Since the end of World War Two, US hegemony in global politics has been a constant influence on world affairs. From the various conflicts of the Cold War and into the 21st century, the US has often taken an openly interventionist stance, raising concerns of imperialism despite its own reasoning of promoting liberal values abroad. Some argue, however, that the days of unchallenged American hegemony and unchecked influence over sovereign states is coming to an end, after some of the seemingly apathetic stances of the Trump administration. This is why the presidential election of 2020 will be of monumental importance for deciding the future of international relations, with Biden calling for renewed global leadership on contemporary issues, while Trump continues to champion populist “America First” ideals. Whether it is domestic politics, trade or environmental policy, a Biden presidency would be markedly different for America and the entire world, but would it be ‘better’?
With the increasingly isolationist American foreign policy under Trump, the dynamics of world politics have shifted, with nations like China exerting more influence and other developed nations embracing populist rhetoric. Populism can be defined as a movement that “consistently promises to channel the unified will of the people … and undercut the self-serving schemes of the elite establishment” (Baker, 2019). This general idea has taken many forms, including Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp” of the American political elite, while countries like India and Germany have called for the preservation of cultural identity (Serhan, 2020). As an example, the right-wing populist “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) party in Germany espouses ideas that are a growing trend in Europe. AfD exploits real societal issues including poor living standards of German workers to create the image that these problems are being caused by immigrants and the establishment. It has often accused labour unions of working closely with employers to exploit the workers, gaining the support of over 20% of union members in many regions (Ackermann et al., 2017). The AfD has also vehemently opposed the idea of multiculturalism, denouncing Angela Merkel’s initiatives to increase immigration intake (BBC, 2017). India is also facing growing populism in the form of Hindu supremacy, with Narendra Modi’s BJP party being repeatedly accused of Islamophobia (Ibrahim, 2020). The similarities between the political movements in these countries recently highlights its truly global nature. The Trump presidency, which has called for self-sufficiency in manufacturing and elsewhere could partly be responsible for the justification of similar movements abroad. Since the US is undeniably influential in world politics, it is reasonable to assume that Biden may utilise this to reinvigorate globalism and to reduce the rapid spread of populism internationally.
Another major change in world politics under Trump that may change under Biden is China’s growing influence in developing regions. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been one of the key policy changes instituted with the aim of investing large amounts of capital in developing regions to strengthen partnerships, increase trade, and improve global welfare (Churchill et al., 2019). The plan shares characteristics of the American Marshall Plan, where China is essentially using its increasingly wealthy position to encourage emerging economies to join with them in long term partnerships. This could have significant ideological implications for the future, by giving China valuable allies and increasing its global influence while the US continues to be closed off. The Biden plan notes this, stating that it is essential that “America must lead again”, specifically stating that it must restore its strategic partnerships and moral leadership (Biden, 2020). Biden’s proposed policies, if successful, will redefine US involvement in international relations, and is likely to increase its influence in more liberal and unified issues like climate change and human rights. While this might strengthen certain partnerships, it may also antagonise nations like Russia, through increased NATO engagement. China would also be affected if the US calls for more stringent environmental accountability. Ultimately, some of the key issues that Biden would greatly change compared to Trump are trade agreements and partnerships and climate change action.
Trump’s “America First” rhetoric has forced the US to abdicate from its position as the West’s global hegemon, creating instability on the international political stage. It is not surprising then that Joe Biden wishes to reinvigorate traditional alliances and commitments as a means to restore America’s global influence.
Biden will seek to reinstate America’s relationship with both the WTO and WHO, in hopes of re-engaging American leadership among international institutions. The US’ ties with the WHO have soured dramatically due to Trump’s decision to halt funding and withdraw its membership during the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic (“US leaves WHO”, 2020).Similarly, Trump has continuously attacked the WTO by “starving it of personnel and disregarding its authority” (Swanson, 2020), effectively blocking its ability to settle global trade issues. This scorched earth approach has not only worsened America’s reputation, but also threatens to disconnect it from collective action and information sharing in the future.
In response, Biden has promised to “immediately restore [the US’] relationship with WHO” (Ward, 2020), and despite Trump retaining its membership, is also expected to be less antagonistic towards the WTO than the rhetoric of the past four years. These promises will prevent other competing countries from dominating major international decisions, as they threaten to upend America’s position as the global policeman and arbitrator. In turn, positive US relations with international bodies will be pivotal for Biden, if he wishes to strengthen the soft power of Washington.
In the face of China’s growing influence, Biden and Trump have taken markedly different approaches. Trump has adopted an aggressively insular foreign policy view, by waging tariff wars (Lynch, 2020), threatening to leave NATO (Barnes & Cooper, 2019) and withdrawing from the Tran-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (Duffy, 2017). Conversely, Biden has thrown his support behind a renegotiated TPP-12 (Holden, 2020) , and has stressed the importance of closing ranks with NATO allies (Ax & Hunnicutt, 2020). Biden sees both the TPP and NATO as important mechanisms in simultaneously growing US global influence and countering the competing Chinese sphere of influence. Interestingly, despite Biden’s pro-globalization stances, he has insisted on strong rules of origin in any new trade deals in the future, meaning that more manufacturing must be done on American soil (Lynch, 2020). This view reveals how the negative economic impacts of COVID-19 as well as China’s aggressive foreign policy have made a purely free trade, pro-market posture impossible for Biden (especially at a time when he aims to reconnect with his unionised base). However, to offset the disruption caused by Trumpian policy pivots, Biden will need to strike a careful balance between protecting damaged local industry and removing recently-imposed barriers to free trade.
