Presidential Elections, Geopolitical Uncertainty, and Hopes for Overcoming the Sino-US Conflict
This selected essay by Dr Adrian Ang, Research Fellow with the US Programme in IDSS, discussed the geopolitical uncertainty that comes as part of the 2020 US Presidential Election. This essay is a part of the RSIS Annual Review 2020. To view the annual review, please click here.
On his third try at the presidency, and after four tense days of vote counting in Pennsylvania, former Vice President Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. For another consecutive election, however, the polling appears to have been flawed and it was not the predicted Biden romp to the White House. Instead, the widely anticipated Democratic “blue” wave was matched by a corresponding “red” Republican wave amidst record voter turnout. In the Electoral College (EC), Biden successfully flipped the three key Rust Belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, and two Sun Belt states, Arizona and Georgia – but it appears by only a combined total of around 105,000 votes. Thus, while Biden will win the national popular vote by over five million votes – 77.9 million to 72.5 million – and 306 to 232 in the EC once all the votes are tallied, the country is not merely polarised after a bitterly fought campaign, it is also very evenly divided.
The division is more evident when we examine the down ballot races. House Democrats saw their majority diminish despite having a clear fundraising advantage and having to defend fewer open seats. The post-election inquest has reignited an intra-party feud between moderate and progressive Democrats. Republicans look to be in a very good position to retake the House in 2022 given the usual midterm backlash against the president’s party as well as having retained advantages in more state houses than Democrats going into a critical redistricting year. The Senate also looks to remain in GOP hands, with both Georgia Senate races going to runoffs in January; at best, the Democrats enjoy only even odds to win those two races. Thus, unlike the last two Democratic presidents, Biden appears unlikely to have unified control of government upon taking office. We have to go all the way back to 1884 to find a newly-elected Democratic president – Grover Cleveland – who won without his party also having won control of Congress. Accomplishing his political agenda will require Biden to navigate delicate intra-Democratic Party politics while negotiating with his erstwhile Senate colleague, GOP Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who will look to obstruct him at every turn.
Biden’s top priority will be coming to grips with a coronavirus pandemic, that far from having “magically disappeared”, is in its third wave and threatening to infect an additional seven million and kill 150,000 Americans even before Inauguration Day. In addition to the human and economic toll, the pandemic has damaged American soft power. In a recent Pew Research Center poll, a median of only 15 per cent of respondents across 13 countries surveyed said that the US had done “a good job” in handling the pandemic. While few respondents thought that China has handled it well, it still received better reviews than the American response. While dealing effectively with the pandemic is more likely to occur under Biden, he will face enormous challenges. The US may now be well past the point of being able to defeat the coronavirus, and Biden’s plan for a national test-trace-isolate regime to “flatten the curve” of infections and deaths until a vaccine is available is likely to be opposed by an emboldened GOP-controlled Senate, Republican governors, and a science-sceptical population – the legacy of the Trump administration’s weaponisation of a public health matter into another polarising issue in the nation’s toxic culture wars.
Biden will also have to confront the fiscal fallout of the pandemic and its geopolitical consequences. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects the cumulative US national debt to exceed annual GDP in FY 2021, and it assumes no new borrowing moving forward – an unrealistic assumption given that a Biden administration will surely pursue further coronavirus relief spending. During his address to the U.N. General Assembly, President Donald Trump boasted of boosting spending on the military by some $2.5 trillion to make it “the most powerful in the world.” Days of such largesse might soon be over: America’s “welfare-warfare” state is approaching the point of unsustainability – the annual cost of interest on the national debt will overtake the cost of national defense by the end of the decade. US debt is expected to exceed 200 per cent of GDP by mid-century, and the country cannot continue to spend at such a rate without severe economic, social, and geopolitical consequences. Biden will thus have the fraught task of aligning the long-term sustainability of domestic social programmes with US global ambitions and commitments, and politically acceptable levels of taxation.
The most pressing geopolitical issue facing Biden is the precarious state of Sino-US relations. It is also the most critical issue for states in Southeast Asia attempting on the one hand to balance an aggressive resurgence of Chinese power in the region with the continued benefits of economic engagement, and on the other hand to seek the reassurance of an American security presence without being dragged into a full-spectrum confrontation with China. However, the last remaining redoubt of bipartisan agreement in Washington is the need to take a tougher approach against China, and a Biden administration will differ more from Trump’s in tone than in substance. Biden will be less overtly confrontational in dealing with Beijing – he and some of his closest foreign policy advisers have said that they do not want a new Cold War with Beijing – and will attempt to seek China’s cooperation on issues such as climate change and arms control, but he nonetheless intends to corral a broad coalition of states to confront and contain China. Thus, even Biden’s “multilateral” approach seeks to widen the Sino-US conflict through linkages and threatens to constrain the geopolitical space available to states in the region and force them into choosing sides.
