This article was originally published by Arc magazine on 30th October 2020.
Elections always seem to demand that candidates show a slightly different face to different sections of the public. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is no exception. In his case, this dynamic has been most interesting in the realm of foreign policy, where we find two sides to the Biden program.
The first is Biden as avatar of the American worker — the everyman from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who speaks for a middle class beset by stagnating wages and declining opportunity. Biden’s strategy for counteracting this middle-class plight was described by a Foreign Policy essay as “a form of economic nationalism,” a departure from the Democratic Party’s commitment to neoliberalism that will “upend decades of dogma on globalization.” This is the Biden who holds Trump’s feet to the fire for being too soft on China in his trade negotiations, and for allowing federal contractors to offshore jobs. Wielding phrases like “Made in all of America,” he promises tax and investment incentives to bring key industries back to the United States, while promising action against foreign competitors to ensure “fair trade.”
The second is Biden as champion of liberal internationalism. In this capacity, Biden speaks to a broad swathe of liberal opinion alarmed and embarrassed by Trump’s abandonment of American global leadership. Insisting that “the world does not organize itself,” this Biden promises to “place the United States back at the head of the table” by leading international efforts on issues such as COVID, climate change, and nuclear disarmament.
Can these different visages be reconciled in reality?
Supporters of Biden’s foreign policy expect his “economic nationalism” to be fully compatible with a push for a robust liberal world order. After all, the global targets of Biden’s economic policy are not, as in the Trump formula, America’s allies. Rather, Biden would aim at big business and Chinese trade malpractice. While the former has denuded key American industries in its global march toward cheaper labor and production, the latter has used wage suppression, currency manipulation, and intellectual property theft to boost its exports at the expense of American competitors. Confronting these problems would not just bring jobs back to the United States; it would enable Biden to seek allies with similar grievances.
Biden’s dual-layered vision, then, is one of simultaneous domestic and international renaissance. A middle-class revival will renew the U.S.’s historical claim to being a city on the hill — a healthy democracy once again capable of credibly leading others.
But this vision is misleading, because Biden’s pitch to blue-collar America is something of a mirage. The politics of jobs and trade, though electorally significant, is only a small part of the changing global situation that has forced Biden to adopt a more interventionist, protectionist stance on the economy. A closer look at the current global political economy reveals that Biden’s efforts to resume global leadership will be more complicated than his rhetoric allows.
As the economic historian Adam Tooze has pointed out, the U.S.’s rivalry with China is today much more advanced than arguments over “soy beans and blue-collar industrial jobs.” As the Chinese Communist Party drives its economy up the technology chain, what matters now is not low Chinese labor costs — they are far lower in other parts of Asia — but “microchips, cloud computing, 5G, and intelligence gathering by way of TikTok.”
Whereas China once relied on the United States in such cutting-edge industries, its “Made in China 2025” initiative now seeks to drive U.S. competitors out of its domestic markets. Its latest five-year plan for state investment, which is primarily focused on technology, could have similar effects on high-tech sectors of the U.S. economy as earlier Chinese development did on manufacturing.
The point is not just that Biden’s “economic nationalism” will need to take a greater range of American industries into consideration — Biden knows this, even if it is not a feature of his campaign. The deeper issue is that China’s ambitions to outstrip the United States in the most advanced fields — crucial not just for industrial competition but also for national security — show the purpose of economic development under Xi Jinping. That purpose is to extend Chinese power and influence around the globe, and often into the same international architecture that Biden sees as central to a U.S.-led world order.
Biden has recognized the need to cooperate with China on issues such as climate change and pandemic response, though always with the understanding that the U.S. would be the rightful leader of such initiatives. But China’s Belt and Road initiative, its recent ambitious environmental pledge, its swift rise to leadership in the World Health Organization, and its extension of pandemic aid to numerous states, reveals it is not interested in being anything less than the senior partner in any arrangement. And the resources it can bring to bear in these projects mean that it will not easily be denied.
Nor will it be a simple task to build coalitions against Chinese ambition, given the degree to which China has already extended its reach around the world. Europe’s foot-dragging over a Huawei ban and a concrete response to Beijing’s oppression of the Uyghurs is indicative of that challenge. Even in Latin America, long a U.S. sphere of influence under the Monroe doctrine, the Trump administration has been struggling to boost American business and security interests against Chinese involvement in the region, which ranges from technology provision and pandemic assistance to infrastructure investment under the Belt and Road scheme.
All this shows how the global order after the Cold War, where American hegemony underpinned a system of ever-greater economic interdependence, has fractured under the pressure of technological revolution and Chinese ambition. Biden’s proposed support for American workers is symptomatic of a wider reality. No longer can economic relationships be treated as separate from political or security concerns — considerations of sovereignty and power are everywhere.
This means that even the United States’s most promising partnership, with the nations of the European Union, will not be without its own rivalries. Europe’s leading states seem intent to wean themselves off of dependence on American power. No less a cosmopolitan internationalist than French president Emmanuel Macron, who has declared NATO to be “brain dead,” wants Europe to build up its high-tech industries and military capacity so as to establish itself as an independent third pole between the U.S. and China. The kinds of commercial conflicts this might raise are suggested by a current row over European governments’ attempts to claim more tax from American tech firms.
European nations have also gone against the grain of Biden’s vision in their openness to a state he portrays as hostile, Putin’s Russia. Macron believesthat Russia should be brought into the European fold, while the United States this year imposed sanctions on companies involved in the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, citing security concerns (though the U.S. also has its own natural gas exports to think about).
International cooperation is never free of tension, of course, but likely conflicts of interest in Europe, as elsewhere, do show the need for a realistic view of what restoring a liberal international order would entail. If Biden wants to reinvigorate U.S. hegemony, to place the U.S. once again at the “head of the table,” he will have to recognize that the seating plan has changed. While there are areas where he could claim leadership, those will need to be part of a more imaginative, flexible, and multi-track strategy than was previously necessary — one where cooperation and competition constantly threaten to overlap.
This is especially true given Biden’s aspiration to make the United States not just powerful but admirable. If he wants to remove the bad taste the Trump presidency has left many allies with, he will be limited in how ruthlessly he can exploit the leverage the U.S. does have in those relationships. Restoring U.S. leadership in a multi-polar world will be a tricky business; doing so in accordance with Biden’s idealistic image of America will be more difficult still.