In a changing world, what should a Biden foreign policy look like?

Written By: Wajahat Qazi
New Delhi Published: Nov 07, 2020, 06:33 PM(IST)

Joe Biden Photograph:( AFP )

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No easy answers lend themselves here. But for America to lead again, the country first needs balance and equipoise within followed by a consensus of what constitutes its interests and ideals. If the focus would be on a narrow range or narrowly defined interests, then the obvious consequence would be a quasi retreat from international politics

As the drama surrounding US elections ebbs and flows and as the democratic ‘blue wave’ has not materialized, pundits and sober commentators are rightly pointing out that there will be governance dysfunction in the United States. This would, as the pundits assert, lead to a legislative hiatus and pause where the only major room for manoeuvre for Joseph Biden, if and when he becomes president, will be in foreign policy. Given this, should the world heave a sigh of relief? Will American power ‘remake’ the world again? And can Biden grow America’s influence?

Fundamentally, the wellsprings of American leadership of the world were predicated on a combination of its military might (hard power), its adherence to and export of capitalism (political economy) and values that it espoused and embedded, albeit sporadically in its foreign policy (human rights). 

Admittedly, this is a neat troika where there have been departures from the ‘norm’s and variations on this theme but, in the main, these are what constituted the grist and mill of American foreign policy, earning the country influence, wide and deep latitude in the process. 

Complementing this rubric of foreign policy was an international system and structure that, until the closing decade of the 20th century was more or less stable.

But as the 20th century gave way to the 21st, there were world disorders, the sources of which could be traced to both within and without America. It was perhaps in the domain of economics, or more accurately political economy, where the post-war bargain of ‘embedded liberalism’ gave way to unabashed globalism, that the impact was most severe. 

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Unadulterated globalism which some associate with market fundamentalism, and where there was a trade-off between efficiency and equity, in favour of the former, bred inequalities and inequities not only within and in the United States but also outside of it. 

It was these conditions plus the effects of a proselytizing foreign policy, which under the neocons meant wars, that Trump was born. But Trump was a figure that represented or reflected angst with the existing order of political economy.

This angst called Trumpism called for a changing of the economic order and the political consensus that underpinned it. The implications and consequences were felt in the domains of foreign policy as America under Trump sought to disrupt and remake international relations in the image of Trumpism. 

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In the meanwhile, the world was also changing – especially in its political makeup. The ‘democratic waves’ that reached an apogee in the 1970s dissipated into a ‘democratic recession’. Complemented by a quasi American retreat from international relations, the tone of international politics became more adversarial.  

There was also the rise of China which while did not seek to upend world order and not export its model but certainly was and is seeking to widen its arc of influence.

There was and is more to these developments and trends but the ones delineated here constitute the major ones. So, amidst this change and churn, can America lead again? And what would leading mean?

No easy answers lend themselves here. But for America to lead again, the country first needs balance and equipoise within followed by a consensus of what constitutes its interests and ideals. If the focus would be on a narrow range or narrowly defined interests, then the obvious consequence would be a quasi retreat from international politics. 

This would be the best outcome if, to repeat, interests are defined narrowly. But, if it is ideals, then obviously America needs to re-engage with the world albeit in a different idiom than it did in the past, primarily because the world out there is a different one. 

But, this whole hog re-engagement would carry domestic prices and with Trumpism still a potent force in the United States(made more salient with the prospect of Trump himself foraying into the media), it will not only have diminishing returns but also probably lead to more polarization. How then should America craft its foreign policy under Biden?

By synthesizing ideals with interests is the answer. Or, in other words, create a foreign policy paradigm that integrates realism with idealism which may be called realist idealism. 

This could constitute the golden mean that the Biden presidency should aim for. Among its core components should be a review and revision of political economy that must occupy the middle ground, so to speak. 

Any gyration to either extreme would not only be a disaster in the making but also be as ephemeral as anything- a prospect that would lead to both world disorders and the possible end of an era.

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer)

Wajahat Qazi

Wajahat Qazi is particularly interested in politics, global security and political economy. He is a wanderer and fancies himself to be a wannabe writer.
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