Trust in America has never seemed so weak. The British Foreign Policy Group reported this month that trust in the US among Britons had fallen by 13 percentage points since January, or since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis.
In Germany, only 37% of respondents to a Körber Foundation survey released this week said they thought the United States was Berlin’s most important partner – and 36% said China. A similar survey from September 2019 put the US 26 percentage points ahead of China, which shows how quickly German feeling has hardened against the US.
Reports from France and Italy found a similar decline in recent months. So, too, in Asia.
For some, such distrust won’t be altered by what happens in November, at the US presidential elections. If the all-but-certain Democratic candidate Joe Biden “is sitting in the White House come January, the crippling partisan divide will still be there. And so will the economic devastation left by a crisis that Americans – after decades of ever smaller government – seem totally unprepared to cope with,” wrote Noah Barkin, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, in Foreign Policy this week.
Indeed, US President Donald Trump will leave major structural problems in his wake if he does lose in November, and these won’t be easily mended in a few weeks or months. Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in one day; if another president wants to re-enter the trade pact, it could take years.
Yet hard to miss is that many foreigners’ distrust in America is synonymous with their distrust in Trump. “The German public is fickle, and – rightly or wrongly – its views of the United States are heavily influenced by the person sitting in the Oval Office,” Barkin wrote.
These are not going to be pleasant times leading up to November’s election. Pre-election months are tiresome for even political junkies, but now we have the Covid-19 crisis and the fact that neither presidential candidate inspires much hope.
If the 2016 race was between two terrible candidates, then 2020 is gearing up for a reboot. Whichever way one looks at it, Biden isn’t most people’s first pick for the person who will try to steer America out of the Trump era. He is embroiled in historical sexual-assault accusations; at 77, his advanced age was obvious at party hustings; his stutter has become more pronounced and many have been unimpressed by his performances on the stumps.
Then there’s the fact that he’s the compromise candidate of a party that remains bitterly divided.
But according to some (who fall into the “anything but Trump” camp) Biden simply needs to survive long enough to collect the anti-Trump votes and make it into the White House next January. Anything that happens afterward can then be dealt with.
In March, a piece in The Atlantic ran with the headline “Stay Alive, Joe Biden.” Perversely, his choice of running mate, and therefore prospective vice-president, appears more important than at any previous presidential election.
Yet in one sense, his weakness might be a strength. The trend of American politics since the 1990s, at least, has been toward more powerful, more involved presidents, who want to micromanage every issue and stamp their approval on each success. Anyone who pretends this began with Trump – and it wasn’t something he inherited from the Barack Obama, who used more executive orders than any of his predecessors – is wrong.
But under Biden (especially if he is as frail as some critics contend he is) America is more likely to get a collective leadership, rule by cabinet rather than by one individual. Indeed, under Biden, the presidency would closely resemble more of a formal head of state than a busybody commander-in-chief. For some Americans, this shift may be worrying. For foreigners, though, and especially America’s allies, it will be comforting.
Reporting from Asia during the 2016 presidential election, most politicians and pundits I spoke to reckoned Hillary Clinton to be the preferred candidate over Trump. In private, some said they distrusted her. Nonetheless, they were confident that she would keep on competent and well-liked officials within the State Department and Treasury. Whatever her own faults, she would have likely assembled noteworthy personnel for her administration.
As former US ambassador to Beijing Stapleton Roy told the South China Morning Post in an article dated November 6, 2016, with a Clinton candidacy “we at least have the ability to guess what her policies will be. And we also have the sense of who the people around her will be, whether it’s Kurt Campbell, or James Steinberg, people of that sort, we have some idea where they stand on issues. But with Donald Trump you don’t have any of these.”
Indeed, ahead of the November 2016 polls, there was hope in Asia that a Clinton victory would bring Campbell back to office, perhaps even as her secretary of state. Campbell is widely regarded as the intellectual architect of the “Pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration, and served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs between 2009 and 2013.
When he left the post, it was taken by some that Washington was taking its eye off Asia. But when, in June 2017, he published The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, many saw the text as the basis of what he might have achieved as secretary of state had Clinton won.
I sense something similar today. A Joe Biden victory in November will most probably see the return of experienced, well-liked diplomats to the State Department, as well as the return of many officials from the Obama administration. American diplomats, I hear, have their fingers crossed looking forward to the day when they won’t be as micromanaged from Washington as they are today.
For foreign leaders and officials, especially America’s allies, some return to normalcy at Foggy Bottom would be greatly appreciated. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry officials I have spoken to say they have been run ragged the last few years, never knowing whether Trump will brand Hanoi a close ally one day and, then, the next day rage at it as “the worst abuser” of US trade and “even worse than China” the next. Even if Biden rules uninspiringly, he would at least be dependable.
Already Biden has surrounded himself with people like Jake Sullivan, his former national security adviser and who helped oversee Obama’s Iran nuclear negotiations, and Jeffrey Prescott, Obama’s senior adviser for Iran, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf states. Antony Blinken, now his foreign policy adviser, is another experienced foreign-policy hand who could get a place in his administration. (The transcript of a recent, lengthy interview Blinken gave on foreign policy can be found here.)
Exactly what is Biden’s foreign-policy stance is still a work in progress, though given the Covid-19 pandemic and Trump’s expected reliance on anti-China rhetoric ahead of November’s election, it’s most probable that foreign policy will play a bigger role than it usually does at America’s presidential races. But we are getting the glimmer of what Biden might mean for the world.
Writing last month, Asia analyst Prashanth Parameswaran opined that a Biden administration “would likely tone down Mr Trump’s protectionism and be creative about leveraging US economic statecraft internationally,” adding that concerns about “democracy and human rights would be elevated to a greater level.”
“By nearly every measure, 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,” Biden began his lengthy tome on foreign policy in an article for Foreign Affairs in January. Perhaps, overly simplistically, it could be said that a Biden foreign policy would be some sort of restoration of Obamaian foreign policy, including the likelihood of many officials from the Obama administration returning if he wins, but with a tougher line on China.
Campbell, in a co-written piece last month, noted that “the Biden administration will need to not only convene the international community but, like Roosevelt, Truman, and Bush, provide a vision for the path forward.”
Thomas Wright, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, put it, “For the 2021 Democrats, Biden represents the so-called establishment’s last chance to reform US foreign policy so it is better aligned with how Americans see the world and how they live their lives.”
He added, “Biden’s foreign policy certainly will not be revolutionary, but if the 2021 Democrats have their way, it may bring about a quiet reformation.”
David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations.