by Dinna Prapto Raharja, Founder of Synergy Policies,
Associate Professor in International Relations
Approaching 20 January 2021, the day that Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America, many are guessing how the inauguration would affect world politics.
In this piece, I would discuss one of the assumptions about the United States presidency namely that a US President matters in shaping the directions of world politics. For those who lived and experienced the rise of the US in the 20th century, there is a lingering expectation that any elected US President of the 21st century would come into office with a grand strategy, with an ambition to leave behind unforgettable legacies. What one shall not forget is shaping the directions of world politics requires credibility, resources, and partnership; all of which is not solely determined by the US. Let’s discuss these three items that Biden would face when sworn into office.
First, credibility. Credibility is intertwined with ideas. Ideas would inspire people, convince or sway the leaders of other countries, and create buzz in the public discourse. Ideas mobilize support or dwindle it. Implied in all is the element of imagination of how a certain direction of world politics could lead to a better, or mutually desired destination. An imagination would require willingness to open self to the idea, and to open self to idea would require confidence and trust.
What Joe Biden inherited is a tarnished credibility of a US presidency in world politics. One factor is what Donald Trump left behind. Trump brought up what usually is only implied in US foreign policy that America (is) First. Trump shocked even the US allies that support from the US will only come with an acceptable financial deal. Ideas that are usually raised on the basis of idealism, shared norms or at least shared interest are brought into the arena of financial transaction.
I’d say that one cannot only blame Trump. The 21st century has witnessed how the US ambition for world leadership has turned the US back to its Cold-War behavior, which is to emphasize “us against them” and to resort to punishments to the point of regime change (even military intervention) as a solution to differences in ideas. We saw Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela, among others, as the manifestation of such an attitude. In return, the trust deficit to the US ideas for world politics have grown. Countries with different ideas to the US had their space to campaign against the US ideas.
Would Biden turn this credibility deficit around? Biden has done a relatively good job in distancing himself from his predecessor. With his electoral triumph, which is quite monumental given that Biden won 74 million popular votes, the most in US presidential election history, he somehow convinced the US electorates that his political standing as Senators and Vice President since 1973 is an asset rather than a liability. Indeed, his biggest homework will be to convince the Senate, controlled by the Republican Party, to endorse his ideas and plans and attach resources into them.
Second, resources. We often hear how mutually endorsed ideas would solve most problems of resource shortages. The beauty of the 21st century is the history of multilateralism where dialogs on ideas often lead to shared resources. Sharing of resources, however, requires an enthusiasm or at least a shared expectation that what is invested could lead to something desirable.
One may say that Biden still has a good chance of mobilizing resources for his ideas. He put together a cabinet that is quite stunning. For the first time in US history, the US will have nearly 50-50 representation of women in the cabinet and the people of color will be the majority of the cabinet. Knowing that such proportion of cabinet members nearly reflect the demographic composition in the US, it demonstrates Biden’s determination to “walk to walk” and not just “talk to talk” on representative democracy and ending unequal opportunities to races. To other countries, especially those living with diversity of races and ethnicities, Biden’s cabinet is a gesture of outreach to diversity. And of course, we cannot forget the charm of the US (finally) having a woman in the Vice Presidentship position: Kamala Harris. The world would await her touch and moves. Hopefully Biden would assign important duties to Kamala, not only to enlarge US soft power but also to add memorable experiences for Democratic Party enthusiasts. One condition that may stumble Biden, however, is the political divide within the US, and the threats of violence surrounding the divide, which has turned uglier in the past few days.
Third, partnership. Partnership requires agreement, mostly require years in the making and numerous diplomatic approaches. So, when the US pulled away from various partnerships such as the climate change framework of agreement, Iran deal, the United Nations Human Rights Council, other countries won’t just abandon the agreed norms or institutions, instead they looked around for other partners to get things going. Those left behind and rejected by the US explore other partnerships and build narratives around it.
Biden’s determination to pick up what was dropped by the Trump administration suggests that the US actually values the keeping of partners. To note, however, partners are not electorates. Partners need more than just promises. And thus, a series of swift renegotiation of US return to the various partnerships is to be anticipated if Biden is truly keen in healing the credibility of the US in world politics. (*)