The promise and limits of Joe Biden

Decency has been pushing aside demagogy. There are votes still to be counted and legal challenges to be heard, so caveats apply. But the path from the election has shown Joe Biden edging ahead. If confirmed, the toppling of Donald Trump would be momentous. The US would again have a president who cherishes its constitutional laws and freedoms.

It is easy to imprison a putative Biden presidency in qualifications. The polarisation of politics has robbed the US of its political centre. The nativist isolationism of Mr Trump’s term is unlikely to disappear in the face of immense economic challenges and deep social and cultural divides. A Republican party in thrall to populism may well hold on to the Senate.

Sometimes what counts is what doesn’t happen. A Trump defeat would speak to the wreckage avoided as much as the policies promised by Mr Biden. A second term for Mr Trump would be a mandate ratifying the corruption, lies and belligerent unilateralism of the first — a crushing blow to the club of liberal democracies known loosely as the west.

Mr Trump legitimised despots and autocrats. His childlike admiration for Russian president Vladimir Putin advertised contempt for a US-designed global order rooted in the rule of law. Precious little of this international architecture would survive another four years of the same.

Inevitably, the circumstances of a victory for Mr Biden would set the parameters for his presidency. The foreign leaders cheering him on from the rooftops of Europe’s chancelleries — and you could have cut with a knife the anguish when it seemed that Mr Trump was on course to win — cannot expect him to turn back the clock.

The choice for a replacement for the Pax Americana was always going to be between a Hobbesian free-for-all of great power rivalries or a patchwork of alliances and coalitions among democracies supporting an open, liberal system.

America’s friends should be cautious in their expectations of a Biden presidency. US voters did not rush to the polls demanding the president expend more blood and treasure restoring the US as the world’s policeman. Everyone wants out from the Middle East.

Charles Kupchan, the political scientist and foreign policy adviser to former presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, spells out the default position in Isolationism, a compelling history of US foreign policy. Throughout the life of the republic, the default has been closer to isolationist than internationalist. The intensity of the US’s postwar engagement with the world was an exception.

Mr Biden’s foreign policy advisers say that his plans involve spending perhaps four-fifths of his time on domestic policies. It is easy to see why. He would inherit an economy ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, rising jobless totals, stark income inequalities and a fiscal deficit bearing the costs of Mr Trump’s tax cuts for the rich. The nation’s infrastructure is in dire need of refurbishment and the middle classes want a president who keeps his pledge to champion their economic interests.

Allies should not complain. Public confidence in the new president’s domestic agenda would be a prerequisite for re-engagement overseas. Mr Biden understands the value of alliances. He has pledged to return the US to the Paris climate change accord and to the nuclear power agreement with Iran.

No one should expect a rush to rebuild the old order. What’s promised instead is a return of the US as a selective superpower, a convener as much as a leader. Reviving confidence in liberal democracy will require a much more visible effort from the world’s other democracies.

In the circumstances, European leaders need to raise their game well beyond paying more for their own defence. They should be asking what they can do to help Mr Biden restore US faith in internationalism. A trade deal eliminating tariffs and quotas on manufacturers and liberalising trade in agriculture would be a good start. A transatlantic accord to co-operate in global standard-setting for advanced technologies would be another.

A Biden White House could be expected to change the trajectory of American policy. It would promise a chance to repair the fabric of the west. But responsibility for translating opportunity into reality reaches well beyond US shores.

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