In the eyes of Europeans, Joe Biden’s US election win brings the promise of major change with global relevance. From climate to multilateralism, to trade and managing global public goods, here is a take on how to understand this promise.
What can we expect?
At the very least we can expect a clear change in the tone of the US leadership. There will no longer be a total disrespect for facts and expert opinion. In-depth knowledge and understanding will become again a virtue, not a vice, in policymaking. This ought to be the end of the ‘alternative facts’ that have poisoned US policies. And with that, the global discourse can also benefit from the truth that facts and science seek to establish.
Communication will no longer be the sum total of 280 characters on Twitter. Simplicity in messaging will not be at the expense of the message itself. This will be the end of zero-sum diplomacy in which other countries’ interests are necessarily against those of the US.
Last, we can expect a fresh attempt to unite US society, in all its diversity and richness. Already, the new administration nominated by Biden is much more diverse than previously in terms of background, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. This will be a much overdue attempt to correct for the deep sense of inequality felt by many parts of the US population.
What can we hope for?
The administration will no doubt stop the ‘America first’ rhetoric. But it will not stop pursuing American interests first. What we hope to see however is an attempt to engage globally, recognising that there are true global public goods, and that the US’s own interests are not necessarily different from those of others.
Priorities are not difficult to set. First will be to contain the pandemic and provide a platform for coordination that can preserve health at the global level, the only level where it can be effective. The US can help produce and distribute vaccines at affordable prices across the world, in good time.
We hope to see the removal of punitive tariffs that were part of the bullying politics that have destroyed economic value and promoted the culture of protectionism. With that, the US should take measures to make the World Trade Organisation operational again. Biden has already been clear that there will be no return to previous trade practices. But whatever the new trade practices are, the US will have a very important role to play in making sure that there is a mechanism for promoting fair and open trade that benefits the many and not just the few.
Lastly, we hope the US will embrace attempts to contain global warming and help promote energy transition as a matter of utmost urgency, while being fair in terms of who bears the cost. Re-joining the Paris agreement will have to be the first step. But more will necessarily need to come. From ambitious greenhouse-gas emissions reductions to some form of carbon border adjustment measures, US participation, if not leadership, will be crucial.
What should we fear?
The election of a modern, inclusive and global new administration is very far from a sign of permanent change, and reflects the limits of what is achievable in the US. The breadth and depth of structural divisions internally in US society will define how far the Biden administration will be able to differentiate itself from an emerging Trumpian phenomenon.
As far as the European Union is concerned, there are two areas to watch.
We expect to see absolute continuity in the way the US confronts China. But unlike the Trump administration, Biden will seek alliances of like-minded western economies to create the scale that can slow the Chinese juggernaut. The change of US approach, from bullying to courtship, does not preclude the fact that the EU is very far from clear on how and whether to align with the US when it comes to China. Paradoxically, Trump was a convenient excuse for the EU not making up its mind. This will be more difficult now.
Importantly, the EU, as true believer in multilateralism must avoid the temptation to replace multilateralism with a series of bilateral agreements. This will simply not suffice to deal with the global commons.
But the litmus test of the Biden victory, as a true US comeback in the global system, will be climate. Both houses, Senate and Congress, will have to unite behind the president to deliver the ambitions he has set out. But bipartisanship is very far from guaranteed and the EU will have real trouble with that.
US politics, perhaps like any other country’s politics, is first and foremost defined by the domestic agenda. How quickly or actively the Biden administration will choose to pursue an effective foreign agenda remains for the moment just a promise.
Perhaps this promise is the only good thing that has come out of 2020. In 2021 President-elect Biden will have to turn at least some of these promises into reality.