Updated: January 20, 2021 8:56:54 am
Joe Biden will take over later today as the 46th President of the US, amidst unprecedented security arrangements, a deeply polarised society believing not only in different values but also conflicting “facts”, a continued and raging pandemic, a severely impacted economy, and an enhanced challenge from China to its global primacy and technological leadership. In his initial victory speech on November 8 morning (IST), he had identified dealing with the pandemic, economy, systemic racism in US society, and climate change as his initial priorities.
This presidential transition (from the November 3 election to the inauguration) has been the most fraught among the three I watched closely — in 2008-09, 2016-17 and 2020-21. In 2008-09, President George W Bush had instructed the administration to cooperate and brief fully the incoming team, as had also been mandated by the 9/11 Commission, to avoid surprises like the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attack. President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama had hosted the Trumps at the White House soon after the election outcome was known in November 2016. This time, however, Donald Trump did not concede, or invite the Bidens to the White House, sought to challenge results through courts, coercion of election officials, and encouraging his supporters to storm the US Congress on January 6 to disrupt the final certification of the results. He would also not be attending the official swearing-in ceremony. According to latest polls, a large majority of Republican supporters, encouraged by Trump and politicians hoping to tap into his base, continue to believe, despite unanimous rejection by courts and overwhelmingly by both Democratic and Republican election officials, that the elections were rigged and that there was widespread illegal voting.
Governance for Biden has been made somewhat easier by the US Senate having flipped, though by a bare 51-50 majority. This will enable early confirmation of many nominees to critical positions, but it will give extra power to the more conservative Democratic senators. The House retaining its Democratic majority, but by a reduced margin, has reinforced the sense of division in US society. The challenge for the Biden administration will be to meet the aspirations of the progressive Democratic base that has propelled him to power, while also commanding a measure of bipartisan support to generate wider societal acceptance of his policies.
Most incoming administrations adopt a host of measures in the initial days to signal policy and administrative energy, and to distinguish themselves politically from their predecessors. The Biden team has indicated that there would be announcements on rejoining the 2015 Paris climate accord, immigration, dealing with the pandemic, etc. Some attention, however, will be taken away by the anticipated Senate trial of Trump, following his second impeachment by the House of Representatives last week. Biden has called for the process not to disrupt the administration’s positive agenda.
The extent to which Biden can deal with internal fissures and challenges, and project a stabilising influence globally, will also have a bearing on India’s interests.
The Trump administration has continued with the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, bringing the number down to 2,500, despite a deadlock in Afghan government-Taliban negotiations in Doha, and continued Taliban-sponsored terrorist activity and attacks. As Vice President, Biden had also supported a reduction in the US military footprint in Afghanistan, assessing it as endless, and seeing the fatigue in US society from the prolonged involvement and losses. Whether the incoming administration enables the existing governance framework and constitution to endure or caves into Taliban encroachments, will be among the first tests of its will and international prestige. It will also affect its relationship with Pakistan, depending on the degree to which the latter is responsive to terrorism-related concerns, or surrenders again to its proclivity to seek “strategic depth” and dominate Afghanistan through the Taliban. Pakistan will try to market itself initially as useful in the Afghanistan context, and seek leverage in the US-India relationship.
The most keenly watched policy orientation would be on China. The Trump administration, after some flip-flops in the first year, adopted an increasingly strident tone since December 2017. There was broadly a “whole-of-government” approach with the Vice President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, National Security Adviser, Attorney General, FBI Director, and a host of subordinate officials coming out with a series of coordinated policy pronouncements. Exceptions to this were Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Adviser to President Jared Kushner, who were seen as continuing to focus on advantages from cooperation. There was also a “whole-of-society” approach with the administration’s messages directed at US business, universities, governors, think-tanks, entertainment industry, to recognise the dangers emanating from China and not give in to blandishments, or short-term financial or profit needs. China’s authoritarian system under President Xi was described as a challenge to US-espoused democratic values; its predatory economic and forced technology transfer practices as a challenge to US technological leadership; its unilateral military assertions in the East and South China Sea and elsewhere were assessed as a challenge to a rules-based international order. A series of measures were adopted to deny technology and financing access, targeting Chinese technology companies, those linked to its military, those involved in internationally-illegal construction activity in the South China Sea. Constraints were placed on the operation of Chinese media and Confucian Institutes in the US, its consulate in Houston was closed, sanctions placed on Chinese officials involved in the crackdown and human rights violations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and higher-level government contacts authorised with Taiwan.
The Biden team would want to project that it is different from and more effective than the Trump administration. Its rhetoric may be less sharp. It may be less provocative on Taiwan. It will want to coordinate more with allies, including in Europe. But the substance of the Trump administration’s approach is not likely to change. China is seen to be more authoritarian under Xi, driving a nail in the coffin of hope and convenience-driven US analysis that more engagement would lead to political and economic liberalisation in China. Competition with China will also provide the peg for generating bipartisan support in for economic, infrastructure and competition policies.
Relations with India would remain on track. Biden has consistently been supportive, calling at various times for the removal of sanctions against India, piloting the 2008 Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in the Senate, and describing the relationship as a defining partnership of the 20th century. Speaking at the Hudson Institute on July 9, 2020, Secretary of State-designate Blinken said that “strengthening and deepening the relationship with India is going to be a very high priority”.
The US’s choices on Russia (CAATSA sanctions) and Iran (JCPOA) will also have a bearing on India’s interests. These will be driven by America’s perception of its interests and political compulsions. But it can be confidently expected that a Biden-Harris administration will sustain the bipartisan support for the India relationship initiated by Bill Clinton in 2000. There will be some differences on issues pertaining to human rights and climate change, but they can be effectively handled if the strategic frame is kept in view at both ends.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 20, 2021, under the title “President Biden”. The writer is a former Indian ambassador to the US
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