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Biden, China, and Competing Pivots: Who Controls the Future?

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Given how much time Trump spent during his four years in the White House pinning random policy positions to whatever the opposite was to Barack Obama’s policies, it is not revolutionary to think the initial entrance of Joe Biden into the President’s chair in January will be spent basically undoing those maneuvers. After all, Biden was Obama’s Vice-President for eight years and understandably might consider all of Trump’s anti-Obama positions as de facto anti-Biden ones as well. But this principle alone will not suffice to predict where Biden’s formal policies and positions might be or how they might evolve soon after taking over the Presidency. This is especially so in terms of defense and military affairs and foreign policy, where multiple layers and numerous moving parts make it impossible to simply ‘do the reverse’ of whatever President Trump had done.

While Trump’s maneuvers with the Pentagon post-election have been curious, it is doubtful they will be long-lived or deeply significant for formal American policy. The posting of Trump loyalists to important Pentagon positions seem more believable as an attempt by Trump to secure sympathetic voices and proponents after he exits Washington to ensure his personal security from legal initiatives and accusations. But as Biden has shown with his nomination of Gen. Lloyd Austin as pick for Secretary of Defense, there will be little remaining inside the Pentagon in terms of serious decision-making and policy development that can tie back to Trump once Biden-Harris take over.

The bigger issue elevates far beyond the mercurial personality of Trump as Biden comes into power. For example, greater Asia. In Asia’s case, the problem is not what Trump did during his four years in power and perhaps not even what Biden has said on the record in the past during his incredibly long political career in Washington. Rather, the true problem may be the tendency for Americans in general to always believe that global policy and major regional developments around the world must and should revolve around the ideas and preferences of the United States. This foreign policy myopia trend could be far more dangerous as the Biden administration takes over, largely because the combination of Trump’s previous policy  maneuvers and independent agreement developments happening on his watch across the greater Asia region might mean Biden is coming in to an extremely volatile situation for the US.

There is already quiet rumbling inside the Beltway in Washington that Biden would be interested in seeing the reinvigoration of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), the massive trade agreement engineered under Obama, never formally approved by Congress (for domestic political reasons more than anything else), and then pulled out from by Trump in 2017. There is one serious issue with this desire, understandable though it may be: in the aftermath of the Trump pullout, the remaining members of the TPP renegotiated and signed what would become known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP. Perhaps even more importantly, right after the Presidential election this November, a massive new entrant to global trade and affairs came in the form of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP. It is without question the largest trading bloc globally, covering 2.2 billion people and more than $26 trillion of economic output. It is a decidedly sad commentary on the state of American political intuition that while the future Biden administration tells American media it is still ‘undecided’ about its position on the TPP, the rest of the world has left the agreement far in its rear-view mirror and is unlikely to return to it just because the United States feels everyone should.

Given that RCEP aims to connect roughly 30% of the world’s people and potentially add hundreds of billions of dollars annually to world incomes, all without any real immediate participation or leadership from the United States, and might even be a brilliant strategy by China to completely offset whatever losses it was slated to have because of the ill-thought out trade war strategy of Trump, it seems highly unlikely and perhaps even unwise for the members of RCEP to even consider America as a potential future leader under the Biden administration. More likely, and smarter from an RCEP perspective, would be to encourage Biden to sign on to RCEP as is with little to no adaptation for American preferences or interests. This would be a sharp departure from how the US still prefers the global economy to be organized but this trend has been a long and slow time coming. Perhaps RCEP is the bringer of that day: where the US shifts from the leader role of the global economy to just an ‘important participant’ role. The problem for Biden is that if this role shift takes place under his watch it will undoubtedly be manipulated and capitalized upon by Republicans in the US. As more than any other global issue, trade is so deeply tied into domestic business interests and the economic well-being of everyday citizens.

