The incoming administration of United States president elect Joe Biden sends a clear signal to the world. Notwithstanding his rhetoric his list of appointments to key positions has a strongly 2008-2016 administration feel to it. The first lesson to be drawn from the Biden administration therefore is that one would be very unwise to expect any radical changes in United States foreign policy.
That policy was clearly set out in the Obama administration and while Biden may touch it at the edges, the central thrust will remain the same. People will be struck at how little has changed in United States foreign policy. There are a number of reasons for this.
The first reason is that the administration does not really set foreign policy. That remains a prerogative of what is nowadays called the “deep state”. Neither should that be a surprise. In his farewell address in January 1961 the outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower drew attention to what he called the military industrial complex.
His successor as president John Kennedy made the fatal mistake of challenging the ethos that relationship entailed. He sought a rapprochement with then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and had plans to withdraw United States troops from Vietnam after he had won the 1964 election. Both of these moves were anathema to the deep state, and Kennedy was killed.
It is a reflection of the power of this group that 57 years later the mythology of Lee Harvey Oswald as the “lone nut gunman” is still peddled by establishment Washington. This is despite polls suggesting that more than 70% of the United States public do not believe the Oswald fable. What that says about the quarter of Americans who still believe the Oswald mythology actually tells one quite a lot about the power of the official media.
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, quickly reversed Kennedy’s policy intentions. A further 12 years of Vietnamese misery had to be endured before the Americans were finally forced to leave. The humiliating scramble to escape has been glossed over in recent years. Indeed, such is American shortage of memory that they are now wooing Vietnam as part of the campaign to encircle China.
Biden’s willingness to go along with this and multiple other manifestations of the United States’ attempt to “contain” China really further disclose how little has changed in recent decades in terms of the United States’ own view of itself in the world scene. Perhaps “go along with” is too generous to Biden. In reality he has little choice
The rise of China in the past three decades in particular poses the greatest threat to United States ambitions to dominate the world. China poses a far greater threat to United States domination than was ever true of the old USSR whose essential preoccupation was in maintaining a safety cordon of countries between itself and the western world. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 there has been, contrary to United States promises, a steady expansion of NATO right up to the Russian borders. There could not be a clearer example of “watch what they do” rather than “rely on what they say”.
The exact same ploy is being instigated against China, with literally hundreds of United States military bases ringing the country and posing a constant military threat. This tactic is reinforced by constant United States “freedom of navigation” exercises in the waters bordering China. Its continued occupation of Japan 75 years after the war ended is a further illustration.
What has changed since Biden was last in power is the force of China’s retaliation to those constant threats. The Belt and Road Initiative is one obvious example, now embracing more than three quarters of the world’s nations, but it is far from the only “weapon” at China’s disposal. China has also entered or created a number of regional Asian organisations in recent years, the latest being the Regional Comprehensive Economic Program, a grouping of 15 nations, mostly Asian, but including Australia and New Zealand, that came into recent existence following an eight year-long negotiating period.
How long Australia will survive in this grouping is an open question. Their ink on the signature had not even dried when China announced a series of measures severely restricting Australian exports to that country. One of the curious features of the Australian mainstream media is that the implications of this ban have barely rated a mention. Not only did China take nearly 40% of Australia’s total exports up until this year, it was also the largest source of foreign students and foreign tourists.
That the mainstream media have effectively ignored the Chinese ban is astonishing. If the Australian government has a “plan B” to find alternative markets, and in a hurry, they have been remarkably quiet. Perhaps they know something the rest of us don’t; it remains to be seen. It is a curious silence, apart from the largely pointless complaint to the World Trade Organisation over China’s rebuttal of one of the products on their effectively banned list.
The United States under the Biden administration is unlikely to do anything other than make sympathetic noises about Australia’s fate. American farmers are after all one of the major beneficiaries of China’s demand for food imports, among other things, of which the now effectively banned Australian goods were but one example.
Neither will United States belligerence toward China have any noticeable effect. Not only has China long surpassed the United States as the worlds’ largest economy, measured in parity purchasing power terms, the extent of China’s worldwide economic coverage has grown steadily. Not the least of China’s economic penetration has been the United States itself, where it now maintains a major value in trade advantage.
None of these factors are likely to change under a Biden administration. What is worse from the United States point of view is that the understanding of what is happening in the world economy remains fixed at the time when Biden was last in power four years ago. The world has changed significantly in that time, of which Russian military superiority and Chinese trading dominance are two of the most important factors.
Whether Biden, or perhaps more importantly, the top United States elites that have dictated United States policy, economic and military, for the past several decades, realise the extent to which the world has changed and is changing. Frankly, the signs are not encouraging, and Biden’s choice of Obama era leftovers is but one classic illustration.
The real question is whether Biden has sufficient power to adapt United States policy to fit this changed world. It would be unwise to be too hopeful.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based former Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.