After the attempted coup

In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s attempts to overthrow the result of last November’s election in the United States, what can we expect of Joe Biden and what will happen to the GOP (Republican Party)?

Biden will only be a disappointment to those naive enough to think he isn’t Obama-light and part of the DNC (Democratic National Convention) establishment. To others who couldn’t stand Trump’s vulgarity, lies and corruption, he will be a do-nothing relief and a return to normal transmission: imperial priorities, more wars, interventions and drones, and a resumption of greater fidelity to Washington’s allies who were either neglected or abandoned by Trump.

Biden is incapable of micromanagement and will delegate a la Ronald Reagan to those who want their pre-2016 jobs back. The majority of those already tapped on the shoulder are Barack Obama and HRC (Hilary Clinton) re-treads such as Susan Rice and Samantha Power. They will continue Trump’s broad approach to Israel, Russia and China, though with different rhetoric and better manners. Washington will keep its embassy in Jerusalem, in violation of international law, and make ineffectual noises about a non-existent “peace process” as Israel expands its colonies in the West Bank. Israel will never have a more favourable political climate than they had under Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress. Hence the rush to commission new settlements on the West Bank before Biden enters the White House.

Putin will remain persona non grata in Washington and the sanctions and restrictions Trump imposed on Russia will be maintained, even if the French now want them eased. The China threat will be invoked to further increase the Pentagon’s budget and fill the pockets of Biden’s donors in the military-industrial sector. Trump’s trade war was counterproductive and is likely to be quietly abandoned by Biden, to be replaced by human rights rhetoric about Xinjiang.

Biden is likely to maintain pressure on the government of Venezuela though it is unclear if he will reverse Trump’s approach to Cuba and return to the path of normalisation set by Obama. Subversion and coups, such as the one Trump attempted in Bolivia, will continue. Relations with Mexico can only improve after the wall fiasco.

There will be more interest in East Asia, which Trump with the exception of North Korea, ignored or antagonised. Having said that, despite his lofty rhetoric Obama’s “pivot” to East Asia never actually transpired: it was little more than an announcement. Relations with Japan, the Philippines and Indonesia will largely stay as they are. On the subcontinent, Trump’s admiration for Modi may not be replicated under Biden, especially if extreme Hindu nationalists escalate their attacks against Muslims and Kashmir boils over again. Border clashes between India and China should worry everyone, not just the United States.

Expect the Middle East to cast its long shadow over US foreign policy. Syria will remain a catastrophe as Assad re-establishes control of the country with Russian military support: no-one has any idea how this conflict will play itself out, although it is clear the West’s influence is waning. The new team at the White House is likely to distance themselves from MBS in Saudi Arabia, and hopefully end both military support for Riyadh’s disgraceful war in Yemen and Trump’s designation of the Houthis as terrorists. Biden will be less interested in conflict with Iran and may return to the nuclear agreement negotiated by Obama and John Kerry (the JCPOA). This explains why both the Netanyahu government in Israel and Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did everything they could in Trump’s final days to lock Biden into a more aggressive posture towards Tehran. Wisely, the ruling mullahs are not taking their bait.

A good measure of Biden’s foreign policy is what he does in Central Asia. Will he negotiate with the Taliban and continue Trump’s limited drawdown of US troops? This was apparently his preference when Vice President under Obama. December 2021 marks the twentieth year of the American military presence in the country, the longest war in US history.

Biden will recommit to NATO, the World Health Organisation (WHO), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Paris environment agreement: he will be more multilateral and less nationalistic or unilateral compared to his predecessor. Given that Trump effectively denied the reality of climate change and couldn’t produce a health insurance policy to replace Obamacare, Biden will be viewed as more active in these policy areas even though outcomes are likely to see only modest improvements. The left within the Democrats will push hard for meaningful changes, driven by increasingly dire forecasts from climate scientists and the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 which Trump neglected to his electoral cost. Importantly for countries such as Australia, South Korea and China, Biden will be less protectionist than Trump.

Given how close Scott Morrison was to Trump, Australia should not expect to be a high priority for the incoming Administration. Expect a coolish breeze from Washington, at least initially. Morrison is likely to be outflanked and pressured on climate change by Biden (and his environment czar John Kerry) as Tony Abbott was by Obama, though the prime minister has already indicated that he is happy for Australia’s reputation as a climate change laggard to continue.

This would be a good time for Canberra to reset its relationship with Beijing which seemed to be designed to ingratiate the LNP with Trump, before even more damage is done to the bilateral trade relationship. There are few signs coming out of Canberra that the LNP even has an endgame in mind after unleashing 12 months of Sinophobia: for exporters to our largest national market it’s been nothing but an escalating series of own goals.

Julian Assange was not pardoned by either Trump: his best hope now is that Biden abandons the extradition case because he doesn’t want to inherit a controversial and possibly unsuccessful prosecution of a well known, award winning journalist. However, this might not please the Deep State (the Pentagon, arms industries and intelligence community) whom Biden is very close to, and who want to make an example of Assange to deter future whistleblowers. Biden has previously called Assange a “high-tech terrorist”.

Initially, at least, Biden will get a lot of mileage out of simply not being Trump. This will cover up a multitude of sins and inevitable screw ups.

The Republicans will bifurcate into pro-Trump statist reactionaries and anti-Trump conservatives. The former are a diminishing group, especially after the attempted coup on 6 January, and the possibility of impeachment will force them to show their hands in Congress. Expect to hear lots of recriminations, especially after losing control of the Senate at the recent Georgia run-offs. Further leaks about chaos, corruption and dysfunctional management during Trump’s four years are sure to come from the Deep State and embittered insiders currently sniffing out book deals and exclusive interviews. Importantly, this means Trump will not be the Republican kingmaker for 2024 even if he isn’t formally convicted in the Senate.

While Trump battles numerous legal cases and seeks out another reality TV deal, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley and Marco Rubio will position themselves early for a 2024 run against Kamala Harris, assuming Biden will be too impaired for a second term. They will first need to re-write their history with Trump, a delicate balance to walk given they will need support from the powerful evangelical wing of the party and not want to lose much of Trump’s MAGA base. How to portray their association with a discredited former president who refused to recognise the legitimacy of his election defeat will be a major challenge for those who joined him in denial. It won’t be easy for any of them, especially if Biden is astute enough to pardon Trump after he is tried in the Senate.

Meanwhile In Australia, the local US lobby will say Trump was an aberration, just as they said George W. Bush was. They will try to distinguish “the alliance” from the White House incumbent. However, there is one question they will struggle to answer: what sort of party, political system and country keeps producing leaders like Donald J. Trump?

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Dr Scott Burchill taught International Relations at Deakin University for 30 years

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Scott Burchill

Dr Scott Burchill taught International Relations at Deakin University for 30 years