RCEP is often incorrectly stated as being purely “China-led”, when in fact it is a tribute and testimony to ASEAN’s middle-power diplomacy. But make no mistake: while there may have never been an RCEP for America to deal with if it was blatantly pushing China forward as the undisputed leader, Biden would be mistaken to view RCEP as an agreement that handcuffs or ties down Chinese assertiveness, whether politically or economically. To the contrary, since Chinese leadership and authority has always been more comfortable expressing its power in strategically subtle ways behind-the-scenes (in stark contrast, for example, to countries like the United States or the Russian Federation), the current shared leadership structure of RCEP may very well be the end result of Chinese preference and not a consequence of ASEAN partners trying to ‘keep China in check.’ This latter position is what a Biden administration will likely try to pursue and project diplomatically and economically, while seeing if it can create a new leadership space for itself within RCEP. It would be a mistake for the members of RCEP to accept this initiative from Biden, but they should anticipate this strategy emerging in 2021.

Biden has a somewhat complicated relationship, historically, with China. On the one hand, making several statements over time that have been portrayed as being relatively weak or complacent about a rising China in political and economic relevance. On the other hand, making comments that seem to indicate a willingness to ‘be tough’ on China. Domestically, at the present time, America is still stuck in a somewhat bipartisan consensus that China needs to be countered (though, to be fair, it is never really made quite clear what that actually means in real terms). What it usually ultimately translates to is the desire of the United States to maintain its place of global primacy and not be usurped at any level across any issue by China. While this is in general understandable from a foreign policy/national security perspective, it is also unrealistically presumptuous on the part of most Americans. Chinese global leadership is almost always universally decried as a dilemma or crisis needing to be resolved by assertive American strategy. Regardless of that nationalist position, this is a denial of what many others believe is the natural evolution of the global community, where Chinese leadership (in whatever way China wants to envision it, but undoubtedly it will NOT be similar to how America envisioned its own leadership over the last half century) will inevitably become ascendant and the US will need to understand how to work within this new framework and not expect to be able to dictate terms to everyone with impunity.

This is the reality Biden is walking into in January. He will want the ‘old ways’ to come back in style: an assumption of American leadership; an expectation of countering China to remain an important cog in the global economy, but an economy still ‘managed’ by America; encouraging greater regional economic cooperation and development, especially across greater Asia, but presuming China’s leadership within such agreements will always be ‘handled’ by the other Asian members. Biden will want to deal with China, work with China, partner with China, as long as it is on American terms and restricts just how prominent Chinese action will be. In short, Biden’s likely policy is going to be a fantasy not based on 21st century reality nor properly cognizant of the role China should envision for itself as the world moves deeper into the global technological age. Whereas Biden will want to return to his old understanding of the “Pivot to Asia,” China should start legitimately asking itself whether or not it even wants or needs a “Pivot to America” or should it pivot elsewhere and usher in a truly new age of global affairs?

Dr. Matthew Crosston is Executive Vice Chairman of ModernDiplomacy.eu and chief analytical strategist of I3, a strategic intelligence consulting company. All inquiries regarding speaking engagements and consulting needs can be referred to his website: https://profmatthewcrosston.academia.edu/

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Americas

Democracy Or What? – And Then Climate

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Most of us were appalled to see what happened in Washington a ten days ago when a ‘mob’, incited by Donald Trump’s address, stormed the Capitol building to prevent the presentation of Joe Biden as the next President. He gave voice to a possible fraudulent (in his mind) election, by putting suspicion on the postal ballot long before the election took place, and tried to ‘engineer’ the ballot by putting his ‘own’ man in control of it. He tried to manipulate the Supreme Court by replacing vacancies with people he expected to follow his lead and must have been disappointed, if not shocked, to find that the court unanimously rejected his claim that the votes had been rigged and should be thrown out. His unruly term of office saw the greatest turnover of people of any previous presidential term as staff could only hack the unusual behaviour of a disordered mind for so long. And so on and on. Much will be written about the 4-year aberration that was Donald Trump. On a lighter note, his escapades in golf have given rise to a book, ‘Commander in Cheat’!

