US Foreign Policy under President Biden: New Approach or Third-Term Redux?

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Thursday, 21 January 2021, 10 am

Just after the inauguration of the new US president, on January 21, a seminar was organized by HELP University and the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia to discuss the “US Foreign Policy under President Biden: New approach or third-term redux?”. Three esteemed panelists were invited for the discussion: His Excellency Ambassador Michael W Michalak,
Senior Vice President and Regional Managing Director, US-ASEAN Business Council, Professor Dr. William Borges, Professor in the American-Canadian Education Department, HELP University, and Ms. Elina Noor, Director, Political-Security Affairs, Deputy Director, Asia Society Policy Institute,
Visiting Fellow, ISIS Malaysia. The session was moderated by Professor Dato’ Dr. Zakaria Ahmad, 
Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research), HELP University, Chief Executive Officer, HELP Academy and co–moderated by Mr. Thomas Benjamin Daniel, Fellow, Foreign Policy and Security Studies (FPSS)
ISIS Malaysia.

Professor Dr. William Borges was the first to present views. He said that when it comes to predicting the behavior of any new president or a new administration, there is always a huge amount of guesswork. However, one can make some very good guesses about Biden because he is quite consistent in his ideological stances on things. The one thing that we should not overlook, according to Prof. Borges, is that President Biden gets a break by being compared to earlier presidents. Since the previous president was Donald Trump, it means anything Biden does is likely to stand out as good – so that’s a break. So what will Biden do? According to Prof. Borges, Biden’s first priorities will be to address two huge crises: first, getting people vaccinated, and second trying to get the economy restarted.

One thing Prof. Borges is expecting is for Biden to undertake a huge infrastructure bill. Eventually, Biden is going to make his reach to the rest of the world, to other countries, and Prof. Borges thinks signs suggest that Biden is going to be multilateral when it comes to trade policy, combating global warming, and almost everything that involves the US’ adversaries as well as its allies. There are signs that Biden wants things to return to a sort of international relations status quo. How successful will Biden be doing so we don’t know, but Biden’s got one big advantage, which is that people want him to win as they want to get things back to normal.

However, the one big exception to moving away from Trump’s policies would be with China. Prof. Borges believes that most Democrats the single policy area where Trump was right, even though it was done in a clumsy fashion, was with China. But that’s the only area of foreign relations where Borges can see a lot of overlap between Biden and Trump. He is not sure what Biden will do with the Middle East, for example, but he does think that Biden is going to make a huge effort with many important things, such as Southeast Asia, including getting the US into the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). This was something that President Barack Obama worked hard to achieve. It was one of Obama’s most significant efforts when he was president. This is something the US could have benefitted from, as have the seven Asians partners to the agreement, including Malaysia. Prof. Borges thinks it is clear that it is in the US interest to get into the TPP.

As far as Biden’s cabinet is concerned, people have pointed out that many appointees are old-timers – people from the Obama and even Clinton administrations. This is to be expected. Biden is certainly going to pick people who have the sorts of ideas or the kinds of ideological tendencies that most Democrats have. Moreover, according to Borges, Biden wanted seasoned people in his cabinet—which is why he picked Ron Klain as his Chief of Staff. In Prof. Borges’ view, Biden made excellent choices for State, Defense, and Attorney General.

Finally, Prof. Borges said nothing is going to change overnight. Problems are not going to disappear, and circumstances are not going to suddenly favour everything that people want, but there is hope now. He feels that regardless of those people who tend to be cynical about things, people around the world do look to America. It is the largest economy in the world, and obviously a huge military power. Most Americans want to see the US back in a position where it is friendly with its allies and cordial and respectful of its adversaries.

Ambassador Michael Michalak said that there are some huge differences he views as important in understanding the shifts in the domestic and global situation facing the United States, and the changes in attitudes and aspirations of the American people.

The last time Joe Biden participated in a transition was also a time of economic disruption and stimulus measures. At that time, the US stock market had lost more than 50% of its value, during a global recession, and millions of consumers were afraid of losing their homes. The newly-elected Obama-Biden administration stepped in and passed about 500 billion dollars’ worth of stimulus programmes. Today, we have the Biden administration entering office at another time of economic disruption, only this time the US has already spent $2 trillion to combat it. Just before the inauguration, Congress passed another stimulus of close to $1 trillion, and the incoming Biden administration is preparing to spend another $2 trillion. Nevertheless, they are still not sure if it will be enough to save those who are in trouble.

