For the past four years, we’ve listened to a repetitious narrative about decline: The US is on its way out, liberal democracy is standing on its last legs, Western civilization is doomed. And yet the US elections have commanded attention across the globe, with a massive voter turnout and an electrifying count that has proved compulsive viewing worldwide. It turns out that US democracy is very much alive and that the peoples of the world still read their own national interests into the composition of the US Electoral College.
As in 2016, the US election has not only foregrounded contrasting personalities and party platforms, but has posed a strategic choice for the world’s most important democracy. The election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris suggests a change of strategy. But how profound will that be? Are we now going to see the death of Trumpism? An end to US economic nationalism, to the denigration of multilateralism, to US isolationism?
From President-elect Biden’s statements, some things are already clear. The US will rejoin the international consensus on the climate emergency. US participation in multilateral bodies (such as NATO, WHO, WTO) will be reinvigorated. America’s democratic partners will once more be hugged closely. US foreign policy will again be in service to US values. American soft power in pursuit of liberal democracy looks set for a renaissance. A Summit for Democracy will be held in 2021 (a nice point of conjuncture with Greece’s own bicentenary). The mood music towards the world’s autocrats, such as presidents Erdogan and Putin, will change. All of this is welcome.
But the US election, however positive, is, surely, incapable of rolling the clock back to the 20-year, post-1989 hegemony of Pax Americana. The rise of authoritarian China isn’t something that the US can control, much less reverse. How adept President Biden will be in countering and containing Chinese soft and hard power, and China’s economic thirst for resources and energy (including dirty energy), is moot. The new president has been clear about the importance he attaches to American diplomacy and to the well-being of the American middle class. Will he be capable of forging a consensus among European powers on the handling of China? Can he win over those in Asia and Africa who have been seduced by China’s checkbook diplomacy?
And how will President Biden deploy US hard power? In practical terms, US disengagement from its role as international policeman began under the Obama presidency and has simply accelerated under President Trump. President-elect Biden has said that he wants to pull the vast majority of US troops out of the Middle East. Does that betoken disengagement from the world’s most intractable issues or more focused, smarter engagement with them? At any rate, it does not sound easily compatible with a strengthened and more stable presence of the US Sixth Fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean: a key hope of policy-makers in Athens. A harder stance towards President Erdogan is likely, but may be expressed, not in military hardware, but in diplomatic and economic terms.
The impact on my own country is also intriguing. Unlike Trump, the president-elect is a supporter of the European Union (the relief among leaders of Western European states at his electoral success has been palpable) and is a skeptic about Brexit. Although he has English ancestry too, Biden declares himself an Irish American and has warned London about the impact of Brexit on peace in Northern Ireland. He is right to do so. The election of Biden increases the risk – implicit in Brexit – of British strategic isolation: Prime Minister Boris Johnson will not head the list of President Biden’s closest international friends. But the British and US governments are highly unlikely to want or to allow a fissure in their relations. We may now see a greater British willingness to agree a “thin” trade deal with the EU before the end of the year.
Beyond that, I suspect that there will be less airy rhetoric from London about “Global Britain” and a greater emphasis on Britain’s role within multilateral institutions and as a reliable partner within its region. Cooperation in NATO and with the EU-27 will surely now be at a premium for a UK prime minister who needs friends in Washington. Tactical flexibility of this kind is unlikely to bother the pragmatic instincts of Prime Minister Johnson. Next year, Britain will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference and the G7, so the British government should be able to adjust its stance towards new realities without evident loss of face. For those who want the UK to remain a reliable and engaged international partner, the US election result seems likely to have a positive effect.
President Biden’s impact on the European Union may prove contradictory. Biden will want to work closely with Brussels and the larger European states, but has already signaled that there will be no return to disproportionate funding of European defense by Washington. Pressure to get the EU members of NATO to pay their agreed share began under President Obama; it will not abate. The Biden administration will look to European partners to do more for their own defense. That should play into the hands of President Emmanuel Macron of France, who has been making this case for some time. But the opposite is possible. Berlin, in particular, will be breathing a sigh of relief that Trump’s aggressive tactics will shortly end and Atlanticism is back in vogue.
So there is much to play for in the weeks ahead. The early choices for the Biden cabinet – particularly secretary of state and defense secretary – will be watched everywhere with great interest. Inevitably, there will be disappointments to come. Government is a prosaic and difficult business, and events often swamp good intentions. But the mood for now should surely be of measured rejoicing. In President-elect Biden, the US has elected a man skilled in foreign policy and diplomacy, with a clear commitment to heal his nation’s divisions and to uphold the values that distinguish liberal democracies from their authoritarian rivals. Good news at last in 2020.
* Dr John Kittmer is a former British ambassador to Greece and Chair of the Anglo-Hellenic League. He left the UK’s diplomatic service in 2017.