Concerned people have written and spoken about the state of democracy today. Those of us who have spent some time stateside appreciate the immensity of the country, how one is made welcome, but also the prejudices that one finds and the general unknowing of the world we live in by large swathes of the population. Some are still steeped in attitudes that pre-date the civil war. Donald Trump played to all of those and gave them voice. That is a big challenge facing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to get America back on track and if not ‘great again’ to stand up and join the rest of us and share and appreciate that there are billions of other people that are working away with hopes and dreams and looked to the US as a beacon.

That should be the meaning of ‘great again’, and if they can look up and truly be the land of the free and welcome the weak and downtrodden who are fleeing war and violence, as was once the way, then we can say that once more ‘you have earned the right to be the leader of democracy’, and democracy, for all its imperfections, is still the least bad form of government. It is well that the US re-joins the world as totalitarianism, in all its forms and at all levels, is on the rise again. Countries that espouse democracy and heed its precepts need to speak up loudly and be heard once again.

In November of this year is the World Climate Meeting, COP21, in Glasgow, Scotland at which the latest news on climate will be debated. Hopefully, the coronavirus will be on the decline and the US election will no longer be an issue. We can then get together on the one matter that should concentrate all our minds and separate the wheat from the chaff because there is some said that is wrong that muddies the waters, and leads the politicians to make incorrect decisions. But change is around us.

Climate is a highly complex issue, arguably the most complicated, that not all the modelling can get right, but study must go on. It is strange that it has only come to our notice since the population of the world over the past 60 years, has increased dramatically from approaching 3 billion to 8 billion. Mankind has thus significantly increased breeding himself, and thus his use of natural resources, for example cutting down trees, which need carbon dioxide to live, and vastly increased the pollution of the seas and the seas cover 70% of the planet. It has only been in comparatively recent times that we have started to pay attention to the seas and are alarmed at what we see.

However, we have the tools to put things right. We just need the will and ability to spend money wisely.

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Americas

A Disintegrating Trump Administration?

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If Donald J. Trump wanted a historic presidency, he certainly seems to have achieved it — he is now the only president to have been impeached twice.

According to the rules, the House impeaches followed by a trial in the Senate.  There is precedent for the trial to continue even when the office holder has left office.  Should that trial result in conviction, it prevents him from seeking any future elected office.  Conviction is unlikely, however, as it requires a vote of two-thirds of the members present.

It has been reported that Trump wanted to lead the crowd in the march to the Capitol, but was dissuaded from doing so by the Secret Service who considered it much too dangerous and could not guarantee his safety.

Various sources attest that Trump’s mind is focused on pardons including himself and his family members.  Whether it is legal for him to pardon himself appears to be an unresolved question.  But then Trump enjoys pushing the boundaries of tolerated behavior while his businesses skirt legal limits.

He appears to have been greatly upset with his longtime faithful vice-president after a conversation early on the day of the riot.  As reported by The New York Times, he wanted Mike Pence to overturn the vote instead of simply certifying it as is usual.  The certification is of course a formality after the state votes already certified by the governors have been reported.  Pence is reputed to have said he did not have the power to do so.  Since then Trump has called Vice President Pence a “pussy” and expressed great disappointment in him although there are reports now that fences have been mended.

Trump’s response to the mob attacking the Capitol has also infuriated many, including lawmakers who cowered in the House chamber fearful for their lives.  Instead of holding an immediate press conference calling on the attackers to stop, Trump responded through a recorded message eight hours later.  He called on his supporters to go home but again repeated his claims of a fraudulent election.

Aside from headlining the US as the laughingstock among democracies across the world, the fall-out includes a greater security risk for politicians.  Thus the rehearsal for Biden’s inauguration scheduled for Sunday has been postponed raising questions about the inauguration itself on January 20th.

Worse, the Trump White House appears to be disintegrating as coordination diminishes and people go their own way.  Secretary of State Pompeo has unilaterally removed the curbs on meeting Taiwanese officials put in place originally to mollify China.  If it angers China further, it only exacerbates Biden’s difficulties in restoring fractured relationships. 

Trump is causing havoc as he prepares to leave the White House.  He seems unable to face losing an election and departing with grace.  At the same time, we have to be grateful to him for one major policy shift.  He has tried to pull the country out of its wars and has not started a new one.  He has even attempted the complicated undertaking of peace in Afghanistan, given the numerous actors involved.  We can only hope Biden learned enough from the Obama-Biden administration’s disastrous surge to be able to follow the same path.

