Meet the new boss

Tom Stevenson

In parts of the Holy Roman Empire, a new elector was obliged not only to attend the funeral of his predecessor but to bury the body. In the weeks leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration, Donald Trump’s opponents may wish for the finality of interment. The election result is understandably seen as a form of deliverance by many in the US. The view is not uncommon in the rest of the world, either. When the count was called for Biden, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung carried the news under the headline ‘Demonstrativ staatsmännisch’: a Biden victory represents a return to dignity and rectitude.

Trump was often derided as an isolationist by the imperial bureaucracy, for whom the term is a stock insult. His opponents liked to say he was tearing down the US-led ‘liberal international order’. On election night, when early vote counts implied Trump was winning, the former State Department analyst Aaron David Miller tweeted that ‘champagne corks are popping’ in Riyadh, Jerusalem, Moscow, Ankara and Beijing. In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin wrote that Biden held the promise of salvation from the Trump days: ‘a return to a bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that moderate Republicans and Democrats have long championed’.

In fact the Trump administration’s foreign policy was more orthodox than is generally admitted. Many of his appointees were old regime hands: his trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, was a Reagan-era official; the director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, ran a torture site in Thailand under George W. Bush; Trump’s fifth secretary of defence, Mark Esper (fired yesterday), was formerly an adviser to Barack Obama’s defence secretary Chuck Hagel. Having pledged to ‘get out of foreign wars’, Trump did nothing of the sort. He pursued the global assassination programme established under Obama. The US-backed war in Yemen, begun while Biden was vice president, continued. The military budget increased.

Trump did not get along with the diplomats at the State Department, but his administration did very little that was out of the usual line of business. He maintained the traditional US-dominated alliance structure in Europe, and expanded it in the Pacific through the Quad (an informal arrangement with Australia, Japan and India). His administration supported coups in Latin America and set up the Western Hemisphere Strategic Framework to ensure US dominance. In the Middle East, he pursued the traditional American goal of strangling Iran, and prevailed on the Gulf monarchies to recognise Israel.

Trump’s America was disdainful of international co-operation on terms other than its own, but that, too, was nothing new. The US imposed sanctions on the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in September, over an attempt to apply international law to US citizens. More than thirty years ago, Reagan’s America refused to accept the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice when it ruled in Nicaragua’s favour against the US. Trump’s disputes with the foreign policy intelligentsia were for the most part matters of style, not principle. Dismantling American hegemony would have been a historic act, but Trump never considered it.

The one ostensibly distinctive part of the Trump programme was the trade war with China, but this, too, predated Trump and will survive him. Lighthizer may be out of a job, but the US is still absorbing Chinese and European surpluses. Biden will be just as unwilling as Trump to limit capital flows into dollar debt, which impoverish workers but inflate the prices of assets owned by the rich, and maintain US power over the international financial system. Given that Biden supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has spoken of his admiration for Dick Cheney, it seems unlikely that he will pursue a quietist strategy on China.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Biden pledged that under him America would ‘lead again’, a message not so very different from Trump’s. Biden may be less enthusiastic about photo opportunities with the autocratic heads of American protectorates, but he will support them. He has pledged to rejoin the Paris Accords but no one expects him to usher in the transformation of the industrial world’s infrastructure that would be required to avert the climate crisis.

The election was watched in every part of the world because of American power, but foreign policy played almost no part in the campaign. It is not contested ground and US political factions, apart from the dissident margins, have nothing to debate. To some extent this is inevitable in a great power: Augustus’ policy of restricting the Roman Empire’s eastward expansion was followed by every emperor until Trajan. In most respects, Trump’s foreign policy was a continuation of Obama’s (itself largely a continuation of Bush’s), despite the vindictive sentiments that brought him to power. When the obligatory ‘Biden doctrine’ comes, it will, for the most part, show continuity with Trump.

US foreign policy has been fairly stable for 30 years. Biden’s desiccated promise is of minor corrections in management style and a more congenial tone. Without a transformative vision, the task will continue to be to prevent things the US disapproves of from happening. A sense of relief at the election result should not lead to a muting of criticism of US hegemony.


  • 11 November 2020 at 1:33am
    Laurie Strachan says:
    This may come as a surprise to you but we were watching this election in great trepidation not because of American foreign policy but because of Trump's frontal assault on the notion of truth and the solidly held fear that America might actually cease to be a working democracy.

    Or didn't you notice that?

    • 11 November 2020 at 7:29am
      Tony Barrett says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Exactly. Too busy chasing squirrels to spot the forest fire.

    • 11 November 2020 at 10:27am
      Donald Raeson says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Aren't you being a bit parochial? Oh yeah.....that does rather come with being American, doesn't it?. Slaughter hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese and then spend 20 years navel-gazing about what Vietnam did to Americans. You're a citizen of the only global superpower; it's entirely right for non-US citizens to focus on what the presidential result means for the rest of the world.

    • 11 November 2020 at 10:39am
      James Tabbush says: @ Tony Barrett
      This analogy is interesting, because in a way it seems to suggest that the important 'forest fire' is western liberals' sense of the world, the role of truth, good character, and so on, whereas the irrelevant 'squirrel' is the actual effects of US-directed foreign policy; coups, brutal sanctions, proxy wars. I think that the original poster understands very well the relief we might be feeling at a return to 'normality', but is offering this piece on foreign policy as part of a wider argument about the character of that normality, and who, in general, it benefited.

