As we get ready for what I assume will be an orderly transition, in January, to a Biden administration, assuming, as I do, that all the court challenges will have failed, it is instructive to look back to the Spring of this year when President-elect Biden wrote an essay for Foreign Affairs in which he outlined how he planned “to address the world as it is in January 2021,” in some large part, and very sensibly in my opinion, by making American foreign policy ~ which includes its policies towards Canada ~ align with his domestic priorities.
He began with the obligatory criticism of the Trump administration, saying:
- “the credibility and influence of the United States in the world have diminished since President Barack Obama and I left office on January 20, 2017;”
- “President Donald Trump has belittled, undermined, and in some cases abandoned U.S. allies and partners;”
- “He has turned on our own intelligence professionals, diplomats, and troops;”
- “He has emboldened our adversaries and squandered our leverage to contend with national security challenges from North Korea to Iran, from Syria to Afghanistan to Venezuela, with practically nothing to show for it;”
- “He has launched ill-advised trade wars, against the United States’ friends and foes alike, that are hurting the American middle class;”
- “He has abdicated American leadership in mobilizing collective action to meet new threats, especially those unique to this century;” and
- “Most profoundly, he has turned away from the democratic values that give strength to our nation and unify us as a people.“
I do not disagree with his appreciation of the situation.
President-elect Biden told us, back in March, what he planned to do. He said, “As president, I will take immediate steps to renew U.S. democracy and alliances, protect the United States’ economic future, and once more have America lead the world. This is not a moment for fear. This is the time to tap the strength and audacity that took us to victory in two world wars and brought down the Iron Curtain … [and he reminded us that] … The triumph of democracy and liberalism over fascism and autocracy created the free world. But this contest does not just define our past. It will define our future, as well.” That construct, the “free world” vs the Communist empire of the USSR, which collapsed, hesitantly at first, between 1968 (Prague Spring) then Solidarity in Poland (1980/81), the fall of the BerlinWall (1989) and finally, the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, with bth courting the US-led West and the Warsaw Pact courting the non-aligned movement, was the world in which I grew up from 1945 until the 1990s.
Although Joe Biden wants to blame Donald J Trump for everything that’s gone wrong, it needs to be said that America’s problem began in the early 1960s when then president John F Kennedy widened the conflict in Vietnam and turned it from a fairly localized insurrection into a full scale civil war by putting American troops into active combat roles. (They had, previously, under President Eisenhower, been there in training, logistics management and other advisory roles, only.)
Things got worse when Iran fell to the Shite religious fundamentalists (1979) which emboldened a wider anti-Western Islamist movement which, in the wake of the 1st Gulf War (1990/91) led Osama bin Laden (and others) to establish groups aimed at promoting fundamentalist Islam in Islamic countries and attempting to attack the US-led West by whatever mans possible. That led to the Afghanistan and Iraq wars (2001-to the present, in various forms). President Trump may have, certainly did, in my view, make things worse, but he inherited a mess, including a mess made worse by Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
President-elect Biden lays out a number of priority areas:
- “First and foremost,” he said, “we must repair and reinvigorate our own democracy, even as we strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us around the world. The United States’ ability to be a force for progress in the world and to mobilize collective action starts at home.” He lays out a number of key areas for reform including education (which, as in Canada, is largely a state (provincial) responsibility, the inequities in the criminal justice system, immigration, corruption and voting rights. While his top level goal, reinvigorating American democracy so that it is exemplary in the world, is a good one, I suspect, that his real goals are domestic and only peripherally related to foreign policy.
- He gets on to more familiar ground when he promises that “I will invite my fellow democratic leaders around the world to put strengthening democracy back on the global agenda. Today, democracy is under more pressure than at any time since the 1930s. Freedom House has reported that of the 41 countries consistently ranked “free” from 1985 to 2005, 22 have registered net declines in freedom over the last five years … [thus, he said ~ remember this was written nine months ago] … From Hong Kong to Sudan, Chile to Lebanon, citizens are once more reminding us of the common yearning for honest governance and the universal abhorrence of corruption. An insidious pandemic, corruption is fueling oppression, corroding human dignity, and equipping authoritarian leaders with a powerful tool to divide and weaken democracies across the world.” And, again, he blames President Trump for aiding and abetting the autocrats and disregarding the democrats out here in the wider wold.
