to speculate about the significance of important developments in the history of that country for the whole world.
A year ago, in November 2020, the eccentric billionaire Donald Trump’s presidency, quite short by the standards of modern world politics, ended in electoral defeat. His clearly premature departure into oblivion on the national and international political stage was organised through the high mobilisation of the liberal wing of the American elite and the corresponding involvement of administrative and financial resources. As a result, Trump quickly flashed across the horizon of world politics and now it is even difficult to say whether he left any noticeable legacy. But the point, in fact, is not even this — much more significant is how the developments associated with his activities as President of the United States reflected the country’s own development and objective changes in the global balance of power.
From the point of view of the evolution of US foreign policy, the Trump presidency chopped down with an axe the main initiatives and features of American foreign policy behaviour in the new era. There are hardly any observers who cast doubt on the fact that with the arrival of Joseph Biden in the White House in January 2021, nothing has fundamentally changed in American politics.
The new president brought to its logical conclusion the insane Afghanistan saga of the United States and its allies, he continued to destroy the international order based on the UN and other institutions, and put American interests above global considerations, even above the most important interests of his allies. The spontaneous and chaotic “incursion” against China under Trump gave way to a relatively methodical siege of this unwitting US rival for its role as the main global parasite.
This is due to the fact, that the content of Trump’s decisions was dictated by objective circumstances — only the execution looked extravagant, with a tinge of chaotic madness. Biden is even trying to find a common language with Russia, which the Republican administration proclaimed as its goal in 2017, but was quickly forced to abandon. Politics towards Moscow remained hostile, but now it is acquiring features of a new normal — it would be difficult to do, if Trump hadn’t shaken America in his own way.
By the time Trump arrived in Washington, his country had already lost the ability to get the greatest benefit from the world economy and act as the global supervisor in international politics. Throughout the previous 25 years, without exception — a whole quarter of a century — American presidents have been doing nothing but squandering the colossal power resources at their disposal. The time to pay the bills inevitably had to come and the “buck” stopped with Trump. The accumulated burden of this reckoning fell on Biden even more than on Trump.
What brings the winner and the loser in the presidential election a year ago even closer together is that they neither believes in the chimera of America’s global leadership that emerged after the Cold War as a beautiful packaging for selfish foreign policy, which continued to devour colossal resources.
Apparently, due to his advanced age, Biden, like Trump, was not sufficiently infected with the virus of replacing real politics with idle talk, which is a property of almost all American leaders who gained strength or emerged as leaders after the collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Both presidents seem to have jumped into the 21st century from a completely different era — a time when the ability of the United States to determine the fate of other sovereign peoples was not indisputable. They consistently tried to integrate their power into the changing landscape of multipolar global politics. In other words, Biden is trying to do consistently what Trump did erratically and with his hands bound by internal sabotage. To the extent, of course, as the constantly changing circumstances allow.
However, the problem is that the external environment is not becoming more favourable for the United States. Thanks to the enormous accumulated resources of “structural strength”, Americans can still make rather creative decisions and even meet with the readiness of other countries to agree with them. Nevertheless, now, as ever, any consent to follow American policy must be paid for in hard currency.
It was easy enough for Trump to deal with China. At first, Beijing simply did not expect that America’s favourite would turn out to be its main adversary. Therefore, under Trump, the Chinese authorities often looked somewhat confused and tried to return relations to their previous track. New attacks from the United States embarrassed China, which was not ready for a decisive rebuff then. By the time of Biden’s arrival, Chinese behaviour in response to American pressure had stabilised. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, China was able to close itself off and began to prepare for a long confrontation. During the Trump era, the Chinese were not yet ready to cooperate so actively with Russia on security issues, and now Moscow’s manoeuvres in Eastern Europe and Beijing’s actions around Taiwan look increasingly coordinated.
But Biden behaves more systemically. He has absolutely no illusions about the possibility of stopping the growth of China’s power in any foreseeable future. That is why he is trying to reduce the tension in relations with Russia, which is covering up China’s strategic positions with its military power and determination to use it.
At the same time, it was under Trump that the Americans finally missed the time when it was possible to determine the main features of the new international order by making concessions to the two most dissatisfied powers — Russia and China. Now the game has gone so far that any concessions on the part of the United States will most likely lead to a new round of the power struggle, even if in a milder way. The coronavirus pandemic contributed to the closure of powers in themselves, together with a qualitative reduction of all the values that participation in the liberal world order gave them. Therefore, Biden has absolutely nothing to trade, and he understands this perfectly well — all that remains is to go into a counterattack, which does not look impressive either, since it is accompanied by insufficient self-confidence and the search for tactical compromises.
We do not know now with whom Russia, China and all the rest of the world will have to deal with in a few years, when Biden, for natural or other reasons, leaves the White House. It is very likely that America’s domestic politics will offer us a leader who will become an improved version of Trump-Biden and the inevitable rivalry of the great powers will enter a calm period. But at the same time, one can expect sharper movements, which, of course, are dangerous in view of the destructive potential of the nuclear weapons stockpiles accumulated by the great powers.