President Joe Biden presents an extremely decent face of America. He is elegant, well groomed, distinguished, well preserved, and well meaning. Given the huge chasm between him and his truculent predecessor, President Donald Trump, their views are unsurprisingly as different as those of Caesar from Pompey. Mr Biden wants to undo everything that Mr Trump had done in the preceding four tumultuous years. But that could prove to be a tall order. For one thing, when a bell is rung, it cannot be unrung. Some American actions in the past several years may have left global imprint that is indelible. For another, Mr Trump might not have been the lone ranger he is often made out to be. Many in America may actually have near-mystical empathy for him. Indeed, the reality is that the Trumpian phenomenon may not be transient. Also, it is an unsettling fact that were it not for the Corona pandemic, Mr Trump would have still been President.
Some researchers delving into Big History had forecast a dismal picture of disquiet for America this century. One, Dr Jack Goldstone, an American scholar, over three decades ago, proffered a model demonstrating how population changes can alter popular behaviour. He called it the Demographic Structural Theory which predicted a disruptive and populist American leadership in the 21st Century. His academic colleague, Dr Peter Turchin, an expert in Cliodynamics, a method that applies mathematical quantitative rigour to soci0-historical research, working a decade ago but before Mr Trump’s election, reached a disturbing extrapolation. He showed that due to social imbalances America was hurtling towards a “Turbulent Twenty Twenties”, an era of huge societal dislocation, no matter who governed. These are but esoteric theories, which can come to limelight when they appear to be aligned to facts. As Mr Trump was leaving office, albeit reluctantly and in an undignified fashion, the nation was plunged into a state of divisive turmoil. Now, what happens in America does not remain confined to America. When the Oval Office changed occupants this January, the world was already aware of much of these realities.
Mr Trump had followed an America First policy, engaging with or disengaging from a protagonist depending on whether it was in his perceived national self-interest, irrespective of whether the entity was a friend or foe. In doing so he alienated both allies and adversaries alike. But Mr Biden advanced plans for working with partners to take on opponents. This involved rallying Europe to oppose China. But prospects for economic advancement can make strange bed-follows, which motivated Brussels and Beijing to reach a Comprehensive Investment Agreement. That too on the eve of the change in Washington. Mr Jake Sullivan, the incoming National Security officer sent a message to the European Union seeking a deferment until consultation.
The message was returned to sender. Germany may be often seen as a fighting-nation, but a key precept of its policy also has been Wendel durch Handel, meaning Change through Trade. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her European colleagues including France’s President Emmanuel Macron were on the same page. They seemed not to regard Mr Trump as an aberration but as part of American isolationist trend. Europe accepted the differences in values with China, and in cases was critical of Chinese thought and action, but clearly unwilling to heighten potentials for conflict to effect changes in China’s behaviour. While China’s human rights behaviour with regard to Uighur Muslims was indeed reprehensible, some of America’s partners were by no means models of unimpeachable conduct. Brussels refused to view Sino-American rivalry through a Manichean lens. Europe was happy to happy to have America back in the fold of partners, But no longer, necessarily as a leader.
In the east, in Asia, closer to China, and where China appeared more of an assertive actor, the Biden team envisioned a more pliant partnership. It comprised what has been called the Quad, comprising, apart from the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. Originally conceived to counter natural threats as the Tsunami in 2004, and defunct much of the time since then apart from a Ministerial meeting, Mr Biden sought to breathe fresh lie into it. Also impart it a security connotation, aimed at China. Accordingly, a virtual summit of the four leaders were held and they wrote an op-ed to underscore points of agreement. India was the only clear beneficiary with a sizeable investment from others for its production of a billion doses of Covid vaccine. In the outcome the name of the main target of the event, at least from the American perspective, China, found nary a mention. Each of the Quad country has bilateral dealings with China, and China will naturally attempt to peel them away from any adverse group action, one -by one.
Big history suggests that when a rising power relates to one that is risen, conflict becomes highly probable. We now have a situation where China is on an assertive rise, while the sole superpower, the US, is in, what Robert Kaplan has termed ‘elegant decline’. Dr John Mearsheimer had developed the theory of offensive realism’ to explain America’s rational desire to achieve hegemony in an anarchic international system. Historically nations have taken turns to play this role. It may now be China’s. Already the second largest economy in the world, it is now expected to be the first by 2028, according to International Monetary Fund estimates. In its recently concluded “Two Sessions” Parliamentary meeting, China emphasized its “two circulation strategy”, stimulating internal demand to reduce dependance on exports. China is honing its defence capabilities by its focus on Artificial Intelligence, sharpening its non-kinetic warfighting and deterrent prowess across newer battle domains as cyberspace, electromagnetic spectrum, and the deep sea. Gone are the days when it demurely sought to ‘’ hide its capabilities and bide its time”. It sees itself set to achieve what the Chinese term ‘’Zhang Guomeng” or China Dream. It is possible that next year Mr Xi Jinping may be declared President for life. In China, it could be a long time!
To the credit of the Biden Administration, his team seems to have worked out the methodology to re-engage the world. For instance, they have clearly signalled their emphasis on multilateralism, climate change, human rights, and the need for a common position on the pandemic. They have also acknowledged that no plan survives the first contact with the adversary. This is reflected in their hesitancy to push the human rights envelope too much with regard to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia; 0r, not to hastily join the dispute settlement process in the World Trade Organization that might not redound to America’s interest. As for marshalling forces against China they have done considerable legwork through their travels in the Far East, before engaging China itself. They would have learnt that where Asians have no dog in the fight, as in the case with ASEAN in relation to China, they would need to tread more calmly. They would have recognized the complexity in dealing with allies from a culture with often inordinately long memories; such as South Korea’s gripes against Japan dating back to World War 11.
The first meeting of senior representatives of the two major powers, the US and China is scheduled to be held in Anchorage, Alaska, later this week. Messrs Antony Blinken US Secretary of State, and Mr Jake Sullivan National Security Adviser will host China’s Mr Yang Jiechi, State Councillor and Mr Wang Yi Foreign Minister. The two Americans have a reputation for sharp intellects which will match the experiece of the two Chinese culled from longevity in life and office. It would be a Greek- meets- Greek scenario, with which inevitably comes the tug of war. While not much is expected in terms of result, it does not make the meeting any less significant. It will accord both sides the opportunity to test waters. Neither side can afford to deliver to the other a Melian dialogue (cooperate, or else!). Nor should they simply read out to each other the riot act. Every attempt must be made by the parties to identify the low hanging fruits, and muster the qualities that are prerequisites for the leadership role they seek. The US-China relationship will define the 2020s of all our lives. If China is to be a peer of America, Beijing must win the confidence of the world for that position. If America is looking to global cheers for its return to the international scene, Washington must know that this has to be earned. Both sides must do it by actions, not simply words.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg