Glenn Diesen: Biden vs Trump has profound implications for the world order
The world is watching the US presidential election closely as it will have significant implications for global governance. President Joe Biden and former leader Donald Trump have very different views on how the world order should be governed and how the US should respond to its relative decline.
Biden wants to restore unipolarity with ideological economic and military blocs, strengthening the loyalty of allies and marginalizing adversaries. Trump has a more pragmatic approach. He believes the alliance system is too costly and limits diplomatic room for maneuver.
Since World War II, the US has enjoyed a privileged position in the key institutions of global governance. The Bretton Woods format and NATO ensured its economic and military dominance within the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Americans sought to extend their liberal hegemony around the globe.
They developed a security strategy based on global superiority and an expanded NATO. Washington assumed that its dominance would mitigate international anarchy and great power rivalry, and that liberal trade agreements would strengthen the US’ position at the top of global value chains. The replacement of international law with a ‘rules-based international order’ – in effect, sovereign inequality – was supposed to promote American hegemony and enhance the role of liberal democratic values.
However, unipolarity has proven to be a temporary phenomenon because it depends on the absence of rivals and values are devalued as instruments of power politics. The US has predictably exhausted its resources and the legitimacy of its hegemony, and competing powers have collectively counterbalanced Washington’s hegemonic ambitions by diversifying economic relations, staging retaliatory military operations, and developing new regional institutions of global governance.
The Cold War was a unique period in history because the West’s communist adversaries were largely disconnected from international markets, and military confrontation strengthened alliance solidarity to the extent that it mitigated economic rivalry between the capitalist allies. After the Cold War, however, the former communist powers, China and Russia, gained experience in managing economic processes, and submission to the US-led economic path lost its value for them.
The system of alliances has also begun to decline. The US previously was willing to subsidize European security in exchange for political influence. But Washington shifted its strategic focus to Asia, demanding that its European allies show geo-economic loyalty and not develop independent economic relations with rivals China and Russia. Meanwhile, the Europeans sought to use collective bargaining mechanisms through the European Union to establish autonomy and an equal partnership with the United States.
It is now clear that the unipolar moment has come to an end. The US military, exhausted by failed wars against weak opponents, is preparing for a conflict against Russia and China and a regional war in the Middle East.
The ‘rules-based international order’ is openly rejected by other major powers. US economic coercion to prevent the emergence of new centers of power only encourages separation from US technology, industry, transport corridors, banks, payment systems, and the dollar.
The US economy is struggling with unsustainable debt and inflation, while socio-economic decline is fueling political polarization and instability. Against this backdrop, Americans could elect a new president who will seek fresh solutions for global governance.
Biden’s global governance: Ideology and bloc politics
Biden wants to restore US global dominance by reviving the Cold War system of alliances that divided the world into dependent allies and weakened adversaries. It pits Europe against Russia, Arab states against Iran, India against China, and so on. Inclusive international institutions of global governance are being weakened and replaced by confrontational economic and military blocs.
Biden’s bloc politics is legitimized by simplistic heuristics. The complexity of the world is reduced to an ideological struggle between liberal democracies and authoritarian states. Ideological rhetoric means demanding geo-economic loyalty from the ‘free world’ while promoting overly aggressive and undiplomatic language. Thus, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are smeared as ‘dictators’.
Multilateralism is welcome to the extent that it reinforces US leadership. Biden is less hostile to the UN and the EU than his predecessor, and under his administration, the US has rejoined the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement. But Biden has not revisited the Iran nuclear deal or reduced economic pressure on China to change its supply chains. The institutions that could constrain the US – the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – are not favored by either Biden or Trump.
The deteriorating socio-economic and political situation in the US will also affect Biden’s approach to global governance. Biden will remain reluctant to enter into new ambitious trade agreements as the losers of globalization and neo-liberal economics within the US move into the camp of the populist opposition. Nor will he favor free trade agreements in areas where China has a technological and industrial advantage, and his attempts to cut European states off from Russian energy and Chinese technology will further fragment the world into competing economic blocs.
Western Europe will continue to weaken and become more dependent on the US, to the point where it will have to give up any claim to ‘strategic autonomy’ and ‘European sovereignty’.
Biden has also shown a willingness to disrupt allied country’s industries through initiatives such as the US Inflation Reduction Act.
Trump’s global governance: ‘America First’ and great power pragmatism
Trump seeks to restore American greatness by reducing the costs of alliance systems and hegemony. He sees alliances against strategic rivals as undesirable if they involve a transfer of relative economic power to allies. Trump believes that NATO is an “obsolete” relic of the Cold War because Western Europeans should contribute more to their own security. In his view, the US should perhaps reduce its presence in the Middle East and allies should pay America for their security in some way. Economic agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership would have promoted US leadership, but under Trump, they have been abandoned because of the transfer of economic benefits to allies. Trump does not reject US imperialism, but wants to make it sustainable by ensuring a higher return on investment.
Less tied to the alliance system and unencumbered by ideological dogma, Trump can take a more pragmatic approach to other great powers. Trump is able to make political deals with adversaries, use friendly and diplomatic language when talking to Putin and Xi, and even perhaps make a diplomatic visit to North Korea. While Biden’s division of the world into liberal democracies and authoritarian states makes Russia an adversary, Trump’s view of the world as nationalists/patriots versus cosmopolitans/globalists makes Russia a potential ally. This ideological view complements the pragmatic consideration of not pushing Russia into the arms of China, the main rival of the US.
Global governance will be utilitarian in this case, and the main goal of the US will be to regain a competitive advantage over China. Trump is fundamentally inclined to blame China excessively for America’s economic problems. Economic pressure on China is intended to restore US technological/industrial dominance and protect domestic jobs. Economic nationalist ideas reflect the ideas of the 19th-century American system, where economic policy is based on fair trade rather than free trade. Trump appears to view the entire post-Cold War security system in Europe as a costly attempt to subsidize Western Europe’s declining importance. These same Europeans have antagonized Russia and pushed it into the arms of China. Trump’s unclear stance on NATO has even prompted Congress to pass a bill prohibiting presidents from unilaterally deciding whether to withdraw the US from NATO.
While Trump is in favor of improving relations with Russia, his presidency would be unlikely to achieve this goal.
The US can be seen as an irrational actor to the extent that it allows domestic political battles to influence its foreign policy. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff fabricated the Steele dossier and Russiagate to portray Trump as a Kremlin agent. In the 2020 election, Biden’s campaign staff attempted to portray the Hunter Biden laptop scandal as a Russian disinformation campaign and accused Russia of paying bribes to kill US troops in Afghanistan. These false accusations were designed to distract the public and make Trump look weak on Russia. All of this ultimately soured relations with Russia and even contributed to the current conflict in Ukraine.
Both Biden and Trump seek to reverse the relative decline of the US in the world, but the difference in their approaches will have a profound impact on global governance. While Biden seeks to restore US greatness through systems of ideological alliances that will fragment global governance into regional blocs, Trump will seek to withdraw from the institutions of global governance because they drain US resources and impede pragmatic policies.