Former Indonesian ambassador to the US, founder of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI)
I know many of us got this wrong in the past, but I am willing to bet my house that President Donald J. Trump is finished. Either by a small or large margin, the incumbent will lose the US elections in November.
It will not be Joe Biden that will beat Trump: Donald Trump is the cause of his own demise.
His unmistakable “authenticity”, an asset that distinguished him from his political competitors in the past, is now a liability. His notorious claim of invincibility – that he could “shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still get elected” – no longer holds weight today.
In 2016, Trump received a sizeable vote from Americans who voted for him not so much because they believed in him, but because they did not like Hilary Clinton. That dynamic will no longer be at work this coming November.
I cannot give you a fancy formula, but I do know this from American history: US voters have a habit of being punitive to leaders who govern when the country is in distress. I was a high school student in MacLean, Virginia, in the late 1970s and I remember, like many Americans then, admiring the incumbent president Jimmy Carter. He projected an aura of decency, humility and goodwill — much more so than Trump does today.
But America back then was in a big mess: the energy crisis, the Iran hostage debacle, the so-called “national malaise”. President Carter failed to get a second term; the American voters decided to give his opponent – Ronald Reagan – a chance.
This happened again to another one-term president who succeeded Reagan: the decent person of George HW Bush. He led a glorious international coalition to oust Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and for a while he looked sure to win a second term. But domestically the US economy was not in good shape and the unhappy American voters, again, punished President George HW Bush by denying him a second term.
Carter’s America or Bush’s America were certainly hurting, but nothing like what we see in Trump’s America. America in 2020 is a divided, angry, unhappy, insecure nation.
The accumulated impacts of COVID-19 (over 3 million cases and 130,000+ deaths), the unprecedented job losses, impending economic recession, George Floyd protests, revelations from the Bolton book and the rapid loss of the “feel good” factor; all have tilted the electoral margin to Biden’s favor. It is hard for Trump to make a case to “Keep America Great” when the key indicators are running in the opposite direction. Blaming liberals, immigrants, Muslims, China, Barack Obama and CNN will no longer work.
While the US elections and inauguration are still months away, it is time to prepare for a post-Trump America and post-Trump world order.
A post-Trump America will still be a divided country. This, I suppose, will never change. Trump, as he already said he would, might make a futile attempt to challenge the November election results. But even after the Trump presidency ends, Trump-ism will not go away, his core “political base” (around 24 percent of voters) will remain a loud force, and Trump will certainly continue to bully his successor (because that is his character) and will probably try to run for president again in 2024.
But for the majority of mainstream Americans who will vote him out, a post-Trump America will be – and surely feels like – a different America than the one of the last four years. There will be a sense that America has been reclaimed, and returned to what it used to be – decent, open, moderate, progressive, compassionate – and moving in the right direction, wherever that may be.
Whether or not Joe Biden will be able to resolve America’s problems is of course a totally different matter. If anything, given the enormous economic, social and health challenges wrought by the pandemic, a Biden presidency would most probably reinstate a greater role for the government in the economy, enact more social safety nets and bring policies more to the left of the center.
A world without President Trump in power will be a better and hopeful one.
In the last four years, Trump’s America ceased to inspire the world. Instead, President Trump brought out the image of the “ugly America”. American professor John Delury recently lamented that the US has now become “the sick man of democracies”.
US foreign policy suffered from a glaring confusion – indeed, contradiction – between Trump’s personal interests and US national interests. This, and Trump’s endless diplomatic gaffes, have caused considerable demoralization in the State Department and to American diplomats abroad — some of them indeed chose to leave the diplomatic service.
Under President Trump, US foreign policy lost interest in leading the world (after all, it’s all about “America First”), retreated from global leadership, bullied and embarrassed US allies, alienated the Islamic world and unassembled everything Obama did, despite the possible merit of such policies.
In that process, the US stopped leading: on climate, democracy, human rights, governance, trade,
America took a back seat. American exceptionalism, and respectability, had lost currency worldwide. While the US remains the world’s only superpower, its status as the world’s most consequential power has seriously eroded. As one American foreign policy wonk told me, “For many years, the US used to be either loved or hated. We were used to that. Now, for the first time, the US is pitied. We are not used to that.”
In a post-Trump world, the question is whether a Joe Biden presidency will be Obama 2.0. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Bush 41 had all faced this same question upon assuming power, and each (with the exception of Ford) managed to craft their own distinctive path of US foreign policy. The same goes for a future president Biden.
But unlike Obama, Clinton, Bush or Carter before him, Biden will assume presidency as the most “foreign policy prepared” president — serving eight years as Obama’s vice president, and prior to that many years in the Senate foreign affairs committee. This long track-record means that, as one American friend pointed out to me, “There is not one important international issue that Biden is not familiar with.” Many of the talented policy wonks who boycotted Trump in 2016 will return to Washington, DC, to serve under Biden.
