(This article also appears in today’s New Straits Times)
In foreign relations “…..Biden will find when you pawn the crown you cannot expect to get it back at the same price.”
The toppling of the evil US President Donald Trump is the best piece of news in this horrible COVID-19 year. President-elect Joe Biden is to be congratulated for achieving this.
The time for celebration – and Trump’s scorched earth legal actions to nullify the American people’s vote – will soon be over. The reality of where America is and where America is in the the world will then have to be faced.
There is first the reality of Trump still in the White House. It is 10 weeks before Joe Biden is sworn in on January 20th. While once Biden’s victory is officially declared, all the organs of state, like the military, the CIA and so on, will divide their advice and attention between the incoming and outgoing President, even as a lame duck President Trump remains as commander-in-chief. He still has his finger on the nuclear button.
This despicable man will not let go. The transition, under the Presidential Transition Act 1963 and its various amendments, assumes good faith in a complex and complicated process. Trump can sabotage the incoming administration and, indeed, harm American national interest by embarking on something outrageously dangerous, by taking away or withholding critical information and by collapsing the national administration at a time when there are vacuums to be filled.
There is the story of the second US President John Adams refusing to vacate the White House in 1801 after being defeated by Thomas Jefferson. However all his belongings were just moved out and administrative support terminated.
We can have visions of Donald Trump being frogmarched out of the While House on January 20th 2021, but that is the least of our worries. What he will do meanwhile is the cause of greatest concern.
So while there is rightful celebration of American democracy, there is the test yet to come of governance at the executive level during this transition. With Trump anything is possible. Like a wounded and cornered beast he can wreak havoc. There have to be mechanisms in place to arrest this eventuality.
There were many “Arrest Trump” banners on the streets of American cities in the celebration of his defeat. Joe Biden has already reached out calling on Americans to unite and not think of opponents as enemies. Trump has so far not responded, not even recognizing Biden’s victory. There is an immediate uncertain and perilous period ahead.
Trump may finally be dragged out of the White House. We must not forget, though, Trumpism is a virus that has infected both the Republican Party and America at large. The country is bitterly divided, evidenced by the split in popular votes: about 74 to 70 million. It is potentially ungovernable, if the Republicans control the Senate (unless the Democrats win the two run-offs in Georgia on January 5th) and play hardball, with the stimulus package to revive the economy, one of Biden’s priorities, at risk.
There are other priorities, such as healthcare, climate change and rooting out institutional racism, at the mercy of a possibly recalcitrant Senate.
The most urgent item on Biden’s agenda, to control more effectively the Covid-19 pandemic, will have to be one of the items to be implemented by executive order. At the time of writing, of close to 50 million cases in the world, about 10 million are in the U.S.; of one and a quarter million deaths worldwide almost a quarter million are American. One fifth each time. Not a league table any country would be proud to top, let alone allegedly the world’s most developed and powerful country.
It will however be two months before Biden can get the task force he has set up to roll back the grip of the virus on American lives and livelihoods. Meanwhile, tragically, more Americans will unnecessarily suffer, because of Trump and unless he cooperates in the transition.
In days gone by in America such people – indeed too many innocent people as well – are lynched. Trump must not continue with the damage he has already visited on America and on U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
With so much to do at home, it is unsurprising foreign policy comes after domestic priorities are addressed, even for the leading global power. America’s place in the world has been greatly diminished, a decline in this 21st century which took a plunge under Trump.
Biden’s climate change and Covid priorities however will bring the US back to world councils where it will conduct itself in a civilized and not Trump boorish manner. It would be good for the world when the US is re-engaged with the Paris Agreement on climate change from which Trump had withdrawn in June 2017. The impetuous withdrawal from the WHO, which would have become effective on July 1st 2021 will also be reversed.
There will be a different face to U.S. multilateral engagement which will be welcomed all over the world, by friends and protagonists alike. But, Biden will no doubt learn that when you pawn the crown you cannot expect to get it back at the same price.
It will be a hard graft and severe test of American diplomacy. If American diplomats come to the table with too much of a sense of entitlement they would be in for a surprise. There is now greater need for subtlety and persuasiveness. Perhaps rock star Vice-President elect Kamala Harris can be asked to play a role in some circumstances, even if the expectation is she would have a largely domestic policy responsibility.
U.S. with China are obviously front, back and centre of the international political system. Biden will be watched both at home and abroad on how the relationship is conducted. In old international relations jargon, will he be able to turn swords into ploughshares?
The interests of both countries will not change. But the China as threat narrative has to be transformed into acceptance of competition and better management of contestation. The style of engagement will help but core interests will remain. Both sides can move away from the Trump copybook and look afresh at how much they can accommodate each other’s interests without having trade wars, or worse.
For us in Malaysia, Biden’s election as President has to be welcome news, after a dysfunctional and erratic Trump. We are friends of the U.S. just as much as we are of China. Trump was a big turn-off. Perhaps Biden can recover lost ground. The most important factor for us is positive engagement without being pressured into siding one or the other other as they contest for power and influence in Southeast Asia.