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Americas

Flames of Globalization in the Temple of Democracy

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Authors: Alex Viryasov and Hunter Cawood

On the eve of Orthodox Christmas, an angry mob stormed the “temple of democracy” on Capitol Hill. It’s hard to imagine that such a feat could be deemed possible. The American Parliament resembles an impregnable fortress, girdled by a litany of security checks and metal detectors at every conceivable point of entry. And yet, supporters of Donald Trump somehow found a way.

In the liberal media, there has been an effort to portray them as internal terrorists. President-elect Joe Biden called his fellow citizens who did not vote for him “a raging mob.” The current president, addressing his supporters, calls to avoid violence: “We love you. You are special. I can feel your pain. Go home.”

That said, what will we see when we look into the faces of these protesters? A blend of anger and outrage. But what is behind that indignation? Perhaps it’s pain and frustration. These are the people who elected Trump president in 2016. He promised to save their jobs, to stand up for them in the face of multinational corporations. He appealed to their patriotism, promised to make America great again. Arguably, Donald Trump has challenged the giant we call globalization.

Today, the United States is experiencing a crisis like no other. American society hasn’t been this deeply divided since the Vietnam War. The class struggle has only escalated. America’s heartland with its legions of blue-collar workers is now rebelling against the power of corporate and financial elites. While Wall Street bankers or Silicon Valley programmers fly from New York to London on private jets, an Alabama farmer is filling up his old red pickup truck with his last Abraham Lincoln.

The New York banker has no empathy for the poor residing in the southern states, nothing in common with the coal miners of West Virginia. He invests in the economies of China and India, while his savings sit quietly in Swiss banks. In spirit, he is closer not to his compatriots, but to fellow brokers and bankers from London and Brussels. This profiteer is no longer an American. He is a representative of the global elite.

In the 2020 elections, the globalists took revenge. And yet, more than 70 million Americans still voted for Trump. That represents half of the voting population and more votes than any other Republican has ever received. A staggering majority of them believe that they have been deceived and that Democrats have allegedly rigged this election.

Democrats, meanwhile, are launching another impeachment procedure against the 45th president based on a belief that it has been Donald Trump himself who has provoked this spiral of violence. Indeed, there is merit to this. The protesters proceeded from the White House to storm Congress, after Trump urged them on with his words, “We will never give up, we will never concede.”

As a result, blood was shed in the temple of American democracy. The last time the Capital was captured happened in 1814 when British troops breached it. However, this latest episode, unlike the last, cannot be called a foreign invasion. This time Washington was stormed by protestors waving American flags.

Nonetheless, it is not an exaggeration to say that the poor and downtrodden laborers of America’s Rust Belt currently feel like foreigners in their own country. The United States is not unique in this sense. The poor and downtrodden represent a significant part of the electorate in nearly every country that has been affected by globalization. As a result, a wave of populism is sweeping democratic countries. Politicians around the world are appealing to a sense of national identity. Is it possible to understand the frustrated feelings of people who have failed to integrate into the new global economic order? Absolutely. It’s not too dissimilar from the grief felt by a seamstress who was left without work upon the invention of the sewing machine.

Is it worth trying to resist globalization as did the Luddites of the 19th century, who fought tooth and nail to reverse the inevitability of the industrial revolution? The jury is still out.

The world is becoming more complex and stratified. Economic and political interdependence between countries is growing each and every day. In this sense, globalization is progress and progress is but an irreversible process.

Yet, like the inhumane capitalism of the 19th century so vividly described in Dickens’ novels, globalization carries many hidden threats. We must recognize and address these threats. The emphasis should be on the person, his dignity, needs, and requirements. Global elites in the pursuit of power and superprofits will continue to drive forward the process of globalization. Our task is not to stop or slow them down, but to correct global megatrends so that the flywheel of time does not grind ordinary people to the ground or simply throw nation-states to the sidelines of history.

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