The Sino-US geopolitical struggle has most often been viewed through the lens of the so-called “Thucydides Trap.” While the potential for military conflict is real and ought not to be underestimated, of greater gravity are the negative externalities from the “Kindleberger Trap” – that the two superpowers jostling to assert the prerogatives rather than the responsibilities of hegemons, are failing to provide international public goods and direct concerted action. The worst public health and economic crises in a century failed to elicit any meaningful cooperation between the two superpowers. However, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership is testament to the ability of small and medium Asian states to deliver regional public goods through their concerted efforts without the involvement of either the US or China, and long may that continue. Thus, the challenge of Sino-US geopolitical competition also provides space and incentives for Asian states to continue seeking greater cooperation and coordination in areas such as public health and data governance, to ensure that the potential of an “Asian Century” is not jeopardised regardless of the dynamics of American domestic politics.
What Goes Around Comes Around: American Carnage and Trump’s Legacy to Biden (As of 8 January 2021)
The waning days of the Trump presidency are set to be consumed by “American carnage” – the grim spectre that President Donald Trump invoked at his inauguration – as for the first time since the Civil War, the transfer of power turned violent and deadly after he incited supporters to storm Capitol Hill, disrupting the joint session of Congress convened to formally tally the Electoral College votes and declare Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election. What Senator Mitt Romney decried as an “insurrection” is the logical – and tragic – culmination of a months-long campaign by the defeated incumbent, aided, abetted, and enabled by a not-insignificant coterie of Republican officeholders tempted by political opportunism, to overturn the election results on the basis of unfounded and unsubstantiated allegations of pervasive voter fraud. With Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers forced to either evacuate or shelter behind locked doors as the mob sacked the Capitol building, President Trump could only muster enough effort to ask his supporters to “go home with love and peace,” while steadfastly adhering to his voter fraud conspiracy theories that prompted the violence in the first place.
The “failed insurrection” threatens to overshadow the results of the two Georgia Senate run-off elections that will give Biden and the Democrats unified control of the US government come January 20, but only just barely. House Democrats will have their slimmest majority since the 1940s, and the election of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff will allow Kamala Harris to cast the tie-breaking vote in a 50-50 Senate in favour of the Democrats. This does not mean that Biden will have it all his own way in pursuing his agenda, but it does indicate that key negotiations
will happen within the Democratic caucus – elevating Joe Manchin (West Virginia) as arguably the second-most powerful Democrat in Washington after Biden as the critical 50th vote in the Senate – rather than with Sen. Mitch McConnell and the Republicans. This marks a remarkable volte-face from the immediate aftermath of the November
elections when Democrats were embroiled in mutual recriminations over the failure to retake the Senate and the stunning loss of seats in the House.
In light of the mob assault on Capitol Hill, it is the Republicans who now face a reckoning over their relationship with Trump and Trumpism moving forward. While a majority (62 per cent) of registered voters in a YouGov survey found the storming of the Capitol a “threat to democracy,” two-thirds of Republicans (68 per cent) thought otherwise. The survey also found Republicans to be almost evenly split in their active support of the actions of those at the Capitol (45 per cent) and in their expressed opposition (43 per cent), and overwhelming (69 per cent) in their belief that Trump is “not much” or “not at all” to blame for the mob’s actions, and that it would be “inappropriate” (85 per cent) to remove him from office over the events at the Capitol. Given these findings, it should not be shocking that even after the Trumpian mob assault on the Capitol, six Republican senators and well over half the GOP Conference in the House still voted to object to the electoral returns of Arizona and Pennsylvania. There is a perverse electoral incentive for ambitious Republican politicians to court the 20-25 per cent of the electorate that is inclined to authoritarian-populist Trumpism.
The assault on the US Capitol should reinforce the notion that despite the laundry list of foreign policy problems facing the incoming Biden administration – Sino-US relations, North Korea, Iran, climate change – the principal problems that will occupy its bandwidth and consume its political capital are domestic: COVID-19, the recession, and a deeply divided and polarised country. In the 2020 Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey, Americans ranked the coronavirus pandemic, domestic violent extremism, and political polarisation as greater “critical threats” to the vital interests of the US than the rise of China as a world power. Joe Biden has spoken of bringing about national healing in the post-Trump era, but the events at the Capitol show the scale of the challenge. The deep polarisation will continue and there is a genuine concern that this is just the start of political violence in the US. If there is anything the four years of the Trump presidency should teach us is that democratic institutions and norms are much less resilient than thought to be – and that the “Weimarization” of the United States should no longer be an unthinkable prospect.
Last updated on 11/01/2021