Biden Has Tread Where Trump Only Tweeted

Nathan Gardels

7 mins - 30 de Abril de 2023, 07:00

If Joe Biden, who has just declared he will run again for U.S. president, had not defeated Donald Trump in the last election, the Ukraine today would be in Russia’s hands. Trump neither could have, or would have, successfully mobilized America’s allies to band together to thwart Putin’s aggression.

In other respects, such as 'America First' de-globalization and confrontation with China, Biden has tread where Trump only tweeted. In doing so, he has entered a labyrinth of geopolitics that traps the West in a series of contradictions it will not be easy to escape.

Competitive Nation-Building
The backlash against decades of hyper-globalization, which spread wealth to new winners across the emerging economies while hollowing out the manufacturing base of more advanced countries, most notably the United States, has exhausted its first wave of reactive populism and is entering the reconstruction stage of competitive nation-building.

Biden is riding a rising consensus across the political spectrum in the U.S that favors what used be called 'industrial policy' to restore the nation’s lost prowess through state intervention. This shift is manifested in his key initiatives — the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest-ever green energy transition investment in American history, and the CHIPS Act, aimed at rebuilding self-reliance and secure supply chains for semiconductor manufacturing. 

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Not insignificantly, multiple analyses show that the primary benefit of new jobs and production facilities will flow to Republican red-state strongholds, especially the southern Midwest. This alignment portends a dampening of the heightened political polarization that gave rise to the MAGA movement. If the culture wars over woke politics cool down instead of heat up, this bodes well for Biden’s re-election.

When the leading economy in the world turns inward to nation-building that seeks to undo the dependencies and dislocations of the hyper-globalization it once fostered, it necessarily entails unraveling the structures of market interdependence for those 'winners' who fashioned their economic strategy accordingly. What is 'positive economic nationalism' to the broad American constituencies to which Biden’s policies appeal is seen as 'negative protectionism' by those who will now lose out.

In turn, they will move to shield their own economies from the disadvantages they face if they stick to the open trading and free market rules of the post-Cold War era abandoned by the hegemonic power that once held it all together.

Biden’s IRA has deeply unsettled America’s allies, especially in Europe. They see the massive subsidies for domestic production of clean energy technology as sucking investment and jobs across the Atlantic from the continent. Geopolitically united under NATO for the moment, Europe and the U.S. are jointly sending their coveted tanks off to Ukraine. But, geo-economically, they are going their own way, each seeking to firmly plant solar panel, windmill, battery and EV production on the home soil.

The leaders of France and Germany are pursuing their own set of subsidies to counter America’s. The European Commission’s Green Industrial Plan is already loosening strictures on state aid. Though their responses are as of yet less articulated, America’s allies in Asia, most notably Japan and South Korea, are equally unsettled by Biden’s approach.

The great paradox of this historical moment is that the competitive nation-building that aims to repair the domestic damage of globalization is being driven forward by the planetary imperative of meeting the common climate challenge.

The Extent of Integration With China Is The Territory of Contestation
The world we live in today is neither converging as it was in the era of post-Cold War globalization, nor is it entirely diverging from the premises of a liberal world order, which nourished the rise of those now challenging it. Rather we are stuck in an interdependence of contraries where the extent of integration is itself the territory of contestation.

This was on full display in recent weeks as French President Emmanuel Macron and European Union President Ursula von der Leyen were granted an audience with Xi Jinping in Beijing not long after Xi was feted in Moscow by Vladimir Putin, affirming the 'no limits' friendship that gives succor to the aggressor in Ukraine against the sanctions imposed by a resolute West.

While Biden is seeking to contain China as a 'strategic rival' and decouple the economic exchanges that fostered its rapid climb toward prosperity, Macron took tea with Xi in Guangzhou and joined up to what they called 'a global strategic partnership.' He headed home with a big contract for Airbus to build out China’s commercial airline fleet. 

Macron pleaded with Xi to convince Putin to stand down in Ukraine, but, channeling Charles de Gaulle during the Cold War, also distanced himself from the Taiwan conflict, arguing in the name of 'strategic autonomy' that Europe should resist becoming America’s 'vassal' and not be drawn into conflicts that were none of its business. Rather, he said, it should strive to become a 'third superpower' in a multipolar world. 

Last year, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also trekked to the Middle Kingdom with a similar plea on Ukraine a few days after he approved the partial sale of the Hamburg port to a Chinese company. Since 40% of Volkswagen’s business is in China, he also brought along its executives and those of other German industrial giants seeking to secure market access going forward. 

Before heading to Beijing with Macron, von der Leyen staked out a more bristling view of Xi’s policies, declaring they are aimed at 'systemic change of the international order with China at its center … where individual rights are subordinated to national sovereignty' and 'security and economy take prominence over political and civil rights.'

Trying to thread the transatlantic needle, she has called for 'de-risking, not decoupling' relations with China in order to avoid a Russia-type dependency in critical supply chains or providing frontier technologies to the surveillance state and bolstering its military prowess.

For her troubles, she was excluded from the pomp and personal intimacy accorded the French Jupiter by the Red Emperor. Clearly, the supreme leader in Beijing grasps that the relevant addresses of Europe are in Paris and Berlin, not Brussels.

In their characteristic way, Japan’s leaders would never directly confront and affront the U.S. like Macron. But behind all the kabuki posturing, they are even more wary than France about being dragged into a battle royal in their own neighborhood with China upon which their prosperity rests.

There are clearly many layers of nuance that defy Biden’s easy categorization of the global tensions as between democracies and autocracies. Rather, there are conflicts between the West and China over values, and then there are conflicts over interests among those within the West who share the same values.

Navigating through this dizzyingly complex labyrinth makes it nearly impossible for both America and its allies to chart a path out of the maze not in contradiction with itself. 

Neither the Biden administration nor Europe’s leaders are unaware of this novel predicament they find themselves in. But their room for maneuver is not wide and will be determined not only by what Putin and Xi do, but by the constrictions of constituencies at home who have lost faith that answers to their problems can be found beyond borders.

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