Biden’s ambition to restore the American leadership will go through a vigorous competition with rivals China and Russia
January 2021 will be probably considered as a major landmark of American (and world) history in the future. For many romantic opinion-leaders, this turning point is an American imperial journey from destruction to rebirth.
The destruction came when trumpism, after the stolen-election madness, conducted an alarming counter-attack peaking with the mob violence in the Capitol. The images that traveled around the world hurt badly the “strongest western democracy”. It was a cream-of-the-crop incident that marked the end of a period full of riots, public toxicity and institutional disregard.
The rebirth comes with the return to the previous status quo and the promise of Joe Biden to restore the American leadership in the world. For the Biden administration, addressing the coronavirus pandemic, climate change challenges, global inequality, democracy enhancement and systemic racism are claimed to be significant goals. And of course, acting as a responsible humanitarian power will enhance the role of the USA in the world, putting the country back on track for the glory that one was.
Ambition VS Reality
Unfortunately for the USA, no time machine can take us back to 2016. Even if it existed, it wouldn’t make much difference. The course of global power distribution was already being decided before the US subdued voluntarily unto isolationism. During the last five years, Great Power competition became -and will continue to be- the major force that shapes the global environment. China’s plan to exercise global influence is going well as Beijing capitalized on its tremendous economic capacity at the expense of Washington. On the other hand, Russia has upgraded its geopolitical capability in traditional US-involved areas such as the Middle East.
The US will have to fit alongside China and Russia in this equation. And most of the time, those two rivals will be in an alignment that none wishes to dismantle, either by being overrun by American supremacy or by Chinese-Russian supremacy.
The unipolar American leadership was only a post-Cold War situation that was decimated by the 9/11 attacks and, consequently, completely shattered by the 2008 financial crisis. The global rise of authoritarianism during the mid-2010s only became the final nail in the coffin, a political reality that did not leave the USA uninfluenced.
As a result, the restoration of American leadership cannot mean an American-run world but rather an intensive US participation in the competition with China and Russia. To this extent, the Biden administration has already planned certain strategies against the two rivals.
China and the “new race”
The fact that China is considered by the USA as a major challenge, especially in trade, is not something that only Donald Trump supported. Joe Biden accepts this foreign policy principle but criticized the Trump administration numerous times in matters of effectiveness. Biden rejects the idea of a unilateral tariff approach while he sees the US-China trade deal that followed leaning towards China’s favor. He rather calls for a more collective approach against Beijing that will include US’ western allies and draws attention to the “illegal” Chinese economic practices.
The USA perceives now China not only as a competitor in the global manufacturing sector, but also as the main adversary in the “new technologies race” in the face of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. A whole new market will be established and both the USA and China are interested in shining as beacons of innovation and prosperity. At the same time, Biden wishes to focus on the rules and norms this new situation needs on a global scale. The new US government will push the agenda of enforcing the international law no matter how much will fall behind in this race.
The central Chinese role in the issue can probably create a Cold War essence much like with what happened during the space race with the Soviet Union. Biden himself uses terms from this era, such as “the free world”, to correlate his practices with a more noble cause. This approach seeks to unite western powers under the leadership of America in the ideological front once again, contributing to the “responsible and humanitarian USA” image.
In the same tone, Biden addressed also human rights issues such as the Chinese oppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang district. But all similar matters that the USA, as it seems, wishes to highlight will always come second to the geopolitical competition. A critical field in geopolitically confronting China is the South China Sea, which Beijing mostly controls. Biden pledged to increase the US’ Pacific naval presence and to strengthen ties with traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Russia, a more traditional enemy
A fundamental shift under Biden’s leadership will be a tougher approach in confronting Russia. Since Donald Trump has been, justifiably, blamed that overlooks the Russian threat, the new American administration will revert this stance. To form an impression of Biden’s viewpoint, two broader issues must be taken into account: The pivotal role of NATO and the Russian interventionism in western democracies.
Biden favors the continuous expansion of the North-Atlantic alliance that started after the end of the Cold War which means that he is eager to face Russia’s disagreements. Russia is, of course, worried that NATO is coming closer to its borders and does not wish to allow such a situation to be unfolded. Besides, in countries which the West expressed interest in including in its military alliance, such as Georgia and Moldova, Russia maintains a strong influence. Simultaneously, Biden calls for even more NATO troops to Eastern Europe.
On the other hand, Biden views in Putin’s Russia a constant effort to undermine western values and democracy, holding the Russian intervention in the previous US elections as a prominent proof. Restoring the American leadership is automatically intertwined with an effort to confront Russia in the cyber field, in which Moscow seems to dominate. Biden will also expand this effort into the financial sector as he supported claims that Russia exploits loopholes for money laundering activities.
Both NATO enhancement and Russian interventionism can be met into the critical issue of Ukraine. The new American administration expressed its intentions for a return into Obama sanctions against Russia, as well as for unhindered military assistance to Ukraine. Towards these goals, the western military alliance is much needed in contribution when war-torn Ukraine is looking for an end to the insurgency on its eastern borders. Naturally, Russia won’t stop supporting its proxies in the country and the competition will be tough.
Evaluating the inevitable
The USA, and every Great Power, won’t ever stop trying to get an advantage over its competitors. The difference now is that Joe Biden supports collective action, alongside western allies that lost their American trust under Trump’s rule. Towards this initiative, there is already a prolonged reality.
As long as European status quo powers remain in charge, US-led initiatives are much needed. The problem is that this only applies to Europe. We cannot speak about a “restoration of leadership” without including the rest of the world in which China and Russia have grabbed their fair share. There lies the question of “what if the Trump years never came to be” but this is not the case here in the face of inevitable developments.
Such is the “new technologies race” with China that will probably dominate the agenda in the following years. A competition for something that will drastically reshape the world and the means of production should be treated accordingly by the Great Powers. In time, we should expect the appearance of greater schemes that will address the issue.
China, in partnership with Russia, will oppose a renewed American willingness to influence global outcomes. Taking into consideration other major challenges, such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, the Great Power competition in the world will be intensified even without the already in-effect rivalries, including Ukraine, the South China Sea, democracy, and humanitarian issues.
The intensification of the competition will produce many results. Among them, there is only one certain that is best described with an old African proverb: “When two (in our case three) elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers most”.