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Commentary: Can America reclaim global leadership?

Joe Biden has repeatedly pledged to restore America’s international reputation and global standing, which were severely damaged under Donald Trump, says Professor Yuen Yuen Ang.

Commentary: Can America reclaim global leadership?

President Donald Trump announced he will not attend Joe Biden's inauguration -- the first time since 1869 an outgoing US president will stay away from the swearing-in of his successor AFP/JIM BOURG

ANN ARBOR, Michigan: US President-elect Joe Biden’s impending inauguration has raised hopes that his administration will “make America lead again.” 

If the United States is to transform its rivalry with China into constructive competition, this is the right approach. 

But whether Biden can restore and sustain America’s global leadership depends on how effectively he mends domestic fractures and addresses deep-seated misgivings about globalisation held by segments of the US electorate.

Biden has repeatedly pledged to restore America’s international reputation and global standing, which were severely damaged under Donald Trump. 

To that end, he will quickly rejoin multilateral institutions - such as the World Health Organization - and international agreements- beginning with the Paris climate agreement - from which Trump withdrew the US.

READ:  Commentary: A second impeachment is only the start of Trump’s legal woes

These pledges point to a vision of the US back at the head of the liberal international order, a position from which it can more effectively compete – and cooperate – with China. 

But there is good reason to believe that many Americans do not want their country to lead again.

GOVERNING WITH TOXIC POPULISM

Biden’s electoral victory in November fell short of the decisive repudiation of Trump and his toxic brand of populism that liberals expected. 

Yes, Biden won over 81 million votes – more than any US presidential candidate in history. 

Barbed wire on a security fence surrounding the US Capitol, where Joe Biden will be inaugurated president on January 20 AFP/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS

But Trump received more than 74 million – the second-highest number on record – and increased his share across minority groups, compared to 2016. This is despite an unprecedented parade of scandals and a disastrously mismanaged pandemic.

What explains Trump’s enduring popularity? One explanation, advanced by Peter Singer in November, is that nearly half of America has “lost its soul.” 

This diagnosis is certainly true of the most disturbing elements of Trump’s voter base, which includes the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who stormed Capitol Hill on Jan 6. 

And even those who do not fit into this category did vote for an openly racist president, who refused to denounce white supremacy.

READ: Commentary: America, the world’s new epicentre for political instability

Still, it would be simplistic to dismiss support for Trump as nothing more than an endorsement of bigotry. It is worth remembering that 13 per cent of those who voted for Trump in 2016 voted for Barack Obama in 2012. And Trump received 10 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016.

Trump draws support from a motley array of sources. Racism and xenophobia are among them, but so is anger among rural and working-class voters over stagnating incomes and rising inequality. 

Some Asian voters also fell for his hawkish stance on China. As a political outsider, Trump was able to exploit resentment of the political establishment, hack the Republican apparatus, and package himself as a champion of the disaffected. 

ATTACKING GLOBALISATION

These voters have been misguided to put their faith in Trump, who never intended to address their grievances in any genuine way, and has no qualms about inciting them to mount an insurrection and then abandoning them. 

READ: Commentary: The brewing discontent with trade and one step to restoring faith in globalisation

READ: Commentary: US-China relations - age of engagement comes to a close

One structural factor has made it easy for Trump and his conspirators to dupe these voters: Globalisation has created many losers alongside winners. 

The winners include big companies that shifted their manufacturing to cheaper locations, thereby considerably expanding their profit margins, and the developing economies – especially China – to which they moved. The losers include millions of American manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs. 

Mix in America’s legacy of racism and the spread of fake news via social media, and the result is flammable.

But it is not only the working class that is disillusioned with globalisation. 

The violent assault on the US Capitol by supporters of President Donald Trump has raised security concerns about the coming inauguration of Presdent-elect Joe Biden AFP/ROBERTO SCHMIDT

As the global economy’s centre of gravity has shifted toward emerging powers like China, these countries have gained a greater say in international institutions, which are supposed to represent all countries rather than only these institutions’ architects. 

For many US policymakers, this was unacceptable: If the US bears the costs of sustaining a world order, they believe, it should get to ensure that its interests come first.

True to his promises of “America First,” Trump withdrew the US from its previous global leadership commitments, pared down its engagement overseas, and built a wall. He delivered exactly what his voters wanted. 

But his policy inevitably produced a consequence that US leaders couldn’t accept: China’s rising profile, as it stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum the US left behind.

WHICH WAY WILL BIDEN CHOOSE?

In response, the Trump administration portrayed China as America’s mortal enemy, launched a ruinous trade war, and imposed a slew of sanctions. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets then vice president Joe Biden in 2013 in Beijing AFP/LINTAO ZHANG

For Beijing, such hostility confirmed long-held suspicions that the US would never accept its rise without a fight, so it has reacted defensively. The resulting vicious cycle of mistrust and antagonism has yet to be broken.

For the Biden administration, two lessons stand out. First, the US cannot have it both ways. It cannot withdraw from global leadership and refuse to allow anyone to take its place; if it insists, confrontation and brinkmanship will ensue. 

READ: Commentary: Xi Jinping’s not-so-bad, actually-quite-good year in 2020

READ: Commentary: Donald Trump, half of America’s fantasy hero

Second, America’s clash with China over the last four years has been as much a divorce from that country as a divorce from globalisation.

This means that, if the US is to reclaim the leadership position that will enable it to compete constructively with China – and retain it for more than an election cycle – the Biden administration must tackle inequality and the costs that globalization has brought. 

Otherwise, Trump – or, worse, a more competent version of Trump – could well recapture the presidency in 2024 or 2028, and reverse whatever progress the Biden administration makes in the coming term.

What are the prospects for international cooperation on climate change? The Climate Conversations podcast breaks this down:

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Yuen Yuen Ang, Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the author of How China Escaped the Poverty Trap and China’s Gilded Age.

Source: CNA/ml

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