Observations of an expat - high hopes

Observations of an Expat: High Hopes, Low Expectations

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Observations of an expat - high hopesThe Americans have high hopes but low expectations despite the fact that Trump is gone and Biden is now President of United States. In his departing speech the outgoing president promised (or was it threatened) that he would be back “in some form or another.”

By Tom Arms

Trump is gone. He boarded Air Force One on Wednesday and flew off into the Florida sunset.

Biden is now the President of the United States and has called for an end to the “uncivil civil war” of the last four years.

In his departing speech before a diminished crowd, the outgoing president promised (or was it threatened) that he would be back “in some form or another.”

And he probably will – Perhaps not the “The Donald” personally. His legal and financial problems ranging from the impeachment trial, to tax evasion, to fraud, to money laundering, attempted subversion of election results and massive debts could occupy his attention—and the courts– at the expense of any planned political comeback.

But Trumpism will be back. In fact, it is a solid political factor on the American scene. Donald Trump did not create Trumpism. The conditions for his hate-fuelled politics of anger and fear existed before Donald entered the White House. Trump’s trick was to spot the political advantage in this social undercurrent and exploit it.

In his first day in office, President Biden used presidential decree powers to reverse 17 Trumpist policies. He rejoined the World Health Organization and the Climate Change Accord. “The Dreamers” were given back their path to citizenship and the Muslim travel ban was lifted. The Keystone XL pipeline and a host of other environmentally damaging Trump pronouncements were scrapped.

The 17 reversal decrees were aimed at Biden’s Democratic base. They were certainly not designed to please Trump supporters and so cannot be viewed as a unifying action. The two most prominent unifying actions are likely to be perceived competence in tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the issue of the Supreme Court.

400,000-plus Americans are dead from Covid-19 at the end of Trump’s term of office. Their headstones are granite testaments to Trump’s incompetence in handling the health crisis. The pandemic was a major factor in Trump’s November defeat.

Biden’s campaign portrayed their man as the one to beat the virus and he has set himself the seemingly impossible target of 100 million vaccinations in 100 days.  If he fails, to deliver on this crucial promise, Biden’s credibility will be seriously damaged. His problem is that vaccinations are administered by state rather than federally-controlled workers, and 27 of the 50 states have Republican governors. Many of them, such as Florida’s Rick de Santis, are solid Trumpists who may stop at nothing to undermine a Democrat president.

Donald’s greatest achievement was the appointment of three conservative Supreme Court Justices. This has decidedly shifted to the right the balance of America’s highest court for at least a generation. The move could have a decisive effect on abortion law, healthcare legislation and gun control—all touchstone issues for Trumpists and anyone else of a conservative bent.

The growing left-wing of the Democratic Party wants to rebalance the court’s political complexion by appointing two liberally-minded Justices. This would increase its membership from the traditional nine to 11. The move is perfectly legal, but unconventional. It would please the Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s of this world, but it would almost certainly spell the end of any bipartisan support in Congress for other parts of Biden’s legislative agenda.  Backing from Capitol Hill is an essential stepping stone towards support from the wider electorate and Biden’s goal of national unity.

