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Global Econopolitics

Will Biden administration change America First policy?

  Executive Research Director


When looking into the outcome of the US presidential election which resulted in Mr. Biden’s victory, it feels far from the uplifting feeling seen in the United States when Mr. Obama was elected 12 years ago. Rather than entrusting hope for a new era, it’s probably because the election became almost all about the mud fighting over more Trump or no more Tramp.

Not a few countries in the world have high expectations that the next administration will focus on international cooperation. Certainly, what has been lost in the last four years should recover to some extent. The word “America First”, which was Mr. Trump’s motto, will no longer be used by the Biden administration.

Constraint of divided society

Then, will the United States move away from the attitude of America First? I do not think so. I can imagine that the rest of the world will sometimes or even often feel that things go somewhat same way. There are three reasons.

The first is the constraint that comes from the divided society. It was amazed at the hardness and breadth of the bedrock of Trump supporters that was shown in the election. Mr. Biden had the highest number of votes ever, but Mr. Trump also gained a lot more votes than last time in 2016.

His strength in the election was quite impressive given wide spread criticism for failing to respond appropriately to the Covid-19 and depression caused by the pandemic. Mr. Trump might have won if there was not a pandemic.

Trump effect

The confrontation between the Democratic Party and the Republican Party will continue. The Republican Party has done well in congressional election and has come to the point of looking for a majority position in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, they are expected to increase the number of seats, although it is less than the majority.

It seems that the Republican Party, which is worried about how they can maintain party’s power due to long term change of population composition of voters, may have chosen to become “Trump’s Party” in the last four years. They have learned that “America First” policy effectively appeals their supporters. I would call it as Trump effect.

Putting aside how they would see Mr. Trump’s reluctance to accept the defeat, the Republican Party will face the Democratic Party uncompromisingly with the aim of regaining the White House four years from now.

If the Republican results in the majority in the Senate runoff elections at the beginning of next year, the Biden administration will face a twist in which the opposition controls one side of the parliament. From the beginning, the new administration will be in a difficult position to proceed bills and get approval of ministers.

The Democratic Party’s pledge to raise taxes on the rich and corporation and tighten various regulations will inevitably meet the resistance of the Republican Party, increasing the possibility that it will not be realized as planned.

If confrontation with the parliament prolong and become serious, energy have to be concentrated on domestic political issues, and the administration will turn inward. There is a risk of losing the ability to treat foreign countries with a tolerant attitude and to maintain international cooperation.

Struggling with Covid-19

The economic policies expected by the Biden administration include measures to encourage US companies to return to the domestic production and a cautious stance toward the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). Policies targeting and supporting white workers who were keys in the election will be introduced. It must be presumed that protectionist policies will persist, even if measures are very different from the Trump administration.

The second is the influence of the Covid-19. From the first days of the inauguration, the new president will have to work to contain the pandemic with the highest priority. Mr. Biden, who has severely criticized Mr. Trump’s response to the pandemic, could be immediately exposed to criticism if he fails to handle it. For the time being, he has no choice but to be busy dealing with the pandemic.

Unstable China policy

The third is the policy toward China. The consensus of the people concerned is that the tough stance toward China is now bipartisan and will not change even under the Biden administration. However, unlike the Trump administration, it is expected to take a more collective approach to facing China in collaboration with allies and like-minded countries.

But that does not necessarily mean that they listen well to what Japan and Europe say. It can be said that the basis of Washington’s policy toward China is to maintain its superiority in the technical and security fields and to protect the dominant position of the United States. Mr. Biden’s mind should be understood to first secure his country’s superiority and national interests, and he must have drawn a leader image that unites fellow nations for that purpose.

One cannot deny the scenario in which the policy toward China will be confused in the next administration. The emphasis on human rights issues has become stronger than that of the Trump administration, and it is possible that policy priorities of new administration will not be easy to understand.

Ms. Susan Rice, who was a National Security Adviser during the Obama administration, has been widely seen as one of candidates for Secretary of State for the Biden administration. She was positive in cooperation with China and once warmly received a statement about a “new type of major power relations” advocated by the Chinese side. If she joined the very center of the Biden administration, it could lead to a fierce tug of war with more cautious camp against China.

Prioritizing national interest

Unlike Mr. Trump’s dictatorial style, Mr. Biden is expected to have a style of more sharing policy management with top administrative officials. There will be less confusions caused by president’s whims, but this requires ability of good coordination. How to respond to the leftists within the party such as Senator Sanders will be also a big challenge.

The era in which the United States behaved generously as a leader in supporting the international order is gone. Now the US became more chaotic due to widening economic gap among people, social divisions, and then the pandemic. No matter who become the president, he or she has almost no choice but to take more or less America First attitude.

After taking office next January, Mr. Biden is expected to start one after another policies that set him apart from the Trump era, such as returning to the Paris Agreement, an international framework for preventing global warming, canceling withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and considering to return to the Iran nuclear deal. He will also work to restore relations with Europe.

Even if there is momentum in the early days of the new administration, it is unclear how long it will last, given very complicated domestic picture. For Japan and other like-minded Asian countries, together with their European partners, it is necessary not only to watch closely the policy development in the United States, but also to make the US reaffirming its commitment to essential international framework and cooperation.

So, the new slogan should be “Make America Reaffirm Commitment Again.”

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