Furthermore, one of the huge tragic differences between now and then is that the US also has close to half a million Americans dead from a virus. Efforts to fight the virus were totally mishandled through the incompetence, neglect and ignorance of the previous government’s top leaders, leaving millions of Americans bewildered, shocked and without confidence in their own government, and the nation endured an attempted coup—and people continue to fear the possibility of more violence. So returning to a government headed by someone who represents to a more normal, reasonable style of governing is being welcomed around the world.

So in one sense, whether the US is returning to a third term of the Obama administration is immaterial. Michalak said that returning to some semblance of normalcy is a truly welcome step compared to the chaos of the past 4 years, and one can feel the deep breaths that all Americans took last night (following Biden’s inauguration), and the deep breaths that people around the world are taking as they wake up to a new day.

However, Ambassador Michalak also pointed out that the world is a dynamic place, especially in these uncertain times. Attitudes change, people’s views change and circumstances shift constantly. And these shifts of course play a role as the new administration is going to deal with many issues.

If you think back to the Obama-Biden years, Michalak noted, one can see that the US relationship with Southeast Asia, and more specifically with ASEAN, was looked upon as one the most ASEAN-friendly periods of the US-ASEAN relationship. He believes that the Obama administration had excellent relations with most ASEAN nations, despite some complaints that the US was always not doing enough, especially on the economic side. Yet there were welcoming moves in the pivot towards Asia, including the TPP. Unfortunately, Trump blocked the US entry into the TPP.

But even with these ups and downs during the Obama-Biden administration, there was opportunity for the ASEAN member states to air their views on all these issues. The president himself came to all the ASEAN meetings except for one, and Joe Biden was a key player in that relationship. In many ways, he was Obama’s closest advisor. It was always said that he was the last one to be in a room and have his say with Obama concerning any major decisions. And Biden’s 30-plus years in the Senate gave him the governing experience and political credentials to be an articulate and passionate member of the Obama team. So there were many good features of the Biden-Obama partnership, and Ambassador Michalak is confident that Biden and his cabinet will, at a minimum, want to carry on the strong relationships and the strategic partnerships started During the Obama-Biden years.

The pandemic, of course, is the all-encompassing issue that the US has suffered from, largely because of mismanagement and incompetent leadership. It will take enormous effort to get the virus under control, and that is going to be job one, and will consume a great deal of time and attention. The divisions within the American body politic also run deep, and during the inaugural speech unity was a huge theme and an issue with which Biden and his staff are going to deal.

Joe Biden, according to Ambassador Michalak, has been a guy who has always had an abiding interest in health-care policy, so no matter how other domestic policies progress, it is going to be issue that he will deal with first-hand. It is clear, from the facts on the ground and Biden’s own words, that the domestic situation must be the top priority for the new administration. But according to Michalak, having said that, the world is not going to let Biden concentrate solely on domestic affairs. Perhaps the biggest foreign policy issue facing the new government will be repairing and reviving the relationships with the US’ allies and partners. Joe Biden and his cabinet understand, from their long years of experience, that no one nation can resolve the issues facing the world today. Instead, the US needs to be part of the like-minded groups in facing many important issues, including climate change, nuclear proliferation and other issues.

Michalak noted that the naming of Kirk Campbell as NSC coordinator for Asia is a clear indication that the US is ready to get back in the game and ready to work hard on making that a reality. Clearly, China will be a huge part of Biden’s foreign policy. This is an area where Ambassador Michalak feels that many of the old ideas have changed and are going to be reflected in policy. In the past, polls showed that most Americans wanted to make allowances for China, in the hope that it would become a responsible stakeholder in global governance. However, the same polls now show that most Americans view China as a strategic competitor with whom they need to be much more careful and much more vocal in registering opposition to certain policies, while working with their friends and allies and partners to craft areas where it might make sense to work with China. New technologies and new relationships formed over the past four years are going to mean different discussions and different attitudes within the US. Over the past four years, longstanding coalitions became weaker or broke down, and coordination became rusty and less common. The US was out of the game for four years, and other countries learned to move ahead without it. So the US needs to earn its place back at the table, and that is going take some adjustments on all sides.

