Biden shows huge ambition but trade-offs are inevitable

The US clearly wants to lead in providing global public goods and upholding liberal values but making America prosperous remains an absolute requirement.

Expert comment
Published 29 April 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 3 minute READ

Memories are short. Just a few months ago, the world watched as Capitol Hill was invaded by Donald Trump loyalists. America’s political landscape felt on the verge of collapse, especially with more than 70 per cent of Republican voters saying they did not believe the recent presidential election was fairly conducted.

On the same day as the attacks, the lethal spread of COVID-19 continued as more than 3,800 Americans died – and similar numbers died each day that week with no end in sight. By the date of Joe Biden’s inauguration, Trump had been impeached for a second time and life beyond America’s borders did not look rosy, with the US on guard in the Middle East as tensions intensified with Iran over the Persian Gulf and Russia’s Solar Winds cyberattacks unfolded.

Economic investment packages are being sold as the way to ensure America is competitive with its key geopolitical rival

However, as Joe Biden passes his 100-day mark as president, more than 230 million vaccine doses have been delivered and America looks set to be one of the first countries in the transatlantic region to recover from the pandemic, while economic recovery appears to have begun as growth is projected to be more than six per cent in 2021.

In line with the maxim that no crisis should ever go to waste, President Biden is setting his sights high with a further series of measures which, if successfully adopted, would dramatically alter the economic and social landscape of the United States.

Investing in human capital

Taken together, the American Rescue Plan, the American Families Act, and the American Jobs Act total $6 trillion in public spending, and constitute a complete reimagining of the role of welfare policies, unions, climate policy and infrastructure to achieve a new economic equilibrium by investing in human capital.

The China challenge is a potent justification being used by the Biden team to mobilize support for these ambitions. Economic investment packages are being sold as the way to ensure America is competitive with its key geopolitical rival. And competition is important because that makes it possible to create and sustain good jobs in a modern and dynamic political economy.

In addition, the urgency of India’s COVID-19 crisis and the success of America’s vaccine programme are critical first steps in ushering in a rapid pivot towards US global leadership on the pandemic, following on from US leadership at the recent Earth Day Summit.

The next phase of Biden’s term will shed light on the key challenge for America’s global role, namely whether the new president can deliver on the promise of a foreign policy for the middle-class, one that may ultimately require the exercise of restraint but still leverages America’s power to lead in the provision of global public goods and to stand strong on liberal values.

One strategy for managing this trade-off is to share the burden with like-minded partners. To this end, Biden’s first 100 days focused on consulting with allies and partners and reinvesting in multilateralism.

But cooperation does not necessarily lead to restraint, and in fact can do the opposite. America and Europe’s shared commitment to human rights and democracy and the use of sanctions to shore up this rhetoric in relation to Russia and China are admirable, but these measures may not pave the way for managing the – admittedly very different – challenges these two geopolitical rivals present.

Elsewhere, the US administration has signalled human rights will not drive policy unless these can be integrated with key national security priorities. How the US will manage the inevitable trade-offs between liberal ideals, and a desire to calibrate its foreign policy to make Americans more prosperous in a context of intense geopolitical competition and limited resources is highlighted by two recent decisions.

The first is Biden’s announcement that the US would withdraw its remaining troops from Afghanistan by 11 September. Leaving Afghanistan responds to domestic demands to end America’s ‘forever wars’ and helps make it possible for the US to focus on its China and Indo-Pacific strategy. But it relegates local considerations and human rights to the back burner.

The US administration has signalled human rights will not drive policy unless these can be integrated with key national security priorities

The second announcement – which garnered significant pushback and came as a surprise to some – was lifting caps on the number of refugees entering the United States. The administration has veered between a stated commitment to increase numbers to pre-Trump levels, and blocking any increase at all, but pressure from human rights advocates and progressives in the Democratic Party led to an almost immediate retreat on that.

But the sheer pressure on the administration to balance pressure on the southern border and the highly vocal anti-immigrant sentiment in the US with its commitments to human rights and humanitarian norms is palpable.

There are also opportunities to reclaim America’s commitment to immigration and refugees by harnessing pragmatism to principle. Recent census data reveals America’s population is growing at the slowest rate since the 1930s. Demographic change has the potential to hinder America’s economic potential at a time when competitiveness matters. 

Immigration presents a golden opportunity to tackle the challenge of slowing population growth, one that America should be well-placed to embrace. But the Biden administration needs to sell this to the public and ensure increased access for both refugees and immigrants is skillfully managed.

Realities create trade-offs

All this underscores a political reality that Biden’s foreign policy for the middle-class comes laden with tensions bound to force difficult trade-offs which will make embracing human rights, democracy, and liberal values a far from easy proposition.

This limit may also be imposed on America’s desire to be an international leader in the provision of public goods. Global pressures to lift restrictions on intellectual property rights and allow the manufacture of vaccines abroad does not sit easily with a spoken commitment to the general principle of ‘buy American’ policies at home, even if it is clearly the right thing to do.

Trade-offs in foreign policy are inevitable, even more so for leading powers with great ambition which find themselves in a position of significant domestic constraint. The challenge is to learn to live with this tension while remembering long-term sacrifices historically play not only to the benefit of others, but also to America.