Donald Trump’s nationalistic approach to politics and his unwillingness to contribute to our collective wellbeing leave countries like the US ill-equipped to meet the challenges posed by climate change. The President’s high profile withdrawal from the 2015 Paris Agreement (BBC News, 2019), gutting of environmental regulations (Brookings, 2020), and minimising and denying the climate crisis through infamously declaring “I don’t think the science knows” (Brewster, 2020) has been a failure of US leadership and a dereliction of global responsibility. Ultimately, November’s election represents an opportunity for the US to continue down this uncertain path, or to play a leading role in a monumental global challenge.
Democratic opponent Joe Biden has proposed addressing climate change through both domestic action and foreign policy. The Biden plan is an ambitious $2 trillion program centred around the goals of high environmental standards, investments, and justice (Biden, 2020). This ensures that sufficiently large financial and policy commitments are made, whilst facilitating a just green energy transition that is cognisant of the disproportionate impact climate change has on minority groups and vulnerable communities. In creating a comprehensive domestic climate agenda, the US has an opportunity to lead by example and create a replicable roadmap upon which other countries can build.
Beyond simply leading by example, the Biden campaign has pledged to “use every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions alongside the United States” (Biden, 2020). The first examples of this idea would be a renewed commitment to necessary multilateral climate action through the Paris agreement, the Kigali amendment to the Montreal accords (United Nations Environment Programme, 2019), and enforceability mechanisms for state actors who fail to meet their commitments. Moreover, the Biden plan levies heavy criticism towards the environmental record of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, while it announces an intention to commit to a more eco-friendly approach to global aid and development. If these foreign policy plans are executed, it would simultaneously represent a reassertion of US-led collaboration to tackle global problems, and the maintenance of US influence to rival the competing growth and power of China.
The outcome of November’s election is a critical nexus point from which innumerable implications for global power dynamics, collaboration, and the future trajectories of several nations will emerge. It remains uncertain whether Trump will continue to galvanise right-wing nationalism, Biden will facilitate a US-led return to internationalism, or if the US will fade into irrelevance as other global powers continue to emerge. Nonetheless, the world will continue to watch in a state of helpless anxiety to see how this monumental event will impact all of our lives.
Ax, J., Hunnicutt, T. (2020). Exclusive: Biden to Review Trump decision to cut troops in Germany if elected. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-biden-germany-exclusive-idUSKBN24A293/
Barnes, J., Cooper, H. (2019) Trump Discussed Pulling U.S. From NATO, Aides Say Amid New Concerns Over Russia. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/14/us/politics/nato-president-trump.html
Baker, P. (2019). ‘We the people’: the battle to define populism. The Guardian UK. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/jan/10/we-the-people-the-battle-to-define-populism/
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Duffy, C. (2017). Donald Trump signs executive order withdrawing US from Trans-Pacific Partnership. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-01-24/trump-withdraws-from-tpp/8206356/
Holden, R. (2020). Biden will back the trans-Pacific trade partnership. Australian Financial Review. https://www.afr.com/policy/economy/he-s-no-milton-friedman-but-biden-will-back-the-trans-pacific-trade-partnership-20200825-p55oz1
Ibrahim, A. (2020). How Modi is Using Hinduism to Turn India Into an Autocracy, Foreign Policy Magazine. https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/13/modi-india-hindutva-hindu-nationalism-autocracy/
Lynch, D. (2020). Democratic critics look for Biden to break with the Wall Street wing on trade. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/07/28/biden-trade-2020/
Serhan, Y. (2020). Populism is morphing in insidious ways. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/01/future-populism-2020s/604393/
Swanson, A. (2019). Trump Cripples W.T.O. as Trade War Tages. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/business/trump-trade-war-wto.html
United Nations Environment Programme. (2019) World takes a stand against powerful greenhouse gases with implementation of Kigali Amendment. UNEP – UN Environment Programme. (2019). https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/press-release/world-takes-stand-against-powerful-greenhouse-gases-implementation.
Ward, A. (2020). Joe Biden’s plan to fix the world. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2020/8/18/21334630/joe-biden-foreign-policy-explainer/
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Charlie is a Bachelor of Commerce student majoring in Economics and Finance. He is interested in macroeconomics, politics and current affairs.
A first year Bachelor of Commerce student with a passion for all things economics and politics.
My name is Ben Griffiths. I’m a bachelor of commerce student majoring in economics and undertaking a language diploma in French. I’m passionate about economics, public policy, global politics, and creating a meaningful social impact.