- Joe Biden said that “I will issue a presidential policy directive that establishes combating corruption as a core national security interest and democratic responsibility, and I will lead efforts internationally to bring transparency to the global financial system, go after illicit tax havens, seize stolen assets, and make it more difficult for leaders who steal from their people to hide behind anonymous front companies.” This is one I really hope he follows through on. I suspect that many terrorist organizations and many criminal enterprises that sap our national strength are financed, in some part, by hostile states that funnel money to movements and gangs through various illegal or, at least, improper financial transactions. I believe that this is all part of ‘war in the grey zone‘ and we, th US-led West should be using our technological power to disrupt the illegal or improper movement of currency. To be crude, we should be stealing the money that the autocrats stole from their people before it gets into the hands of terrorists and drug smugglers and we should use it to fund resistance movements in hostile states.
- Next, he gets onto good, firm ground ~ and I hope that Erin O’Toole is reading this: “my administration will equip Americans to succeed in the global economy—with a foreign policy for the middle class. To win the competition for the future against China or anyone else, the United States must sharpen its innovative edge and unite the economic might of democracies around the world to counter abusive economic practices and reduce inequality … [because, and this is a key point] … Economic security is national security. Our trade policy has to start at home, by strengthening our greatest asset – our middle class – and making sure that everyone can share in the success of the country, no matter one’s race, gender, zip code, religion, sexual orientation, or disability. That will require enormous investments in our infrastructure – broadband, highways, rail, the energy grid, smart cities – and in education.” I wrote about this just yesterday and, just a few days ago, I cited infrastructure maintenance as a key way to create good jobs, soon.
- But Joe Biden is not all sweetness and light. When it comes to trade he may be more difficult than Donald Trump because, he said: “A foreign policy for the middle class will also work to make sure the rules of the international economy are not rigged against the United States – because when American businesses compete on a fair playing field, they win.” That’s rubbish, it is the AFL-CIO talking and it is pure protectionism at its worst. If America doesn’t get its way it cannot be bcause the other party had a better case or a better product; they must be cheating. That’s pure Trump – Lighthizer – Navarro. President-elect Biden says “I believe in fair trade.” That’s what President Trump says, too. “More than 95 percent of the world’s population,” he says “lives beyond our borders – we want to tap those markets. We need to be able to build the very best in the United States and sell the very best around the world. That means taking down trade barriers that penalize Americans and resisting a dangerous global slide toward protectionism. That’s what happened a century ago, after World War I – and it exacerbated the Great Depression and helped lead to World War II.” That last sentence is right, of course, but it doesn’t alter that fact that the rest of sub-paragraph is pure, hopeless, unadulterated, protectionist nonsense. “The wrong thing to do is to put our heads in the sand and say no more trade deals,” he says, and that’s right, look at the just signed RCEP. “Countries will trade with or without the United States. The question is, Who writes the rules that govern trade? Who will make sure they protect workers, the environment, transparency, and middle-class wages? The United States, not China, should be leading that effort.” Yes, it should, but Canadian political leaders must make sure that we have hard-headed officials not mushy-headed politicians at the table when we participate in that effort, because, trust me, on trade Joe Biden is NOT our friend;
- China, President-elect Biden said, “represents a special challenge. I have spent many hours with its leaders, and I understand what we are up against. China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future. Meanwhile, Trump has designated imports from the United States’ closest allies – from Canada to the European Union – as national security threats in order to impose damaging and reckless tariffs. By cutting us off from the economic clout of our partners, Trump has kneecapped our country’s capacity to take on the real economic threat.” let’s hope his actions are as loud and clear as his words; and
- The most effective way to meet the ongoing Chinese challenge, he says, “is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations, even as we seek to cooperate with Beijing on issues where our interests converge, such as climate change, nonproliferation, and global health security. On its own, the United States represents about a quarter of global GDP. When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles. China can’t afford to ignore more than half the global economy. That gives us substantial leverage to shape the rules of the road on everything from the environment to labor, trade, technology, and transparency, so they continue to reflect democratic interests and values.” Those are smart and encouraging words, but I’m afraid that the Desmarais family and their clients, including Jean Chrétien, Justin Trudeau and Bob Rae, will not take any comfort in them.
