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In his first hours as president, Joe Biden recommitted the US to the World Health Organisation. Within a month, the country was back in the Paris Climate Agreement. When he preserved and then topped-up the German army bases that Donald Trump had aimed to prune, the howls from Palm Beach were inaudible over the cheers of US allies. Biden’s downpayments on his vision of American leadership could not have been more prompt.
They were also, in retrospect, the lowest-hanging of fruit. Six months into his presidency, Biden can boast a more cohesive west. The OECD accord on corporate tax gives substance to a multilateralism that can sometimes descend into a love of form. What he cannot claim, however, is a total break from his predecessor.
On China, he was never going to ease what has become a clash of governing systems as much as of national interests. What is more surprising is the continuity of means. Protectionism, so shocking when Trump revived it, infuses the administration, both in the crude guise of tariffs and in softer forms. This is where the Democratic left meets the national security state. It is hard to square the national bias in procurement or in industrial policy with a liberal world order of positive-sum relations. In competing with autocracies, Biden must beware inadvertently granting their dream of a de-globalised economic system.
For an alleged hawk, Trump was uniquely bad at enlisting allies against China. Through civility alone, Biden has been better. But even here the differences can be overstated. Both men envisage an open-ended struggle for world primacy. And both have had to sell it to a Europe that has no superpower position to defend. Biden mostly avoids with-us-or-against-us rhetoric. But the tonal warmth of June’s G7 summit slightly masked the struggle to agree a form of words on China. His goodwill, as precious as it is after four years of intra-western rancour, should not be confused with harmony on the biggest question in the world.
Echoes of the former president resound beyond China policy. Trump had aimed to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by May of this year. Biden’s reform has been to postpone it by all of two months. Trump ended Barack Obama’s overtures to Cuba. Even before the recent brutality of the island’s leaders, Biden was slower to restore them than some Democrats had hoped. Trump did not punish Saudi Arabia for its killing of a dissident journalist and its meddling in Yemen. Biden has been tougher but not to the extent of jeopardising the relationship.
Realpolitik explains most of this. It explains the slowness to re-join the nuclear pact with an awkward Iran, and the effective acceptance of Russia’s new gas pipeline to Germany. “There is only so much you can do in six months’ time”, Antony Blinken has said. The secretary of state would be right even in a world not stricken by pandemic.
Still, the boast that “America is back” was always bold to the point of rashness. For one, it implied that US foreign policy was a picture of conscientious multilateralism until 2016. For another, it underestimated how deeply Trump had changed the American perception of the world.
One theme connects all of Biden’s continuities with his predecessor. It is a desire to minimise non-Chinese claims on US attention and resources. In fact, only climate change comes close as a priority. A superpower showdown that was startling in 2018 has become the fixed point of US foreign policy. That Biden is better at it scarcely needs saying. But he won’t be the last president to work in Trump’s shadow.