If anything, a Biden presidency will signal the return of America as a “normal country”.
It will mark the return of a traditional foreign policy. This means that one of the first foreign policy moves President Biden will make is to reassure US allies, particularly in Europe, that he is no Trump, and will exercise a leadership role in America’s many alliances. In contrast with the disruptive instinct of President Trump, Biden will attempt to regain the comfort level and strategic trust of allies. The upshot is that, in contrast with the past four years, we will see a more strategically coherent western world with the US back at the core of it.
A Biden administration will be more committed to a rules-based international order (though policy contradictions will persist), and will reposition the US into its traditional role as a “champion” of democracy, human rights and international law (themes that Trump showed little interest in). That said, despite the long-standing plea of the international community, a Biden administration is not likely to push for Senate ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
It is important to keep in mind that a future president Biden will be forced by circumstances to focus on the herculean task of producing jobs at home. As Gordon Flake of Perth US-Asia Center argues, President Biden will inherit a “weaker and poorer” United States. More than 20 million jobs were lost this year, and there is a recession looming with unemployment reaching 14 percent, the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, reversing this jobs avalanche will be the number one validation of the Biden presidency. If Biden fails this, he too might be a one-term president. Much of how Biden will engage the world will be seen from this “jobs at home” prism.
To save the US economy, Biden will likely reduce military spending, which under President Trump reached a historic height of US$725 billion in 2020. This may mean that exotic programs like the Space Force will be halted (it’s hard to justify spending billions on space warfare when 20 million Americans are out of jobs). That said, given the US threat perceptions and strategic challenges, military spending will remain high.
The Biden presidency is also expected to return US active engagement in the climate diplomacy circuit, which will be a great boost to Conference of Parties-26 in Glasgow in November 2021. A Biden administration is also expected to enhance multilateral diplomacy, be hard on Russia and China and place emphasis on arms control, which means it will right away begin negotiations on a new START Treaty with Russia (and perhaps find a way to engage China in it).
In the Middle East, a future president Biden will be less beholden to Israel (compared to Trump) and show greater sensitivity to the Islamic world; will likely return America to the table regarding Iran’s nuclear deal; will handle Saudi Arabia differently than Trump; and will be more favorable over a more normalized place for Qatar in the region. It does not look likely that Biden will make a strong attempt to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
President Biden will not be softer on China. This is because the basic instinct of Washington, DC, establishment is now systematically geared for a long-term strategic rivalry with China. A future president Biden needs to prove that he is tough on China, and that under his watch America will not be surpassed by China.
But Biden is likely to handle China with greater policy sophistication and will be less predisposed to blame China and less confrontational when he needs to be. In any case, the “respectability gap” that was palpably felt between erratic Trump and steady Xi Jinping will decrease much during a Biden presidency.
It would be hasty to assume that a Biden presidency will immediately make America rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The domestic political circumstances in the US do not warrant that as yet. Instead, Biden is likely to begin with “safe” bilateral free trade negotiations, perhaps with Taiwan. Biden will need a year or two to assess the political and diplomatic situation before making a more determined move on the TPP.
It is a safe bet that the Indo-Pacific strategy will endure under the Biden administration. This is because the “Indo-Pacific” is now firmly entrenched in the US strategic psyche.
Outside US alliance systems, India will continue to be a key benefactor of Biden’s Asia policy.
The big question is whether Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy will proactively embrace China or continue to sideline it in this regional architecture.
The other big question in this Indo-Pacific strategy will be how Biden sees Southeast Asia. Under Obama, Southeast Asia occupied a key place in the so-called pivot or rebalancing strategy, which by extension, raised the strategic position of Indonesia in the eyes of US policymakers.
While the policy package may be different, expect the Biden presidency to ramp up the US overall presence (strategic, economic, soft power) vis-a-vis China in the ASEAN region and a more intense competition for diplomatic and political influence in the region.
The aforementioned post-Trump US foreign policy still, of course, awaits president-hopeful Joe Biden’s actual policy pronouncements, which are still forthcoming. These will be clearer after the Democratic Convention, the presidential debates prior to elections and the inauguration in January 2021. Some of these policy predictions are deduced from my conversations with Washington, DC, insiders.
Yes, I know, you think I am getting way ahead of myself.
But the US elections are just four months (one summer season) away — a blink of an eye. The exit of President Trump will have a profoundly strategic impact on world affairs.
As the world scrambles to sketch a complex diplomatic agenda for a COVID-19 and post-pandemic world, they are well advised to start calculating what a post-Trump America and Biden presidency will look like, as that would make a huge difference in how world affairs evolve and how world problems would be solved in the coming five years.
The writer is founder of Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI) and former Indonesian ambassador to the United States.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.