Getting down to some key issues, President-elect Biden wrote that “The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats.” Those are, again, encouraging words, because, as he says, “The world does not organize itself. For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity – until Trump. If we continue his abdication of that responsibility, then one of two things will happen: either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue. Either way, that’s not good for America.“
Harking back to what I said about John F Kennedy in the 1960s, Joe Biden says that “American leadership is not infallible; we have made missteps and mistakes. Too often, we have relied solely on the might of our military instead of drawing on our full array of strengths. Trump’s disastrous foreign policy record reminds us every day of the dangers of an unbalanced and incoherent approach, and one that defunds and denigrates the role of diplomacy … [and he adds] … I will never hesitate to protect the American people, including, when necessary, by using force. Of all the roles a president of the United States must fill, none is more consequential than that of commander in chief. The United States has the strongest military in the world, and as president, I will ensure it stays that way, making the investments necessary to equip our troops for the challenges of this century, not the last one. But the use of force should be the last resort, not the first. It should be used only to defend U.S. vital interests, when the objective is clear and achievable, and with the informed consent of the American people … [and he goes on to say, oddly echoing one of Donald J Trump’s core beliefs that] … It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure. As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS). We should also end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. We must maintain our focus on counterterrorism, around the world and at home, but staying entrenched in unwinnable conflicts drains our capacity to lead on other issues that require our attention, and it prevents us from rebuilding the other instruments of American power.” That’s not going to be an easy sell with, I would guess, almost ½ of Americans who seem to believe that the US military is the answer to many of the world’s problems.
In a shot which I hope is hard in Canada, Joe Biden says that President Trump has damaged the alliances which help to protect it, but “Our allies should do their fair share, which is why I’m proud of the commitments the Obama-Biden administration negotiated to ensure that NATO members increase their defense spending.” This has been on my kind President Trump was president-elect four years ago. Regarding defence spending and military forces, I have explained, just over a week ago, what Canada needs to do to satisfy either a Trump or Biden government and to play a proper, responsible, grownup role in the world.
And there is another big issue that will be problematical for Justin Trudeau: “When it comes to technologies of the future, such as 5G and artificial intelligence, other nations are devoting national resources to dominating their development and determining how they are used. The United States needs to do more to ensure that these technologies are used to promote greater democracy and shared prosperity, not to curb freedom and opportunity at home and abroad. For example, a Biden administration will join together with the United States’ democratic allies to develop secure, private-sector-led 5G networks that do not leave any community, rural or low income, behind. As new technologies reshape our economy and society, we must ensure that these engines of progress are bound by laws and ethics, as we have done at previous technological turning points in history, and avoid a race to the bottom, where the rules of the digital age are written by China and Russia. It is time for the United States to lead in forging a technological future that enables democratic societies to thrive and prosperity to be shared broadly.” Prime Minister Trudeau had better get comfortable, very quickly, with the idea of pulling up his big-boy pants and banning Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks. My guess is that President-elect Biden wants all five of the “five eyes” countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the USA) united in their determination to not allow China to dominate the airwaves.
President-elect Biden concluded, late last winter when he wrote all this, that “Putin wants to tell himself, and anyone else he can dupe into believing him, that the liberal idea is “obsolete.” But he does so because he is afraid of its power. No army on earth can match the way the electric idea of liberty passes freely from person to person, jumps borders, transcends languages and cultures, and supercharges communities of ordinary citizens into activists and organizers and change agents … [and] … We must once more harness that power and rally the free world to meet the challenges facing the world today. It falls to the United States to lead the way. No other nation has that capacity. No other nation is built on that idea. We have to champion liberty and democracy, reclaim our credibility, and look with unrelenting optimism and determination toward our future.” It is, broadly, encouraging for everyone who wants America to succeed. It is NOT universally, good news for Canada. It will make Prime Minister Trudeau’s life more difficult because while Joe Biden is onside on a few issues he is offside on many big ones. As I have said before, I think Joe Biden is much more like Erin O’Toole, a socially moderate centrist, than he is like Justin Trudeau and I hope Canadians will see that, too, and keep it in mind when they go to the polls in the next election.