    • 12 November 2020 at 7:47am
      Tony Barrett says: @ James Tabbush
      Hi James. Thanks for the reply. The original article and your response both to my mind indulge in the left’s obsession with “they’re all the same really, aren’t they.” Meanwhile, the right knows the meaning of power. And now look where we are.

    • 12 November 2020 at 7:50am
      Tony Barrett says: @ Donald Raeson
      You should retract. What do you know of the poster’s views? Absurd and sneering reply.

    • 12 November 2020 at 10:10pm
      Laurie Strachan says: @ Donald Raeson
      Actually mate, I'm an Australian and have lived here for 50 years. I was born in Scotland, raised in Africa and have also spent some time in both Vietnam and Malaysia. Never been anywhere near America.

    • 13 November 2020 at 9:21am
      Donald Raeson says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Fair enough. I was also a bit keyboard warrior in the way I expressed my opinion. Apologies for both. On the substance, however, I don't think I was wrong.

    • 13 November 2020 at 11:19am
      freshborn says: @ Donald Raeson
      How dare he consider the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Yemenis! Who cares? Doesn't he know the true effects of this election will be felt by middle class westerners who sit around watching telly and reading Twitter all day?

      Thank god President Trump is gone. Now we have got rid of the one dishonest politician, we can fully trust our magnificent leaders once again. The result has renewed my faith in the brilliant and rational American political system, which ensures that the winner of each election is the most senile man for the job.

    • 13 November 2020 at 11:27am
      freshborn says: @ Tony Barrett
      "The right knows the meaning of power. And now look where we are."

      Surrounded by supposedly left-wing people who not only celebrate the election of Joe Biden and a cop (probably the least progressive Democratic ticket in memory), but mindlessly ridicule anyone who critiques them? Good thing that the blues "winning" the election is all that matters, no matter how Pyrrhic the victory - since politics is only a sport for us.

    • 13 November 2020 at 7:08pm
      Tony Barrett says: @ freshborn
      Hi freshborn.

      1. “Supposedly left wing”. Sorry we don’t meet your purity test

      2. “Mindlessly ridicule” . Where exactly did either the original respondent or I do that?

      3. Prey tell how you plan to convince actually existing voters on the right to support your more progressive candidates? (Hint: Have a look at the disappointing senate results if you want to see how well AOC and her friends go down with socially conservative voters that you need to win over).

    • 13 November 2020 at 7:30pm
      Tony Barrett says: @ freshborn
      Lastly, politics is definitely not a sport for those at the sharp end of society where wielding power has life changing effects. For college graduate idealists interested in ideological purity because they’ll be alright either way, it definitely is.

      It was black Americans who handed Biden the primary, not the Sanders supporters who plastered his placards on their front lawns in the chic neighbourhoods of Seattle.

    • 17 November 2020 at 6:26am
      Vieno says: @ Tony Barrett
      Tony (and everybody else, too), while following this ongoing shooting match between what we could label as ideological and practical leftists, I'm almways left wondering what the real-world benefits from a Biden presidency would be for working-class and poor voters in the US. This is an honest question on my end. Links appreciated, as well.

      In terms of what to expect from Biden, I'd refer to Branko Marcetic's 'Yesterday's Man' (reviewed recently on LRB), which charts decades of Biden acting more conservative than Republicans. If you look at the team Biden has assembled so far, the hopes for any kind of, say, Green New Deal that'd amount to more than just theatrics is slim, but let's see.

      From a European perspective, I'm hopeful Biden's WH would stand with the EU in taming its autocrat-leaning member states, such as Hungary, which were under the auspices of Trump, but as Stevenson writes, I can't imagine any dramatic break to US foreign policy at large.

    • 24 November 2020 at 8:29am
      Tony Barrett says: @ Vieno

  • 11 November 2020 at 12:48pm
    Delaide says:
    I think the problem with this article is one of timing. I am so relieved that Trump is gone I’m not the least concerned that Biden’s foreign policy may not satisfy Mr Stevenson. Too soon.

    • 11 November 2020 at 2:11pm
      Tom MacColl says: @ Delaide
      Gone, is he? ;)

  • 11 November 2020 at 4:18pm
    Charles Evans says:
    It's pretty odd to claim that Trump foreign policy wasn't much of an aberration and was broadly business as usual.

    Defunding elements of the WHO and UN? Unilateral breach of the JCPOA? Leaving the Paris Climate Agreement? Did none of these warrant a mention, or are they too inconvenient to the pre-prepared narrative? Given Obama was in office for 8 years before Trump, it'd be difficult to claim that some of that was against the direction of travel of US foreign policy.

    • 12 November 2020 at 4:58pm
      Matthew Leahy says: @ Charles Evans
      I am not sure what you read, but I took this post to mean that Trump did not radically depart from the previous 30 years of American foreign policy.

      The post did mention the Paris agreement and Iran. It also referred to the US pattern of flouting international institutions when it wanted. It also referred to the Obama administration's foreign policy being largely the same as its predecessor's.

      The point of the post is that there is a consensus amongst the ruling class in the US not to deviate too far from the current path. Surely you can agree, in regards to american foreign policy, that the past four years have been much like the past 30?

  • 13 November 2020 at 12:58am
    Arthur Roy says:
    “...and the beards have all grown longer overnight...”

    • 17 November 2020 at 6:44pm
      Jonathan Clarence says: @ Arthur Roy

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