Stay alert - after sigh of relief due to Biden’s victory
© Kaster /picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Joe Biden, the next president of the USA, is very different from Donald Trump, the current one.
Biden will certainly repair some of the damage his predecessor caused, and he is unlikely to cause further harm. The USA is set to re-join the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, for example. Moreover, it will hardly keep blocking the appointment of new adjudicators for the World Trade Organisation’s dispute settlement panels. These multilateral courts will there stop being dysfunctional. In other multilateral settings, a constructive approach by the US administration can make a difference too.
In global debate, the promotion of democracy and the fight against corruption will benefit too. In office, Trump resembled an authoritarian strongman who took good care of his cronies and his family, but showed no interest in the public good and no respect for the rule of law. His contempt for human rights was awful. Biden is different.
The bad news is that, the voters in the USA have not fully rejected Trumpist politics. Many Republican legislators have been re-elected or newly elected even though they enabled Trump’s norm-breaking rule for four years. That close to 48 % of the electorate wanted this madness to go on, shows how little they trust fact-based media. Restoring reason to public discourse will not be easy.
Most likely, the Senate will stay under Republican control even though Republican senators represent far fewer citizens than senators of the Democratic party (as I elaborated recently in this space). There will be two run-off Senate elections in Georgia in January, and if Democrats both, they would control the Senate. They might do so, but it is not the scenario most observers expect.
At this point, very many Republican officeholders pretend that the election results are somehow unclear and Trump could still have a path to victory. It shows that they care more about power than democratic norms. There is no evidence of voter fraud, so they should now ensure there is a peaceful transition to the Biden presidency. They are failing their nation.
The implication is that Republican senators are likely to stop Biden from implementing a comprehensive reform agenda. He will probably not get the funding he would like for healthcare or climate action, for example. He will also be unable to implement reforms that would have entrenched democracy more deeply, such as granting statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington DC. The people of both jurisdictions are tax-paying US citizens, but they are not represented in Congress by legislators with voting rights. Puerto Rico does not even vote in presidential elections. Statehood would change that, but an obstructionist Senate is unlikely to make it happen. Biden’s international impact, however, depends on the impact he will have at home.
We live in an era in which international cooperation is indispensable. No nation, not even the USA, can rise to the most important challenges on its own. The climate crisis is probably the most important example, because the change it is bringing about is irreversible. Global trade, public health and safeguarding peace, however, also require governments to coordinate their action in a responsible manner. Trump proved that it is easy to disrupt global institutions, but he was unable to replace them with anything better.
Around the world populist leaders like India’s Narendra Modi, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Hungary’s Victor Orban will miss Trump. Even their own nations, however, will benefit from Washington no longer endorsing right-wing populists’ narrow-minded nationalism.
The government of democratically run countries are entitled to heave a sigh of relief. They should not take a break however. The Trump years have shown that democracy is fragile even in the USA. Diplomats from around the world should not only focus on cooperating with the future Biden administration in pursuit of their won narrowly understood national interests. They should do their best to bolster Biden in the USA, by cooperating sensibly with him on the global stage and by engaging legislators and sub-national leaders in the USA. They should make it very clear to anyone concerned that the world expects the USA to live up to the principles of democracy and human rights that US presidents – with one exception – have been preaching for decades.
As Angela Merkel once said, alluding to Trump early on, the years in which Europe could entirely depend on America are over. That remains true. Biden is likely to prove an important partner for EU leaders, but things may again look different after the next election. The EU aspires to a global role. It must assume responsibility accordingly.
Update: I added the info on Republican senators representing a minority of voters a few hours after this blogpost went online.