One adjustment involves trade. “America First” under Trump meant America alone, and the new administration does not hold in this worldview. The list of issues facing the US on trade is long and, unfortunately, urgent. The US will need to rather quickly look at the possibility of trade promotion authority, as this needs to be debated and worked through Congress this year. Without it, trade negotiations are going to be difficult or impossible, because Congress may raise any number of objections of negotiated matters which could destroy the credibility of USTR and weaken the president’s ability to engage in trade deals. So far, the US has three or four potential trade deals with Europe, Africa and Asia which are ready for negotiation. Moreover, within Asia, the CPTPP and RCEP are two agreements covering mature global trade, and the US is not a member of either. Given the pace of change in technology and its effects on the global supply chain and trade patterns, the US needs to be at the table to ensure that the interests of all are considered, which involves setting rules and standards for the next generation of commerce. Also, if the US is serious about wanting to reform world trade and commerce, it needs to deal with WTO reform in a credible way, and in particular deal with the impasse over who will be the next secretary general of the WTO.

Overall, Ambassador Michalak believes that the Biden administration has important connections to the Obama team and will carry forth some good lessons.

Ms. Elina Noor, Director of Political-Security Affairs, Deputy Director of the Asia Society Policy Institute and Visiting Fellow, ISIS Malaysia, was the last speaker to present her thoughts. She said that her short answer to today’s discussion is that yes, we can expect a fresh approach to US foreign policy relative to that of the last four years, and no, it will not be an Obama fifth term, not completely anyway.

Ms. Elina expanded by offering three points for consideration. Firstly, in contrast to the stormy and rather graceless conduct of US foreign policy at the highest levels of the last several years, the Biden administration promises a return to a more temperate style of diplomacy, one led by seasoned officials who recognize the urgency of the pandemic and climate change, who are welcoming of multilateralism and cooperation, and perhaps most importantly, who have spoken plainly about the importance of humility and earning back respect for American leadership in the world. She emphasised earning back, not assuming that respect will be given just because America has said that it will be back.

In Biden’s inauguration speech he spoke of there being much to repair, to restore, to heal, and to build in America. Now, hopefully, this will indeed be the case for the next few years. The tendency for a super power to act superlatively can be irresistibly powerful, as we have seen time and time again with US actions, not just in Asia, but elsewhere as well. For now, what we have is a promise that America will repair its alliances, leading not by the example of power but by the power of example, as Biden famously said—which is a marked contrast to Trump’s “America First” inauguration speech in which he accused other countries of diminishing America’s wealth, strength and confidence.

Secondly, according to Ms. Elina, it is true that there are many returning Obama era political appointees to senior positions in the Biden administration. So on the one hand, there is experience that brings with it a sense of comfort and reassurance, but on the other hand, there are also reservations about the risks of this group repeating mistakes of the past. However, America is different than it was during the Obama years. For instance, Americans now share the bipartisan opinion that China is the most significant challenge to the US. In what ways, though, it has not made clear, according to Ms. Elina. America’s stance regarding China in the last four years will prevail, the only difference being that this time the US will seek to coordinate efforts with like-minded countries to confront China, even as it leaves some room for cooperation, where possible.

On climate change, which now has its own special presidential envoy John Kerry, there is a bipartisan consensus to get tough with China. For those in Southeast Asia, this brings the risk of the US-Southeast Asia policy being once again subsumed under its China policy, maybe just less overtly. But it is not just America that has changed its foreign policy.

Finally, the world has also changed, Ms. Elina noted. In a way, it has moved on from looking to the US as a global leader after seeing that leadership is flawed, with America’s withdrawal from the rules-based system that it has, ironically, chosen to underscore. On trade, in particular, Asia has shown that it can move forward without the US, with the completion of the CPTPP and RCEP, and even if the US shows interest in joining CPTPP, there is no indication so far that this will be happening anytime immediately. The US will have to join on the terms of the current signatories, which are welcoming of US interests, and market access.

Covid-19 will no doubt challenge the world’s economic recovery, but as America focuses on fixing its own domestic issues, especially for most of Biden’s first year in office, Asia will no doubt be doing the same. In doing so, Asia will continue to grow and discover the bonds it has forged in public health, trade and other areas, in the absence of American leadership over the last few years. The expectation is that hopefully America will reengage, and this would be welcomed, particularly if the manner of such reengagement is respectful rather than alienating. Ms. Elina said we have not yet heard very much of the specifics concerning Southeast Asia policy, but we should expect democracy and human rights to figure again in US foreign policy, which may or may not be received well in this region. But for now, the region, she believes, will carry on as it always has, and relations will continue as they always have. There may be, after all, a dramatic change or even paralysis in the US’ system in the next few years, to which Asia will, once again, need to adapt.

The seminar then had a Q&A session where each of the panel speakers had his or her fair share of responses. Overall, it was indeed a very insightful and rich discussion on the new Biden administration and US policies.

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