Reading Biden in Delhi

Paper:

Mains: G.S. II International Relations

Context

  • One idea that defined Trump’s worldview — putting “America First” — has already had a considerable impact on the agenda of his successor, Joe Biden. Understanding this continuity could help India productively engage with the new American administration.
  • Biden is expected to issue a series of executive orders (much like our ordinances) in a decisive break from the Trump era.
  • Biden stuck to one important political message — “to restore the soul of America” and “rebuild the backbone of the nation, the middle class”.

Explanation

  • The new President’s decrees are expected to take the US back to the 2015 Paris Agreement on mitigating climate change, reverse some of Trump’s sweeping restrictions on immigration, extend pandemic-related limits on evictions and student debt payment, and make it mandatory for everyone to wear a mask on federal government properties.
  • At the same time, Biden is expected to reaffirm an important theme in his inaugural address — that he will reunite the nation and redress the multiple economic and political challenges confronting the US.
  • For the internationalist establishment, “America First” has come to represent the negative forces of narrow nationalism, isolationism, and populism. But Joe Biden and his team have been smart enough to recognise the enormous political appeal it has acquired in recent years and prepare to address its consequences effectively. America’s key interlocutors will be wise to see this important common thread running from Trump to Biden.
  • Trump challenged the traditional notions of America’s global leadership, international military interventions, and the pursuit of free trade and globalisation.
  • If Trump’s contestation of the traditional American post-war foreign policy was crude and chaotic, the Biden team is making a more sophisticated case for change in the way America deals with the world.
  • The new approach to foreign policy was articulated most consistently over the last year and more by Jake Sullivan, one of Biden’s closest associates. He made Biden a champion of the American middle class.
  • “Making US Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class”, the report notes the deepening economic anxiety and discontent in the American heartland. It underlines the proposition that trade liberalisation has not worked for everyone in the US.
  • It calls for policies to address the deepening income inequality at home and a domestic investment and industrial strategy that will allow America to become more competitive in the world.
  • The report also points to the overreach of American foreign policy in recent decades and proposes a “less ambitious” foreign policy.
  • There is no evidence America’s middle class will rally behind efforts aimed at restoring US primacy in a unipolar world, escalating a new Cold War with China, or waging a cosmic struggle between the world’s democracies and authoritarian governments.”
  • “The president-elect’s vision is to implement a worker-centred trade policy”. “What it means in practice is that US trade policy must benefit regular Americans, communities and workers. And that starts with recognising that people are not just consumers. They are also workers and wage earners.”
  • Biden’s team takes charge with the recognition that the expansive globalist ambitions of the American foreign policy establishment have lost much domestic political support. Tempering the gospel of globalisation, resisting knee-jerk interventionism, and avoiding ideological crusades are likely to be some of the political impulses that Biden’s team brings to Washington.

How India can use this opportunity

  • The Trump years have seen two important developments in India-US relations. One is the sharpening tensions on trade and the other is the deepening defence and security cooperation.
  • The Biden moment offers the opportunity for Delhi to overcome the bilateral differences on trade and elevate defence cooperation to a higher level.
  • A pragmatic international orientation to the Atmanirbhar strategy could open some space for working with Biden on reforming the global trading system and make it more politically sustainable.
  • An America that moves towards doing less on the global security front will need strong partners like India who can contribute more. A political understanding on strategic burden-sharing would help Delhi and Washington develop deeper military cooperation and more intensive diplomatic coordination in the Indo-Pacific.