Main Image Credit Courtesy of Sipa USA/SIPA USA/PA Images
As Joe Biden takes the oath of office today as the 46th President of the US, RUSI’s Director-General reflects on the challenges and opportunities facing his administration.
A good friend who works for (an unnamed) allied government recently remarked that he and his colleagues have been quietly mourning the imminent loss of the 24/7 excitement that has accompanied the last four years of the Donald Trump administration. Even if they could not abide the man, his policies or behaviour, they will miss the chaos and the Tweets. My friend lamented, ‘it’ll be back to good, old, boring politics-as-usual’.
If the transition period is a harbinger of what is to come, it is highly unlikely that ‘boring’ will be on the immediate horizon. Joe Biden has defined his top three priorities as the pandemic, the economy and healing national divisions. Each task is daunting, but the latter could prove to be unmanageable for different reasons: many Americans exist in parallel ecosystems, devouring different versions of events on distinct media channels.
A Widening Gulf
A recent poll depicts this point: 73% of Republican voters (vs 5% of Democratic voters) think there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 elections, despite the more than 60 unsuccessful court cases challenging the results and the numerous voter recounts. Even after the storming of the Capitol on 6 January, the same number of Republicans – 73% – believe that Trump has in fact been trying to protect democracy (vs 4% of Democrats).
These divisions will undoubtedly interfere with the day-to-day running of the incoming Biden administration. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, which has been unified for most of the Trump era, has been unravelling and splintering into competing factions in the aftermath of the elections and the Trump-inspired violence at the Capitol, while the Left has been divided into progressive and moderate wings for several years now. And even though many public officials from across the political spectrum have decried the violence that took place in the US Capitol, the successful breach of the building seems to have galvanised Trump enthusiasts and far-right extremist groups, helping these groups recruit new members. These schisms – in the country at large and within the two major political parties – may persist for years. The US could well very experience an increased level of domestic violence for the foreseeable future.
That being said, the one area that may not be impacted by this challenge is foreign affairs. Similar to many other countries, Americans are far less interested in foreign policy than domestic issues. The Democrats now control both Houses of Congress, even if only with a majority of one in the Senate (which will include the vice-president’s vote in case of an even split). This means they will get their appointees confirmed and will also be able to push through a number of other foreign policy priorities that require Congressional support and approval. It will not be a blank cheque, but it will expedite matters for the Biden administration in a way that would not have been possible had they not won the Senate.
Moreover, Biden has been appointing a strong and experienced team of officials to a range of positions across the government, though the confirmation process has been hampered because of the delayed transfer of power in the Senate due to the Georgia run-offs and other events. The new team has been preparing for power for months and many worked together in past Democratic administrations so they should hit the ground running on day one. The only potential concern is that there may be a risk of group-think, given the almost wholesale return of the Obama foreign policy team.
Foes and Allies
Authoritarian leaders have been indulging in a bit of schadenfreude on Twitter and elsewhere, relishing the chaos that the superpower seems to have spiralled into. They will surely be banking recent events in their grievance accounts, ready to withdraw them the next time an American official complains about a shoddy election or a human rights abuse. One or two of these leaders may also test Biden’s resolve in the coming months, assuming he will be distracted by domestic issues, which would be a mistake. Biden will want to demonstrate to the world that the US is back and ready to lead.
What about the US’s allies? How do they work with the US, given all that has happened these last four years, including the mistreatment of some of the country’s closest friends by President Trump himself? Certainly, allies will warmly welcome the incoming team, and many have worked closely with a number of Biden’s appointees in the past. They are also pleased that Biden has publicly affirmed his commitment to partnering closely with them on core issues of common global concern, from climate change and managing the rise of China to arms control.
At the same time, they will understandably be nervous about aligning too closely with the incoming Biden administration, without some sort of Plan B in case another, far more effective Trump is elected in 2024 and tries to undo everything, again. Let us not forget that Trump received the second highest number of votes in US history (74 million), which is 11 million more than he got in 2016. Trumpism has not been defeated, and it will surely be a lingering threat over the coming years.
In addition, the world has evolved in the last four years. The US has mostly been AWOL from international organisations, agreements, partnerships and alliances. China has asserted itself on the global stage far more than in the past, economically and militarily. Other countries, such as Russia, have also been stirring up trouble and interfering in international conflicts, with no real pushback.
The US may no longer be able to command the same leadership role and ‘top seat at the table’ it did prior to Trump. As historian Timothy Snyder remarked, ‘The historical moment when we were a model is basically over…We now have to earn our credibility again, which might not be such a bad thing’.
Allies will therefore have to consider their own resiliency in case another Trump emerges. They will need to determine what kinds of international security challenges they can address on their own or with groupings of other like-minded countries, with or without the US in the room. What this means in practice is far from clear, but contingency plans will likely be drawn up for a range of scenarios and what-ifs.
Which is why, as I explained to my friend, the next four years will be far from boring.
For insights into the future of the UK–US intelligence relationship, see Sir John Scarlett's article.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Karin von Hippel