World View - Observations of an ExpatPost-Inaugural World Review

  • The relief in the voice of EU Commission President Ursula van der Leyen was obvious when she proclaimed that Joe Biden’s inauguration was “resounding proof that once again…Europe has a friend in the White House.” Trump was certainly no friend of the European ideal. He championed Brexit and wanted the break-up of the world’s largest trading bloc as well as adopting a unilateralist foreign policy and, at best, ambivalent attitude towards NATO. Alliance-minded Joe Biden is almost the direct opposite. But there is concern in European circles that Trump’s election might have been more than an aberration, and Europe should plan accordingly. European Council President Charles Michel warned because of Trump “The world has changed…. We Europeans must take our fate firmly into our own hands, to defend our interests and promote our values. The EU chooses its course and does not wait for permission to take its own decisions.”
  • British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been called “The British Trump.” It is true that the two men share a populist streak. But the bromance had more to do with realpolitik and the need for a post-Brexit US-UK trade deal than shared values. The British Prime Minister’s post-inaugural comment stressed long-standing Anglo-American links. And there is no doubt that history plus military, intelligence, trade and security links means a continuing close relationship. Johnson also plans to concentrate on Biden’s shared on climate change to repair damage caused by his relationship with Trump. But Biden doesn’t like Brexit, and he is especially concerned about the impact it will have on Ireland. Britain has traditionally been regarded as a bridge between Europe and America. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU reduces its diplomatic effectiveness on the continent which makes it likely that the Biden Administration will focus more on the European power house—Germany.
  • It is no secret that US-German relations for the past four years were terrible. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was “greatly relieved” that Trump was out and Biden was in. With a clear swipe at the ex-president, he pointedly added: that the last four years had shown “we must stand up to polarization, protect and strengthen democracies and make policy on the basis of reason and facts.” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, was even more critical, possibly because Trump had aided the rise of Spain’s far-right populist Vox Party. He said that Biden’s inauguration represented “the victory of democracy over the ultra-right and its three methods: massive deception, national division and abuse—sometimes violent—of democratic institutions.
  • Donald Trump’s relations with Russia were ambiguous. Contrary to what the now ex-president claimed, the Mueller Report did not exonerate him of any wrongdoing. It just said that allegations of collusion were “not proven.” Throughout his administration, Trump downplayed or denied the Russian threat from cyber-attacks and election interference. He also pressed for Russia’s readmission to the G8 and recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine. President Biden is expected to take the opposite position, especially as he helped to engineer the expulsion of Russia from the G8. He will also take a stronger line on human rights in light of the attempted murder and arrest of opposition leader Alex Navalny. Set against those concerns is the need to renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by the deadline of 5 February. The last point explains the call from elder statesman Mikhail Gorbachev for Russia and the US to “urgently work to repair ties.”
  • The problems of the Gulf region will not disappear with a change of administrations in Washington, but policies will change. Tehran hailed the departure of Donald Trump as “the end of a tyrant’s era.” The Saudi response was more muted. Riyadh had enjoyed a good relationship with Donald. In response the ex-president turned a blind eye to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, human rights abuses in Yemen, the diplomatic breach with Qatar and, of course withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Accord. Biden has already announced his intention to revive the Iran Nuclear Accord and is known to be concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has taken the actions speak louder than words route in trying to impress the new administration. In recent days he has restored diplomatic links with Qatar, cut oil production to keep down prices and hinted at movement on Yemen. The big sticking point could be renewal of the Iran Nuclear Accord. Riyadh will reluctantly accept it, but wants the terms re-written to impose restrictions on Iran’s missile program and support for Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis.
  • Israel will apply leverage on the Biden Administration to maintain Trump’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran. The extraordinarily cosy Netanyahu-Trump relationship will not be repeated by Joe Biden. Over four years the Trump Administration recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, accepted the annexation of the Golan Heights, said that West Bank settlements were perfectly legal and effectively wrote the Palestinians and the two-state solution out of any long-term settlement with their peace agreement. Joe Biden’s problem is how much of that he wants to accept and build on. Some of it (such as the Golan Heights and Jerusalem are a fait accompli) but other elements could be more problematic. The most difficult is the much-touted diplomatic recognition of Israel by Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE and Sudan at the expense of the Palestinians. This peace initiative was a short-term fix which ignored the long-term problem, but it was popular back in the States. Israeli support for the Trump/Kushner peace initiative and the West Bank settlement is unlikely to change even if Benjamin Netanyahu loses elections on 23 March—the fourth in two years.
  • Afghanistan remains a headache for Biden. Trump’s boast that he brought the boys home could be an empty one if war’s aftermath again pushes the Central Asian country into a radicalized terrorist power base. Cross-border tribal links constantly threaten to export Afghan instability and violence into neighbouring Pakistan—a difficult US ally with close ties to China. Disputed and divided Kashmir is a major issue for Pakistan, especially after India imposed martial law on its slice of the region. As Biden was sworn in, Pakistan Foreign Minster Shah Mahmood Qureshi claimed that the new president had promised to help resolve the 74-year-old dispute. India would be unhappy with American interference in Kashmir. In fact, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have mixed feelings about the end of the Trump era as he enjoyed a good relationship with the ex-president. Trump was keen to develop Indo-American relations as a building block in an anti-Chinese military alliance. Biden may want to build on that relationship.
  • Australia was another key part of Trump’s plans for containing Chinese ambitions, and at first glance he and Prime Minister Scott Morrison are cut from similar conservative cloths. Morrison is perhaps even more insistent that China be held responsible for the coronavirus pandemic. And, on the issue of climate change, the Australian government is as slow– or slower– than Trump in accepting the scientific verdict. Recently, Scott Morrison refused to commit to a target of non-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Thus puts Australia in breach of the Paris Climate Accord. Biden is displeased. He is talking of imposing “carbon adjustment fees” (aka tariffs) on goods from countries which breach the Paris Accords. However, Australia is a long, valued and close regional ally and it is taking a strong line against China which pleased Trump and will please Biden.
  • The new Secretary of State Antony Blinken surprised everyone but seasoned China watchers when he told his Senate confirmation hearing that he and Joe Biden thought that the Trump’s tough China policy was right. The Asian giant with 1.3 billion people and a fast-growing economy and military establishment, is the single biggest threat to America’s dominant world position, and there is now a broad consensus that previous US administrations were wrong in the belief that economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization. Biden and Blinken are expected to take a tougher line on human rights.  The new Secretary of State agreed with Mike Pompeo that Chinese action against the Uighurs was genocide and has spoken of a ban on goods from Xinjiang. He also wants to continue the policy of relaxing official dealings with Taiwan and clearly leans towards Taiwan being recognized as an independent state—the reddest of red flags for Beijing. The official Chinese line on the Biden inauguration was muted, but as Trump flew out of Washington, the Chinese news agency Xinhua tweeted: “Good riddance.” Two words they may regret.

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About the Author

Tom Arms Journalist Sindh CourierTom Arms is the London-based American foreign affairs journalist. He has nearly half a century’s experience of world affairs, and has written and broadcast for American, British and Commonwealth outlets. Positions he held included foreign correspondent, diplomatic correspondent, foreign editor, editor and founding CEO of an international diary news service. He is the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War,” “The Falklands Crisis” and “World Elections on File.” His new book “America: Made in Britain” is expected this year.
{The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Sindh Courier}