Let’s begin with the good news for America, Australia and the world.
The people of America have voted in record numbers and Donald Trump – a demagogue with only glancing respect for the democratic principles his office is meant to defend – is (recounts and lawsuits willing) no longer president of the United States. There is only one rational response to this development, and that response is thank God.
Joe Biden represents hope on a number of fronts. If his campaign pledges carry meaning, Biden will try to kickstart the cause of international climate action – which is both urgent and important – and he will attempt to restore America as a constructive and steady presence in global affairs, including engaging in this region about the challenges posed by China’s hegemonic ambitions.
But hope needs to be tempered with realism.
Americans have gifted Biden the office but (in all probability) not the legislature, so the Washington disease of deadlock likely continues despite Biden’s avowed inclinations to work across the aisle. Trump – rancorous, poisonous, destructive and self-obsessed until the end – has also done his best to sow seeds of doubt about the legitimacy of this result.
Some other complications.
The world will be clamouring for muscular American-led multilateral engagement to vanquish the Trumpocalypse. But Biden will be heavily preoccupied by a host of wicked domestic problems, starting with the need to try to stem the tide of a pandemic that claimed more than 1,000 American lives on election day alone. Having watched our own governments become consumed with managing this challenge, we know how much bandwidth being competent requires.
Biden will also have to lead a union that is now several distinct countries populated by roiling citizens who behave as though their values and interests are irreconcilable. Biden’s civic restoration project will be narrated by polarised, febrile media outlets preaching bombastically to their devout congregations, and people will share their experiences of the new administration on digital platforms powered by torrents of conspiracy theories and lies.
Biden – a centrist who clearly wants to lead inclusively, presumably hopes that a collaborative tone emanating from the highest office in the land creates some space for national healing.
But the new American president has to govern for the bicoastal elites who want his victory be the US version of a social democratic moment – a hostile takeover of reactionary populism. To give substance to his dictum of inclusivity, Biden also has to be a president for the forgotten people in the flyover states, and for the constituents in Georgia’s 14th congressional district who happily sent a QAnon conspiracy theorist to Washington – and all this in an age where the loudest voices in the tribes of America appear increasingly possessed by competing forms of cultural fundamentalism, and intrinsically hostile to compromise.
As the Biden administration begins the transition to power, the opening questions of this presidency are obvious: can flooding the zone with grandpa-style decency be genuinely transformative when the times are this dangerous?
Can decency be an antidote to Trumpism, because the administration might be gone, but Trumpism endures, and it endures because America’s divisions are structural. Those divisions are supercharged by the inequality of opportunity and outcomes that sits at the core of American capitalism.
Stepping through the complex set of propositions Biden inherits sets up a basic proposition in this commentary: thinking deeply about Australia and the alliance will be well down the new president’s to-do list.
But we will not be invisible to the new administration.
Australia remains an embedded part of the Washington firm even when the firm is little more than a careening bus – the Trump period has reinforced that truism – and we sit squarely in the hot zone of 21st century geopolitical tensions. Biden will be focused on recalibrating America’s relationship with China, and Australia is a part of that picture.
Nativist domestic sentiment, coupled with the genuine challenges China’s increasingly authoritarian assertiveness presents to the world, means Biden will likely continue Trump’s hard line on Beijing, but the consensus forecast among the foreign policy boffins points to a hard line with more ballast and focus.
America generally wants Australia to do more on China than Australia wants to do, and Biden is unlikely to be radically different to Trump in that respect. But there is some comfort here that the incoming president, the child of the cold war, might actually develop a discernible end game with Beijing.
Scott Morrison, who invested considerable time and energy in becoming just close enough to the Trump administration to avoid lethal entrapment – one of the genuine successes of his prime ministership – has accumulated useful experience in navigating the foreign policy dynamics of Washington wanting things that aren’t fundamentally in Australia’s interest.
Morrison, assuming he can garner more than five minutes of Biden’s attention, and assuming the new administration doesn’t typecast the Australian prime minister one dimensionally as a Trump acolyte, will have to engage in some rapid rapport building with the new leader of the free world in order to understand how best to dive under the dumpers, because saying no to our most important security partner requires having stature.
Biden appears to be a leader who values alliances, unlike his predecessor, whose appetite for chaos, infatuation with fellow strong men, and simplistic notions of where various transactions sat on the national balance sheet helped erode American power, and created more space for China to develop sharp elbows.
If Biden’s alliance-building instinct comes to fruition, Australia has some useful currency to put on the table. We possess some substantive insights for the new administration in how to engage constructively within the Indo-Pacific.
Significantly more fraught for Morrison will be climate change.
Despite his limitations with the legislature (and those are significant), Biden appears serious about trying to inject genuine momentum into the global discussions about climate change.
Assuming Biden achieves some degree of success, the rise of this administration ends the Coalition’s diplomatic cover for being an outlier and a wrecker. This is, of course, a very welcome thing – a necessary course correction to be welcomed by anyone who is guided fundamentally by facts and evidence rather than the rancid electoral politics the Coalition has foisted on the country.
But Morrison will have to want to dig Australia out of our climate hole, and that remains moot at best.