A Biden administration could join forces with progressive Europe to rebut polarising populism on both sides of the pond.
For nearly four years, the world has witnessed the surreal dysfunction of the Trump presidency—as injured parties of its international relations and as observers of a polarising turn in American domestic politics. This year especially, as the government has failed to manage the pandemic and its attendant crises, the breakdown in the United States’ relationships with, and standing in, the world has also come home to the American people.
The coronavirus has laid bare the shortcomings of the paltry US social-security and healthcare systems, nearly a quarter of a million Americans have died from it, record unemployment and uncountable business failures have consumed working- and middle-class Americans—and all the while the stock market has carried on in relative health.
Growing inequality has effectively resulted in two United States of Americas and the political damage facing American democracy has led some experts and commentators to speculate about a second civil war. The situation is indeed dire but such suggestions are neither realistic nor constructive in an admittedly terrible predicament. The focus should rather be on the inability of right-wing populism—especially of the kind espoused by Donald Trump—to ensure good governance or address the practical needs of citizens in times of crisis, able only as it is to inflame the emotional grievances which divide the country.
Tomorrow the choice facing Americans—to re-elect Trump or elect his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, as well as filling seats in Congress—may not be inspiring but it is promising. Biden has the most progressive policy platform in electable contention in living American political memory and he proposes not the deepening of wounds but serious leadership through tangible policy. In the transatlantic context he would provide a propitious restart for social democracy.
While some progressives are disappointed that Biden won the nomination, he nevertheless has made earnest efforts to unite the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic party, acknowledging that support and input from both sides of its big tent would be necessary to win the presidency, as well as to govern well and effectively. Policy-area ‘unity task forces’ actively integrated the suggestions and perspectives of supporters of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the nomination, delivering a more progressive agenda than might have been developed without the need to unify the party.
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In addition, Biden is attempting to unify the country with the prospect of good governance and practical policy solutions which, as the campaign argues, would ‘build back better’. A Biden administration cannot be a restoration of the status quo ante: events have moved politics beyond that horizon. Proposals for expanding healthcare, strengthening labour and environmental protection and addressing falling education achievement all figure in Biden’s policy platform.
It might not be the most revolutionary platform but neither is it merely incremental. It is potentially realisable—especially if Democrats can keep the House of Representatives and take majority control of the Senate—and it would make a positive impact on those working- and middle-class Americans and residents who need more support than the current administration has been willing or able to offer. Biden has had a long career in Washington, so he also brings an experienced hand to the Resolute Desk in the event of his election.
Challenges are not lacking: the civil service has suffered under Trump’s chaotic administration and Biden will need Democratic majorities in Congress to legislate without serious impediment from the Republican party. And Trump and his campaign are keen to vilify Biden as senile and unfit for office. Yet he has demonstrated not only a compassionate intelligence but a willingness to listen and learn—to acknowledge that conventional wisdom may no longer hold and that the present moment demands creative rethinking of solutions to America’s problems.
US foreign policy
For international observers, or those who focus on America’s engagement with the world, nowhere is this creative thinking more urgently needed than in US foreign policy. This has been disastrous under Trump but it remains generally defined in relationship to something which ceased to exist 30 years ago.
The details of a prospective Biden foreign policy and team are hotly speculated and debated. But while the only people who know for certain what firm and immediate goals the prospective president might have aren’t currently confiding in diplomatic circles, there are clues as to the direction a Biden administration’s foreign policy could take.
Keys to addressing many global problems must first be found at home—this is true for the US, as Biden has acknowledged, but it could also be said of the European Union. The EU needs to be more forceful in combating right-wing populism and extremism in Europe, calling out governments, politicians and policies that limit the rights of large swaths of the population—current protests by women in Poland come to mind as the Polish government attempts to ban abortion completely. The EU’s foreign-policy aspirations are undermined by its ability to act—look at the response to the protests after the election in Belarus. In both Europe and the US, combating the effects of kleptocracy on democracy would be a component of domestic policy almost hawkish in its international implications.
This could be an excellent area for European-American co-operation—creating a re-enlivened transatlantic and international regime for democracy embedded in a rules-based order. It would be an effort to reinvigorate democracy after years of struggle in the face of right-wing populism, rather than a return to democratic expansion in the mould of 1990s foreign policy after the fall of the Berlin wall.
Pivot to Europe
Following the ‘pivot to Asia’ under Barack Obama—when Biden was his vice-president—Biden’s foreign policy implies a pivot to Europe. This would not only restore friends and allies who felt alienated and begin to address the damage done under the Trump administration. The transatlantic relationship is essential to the defence of a democratic, pluralist international order and security.
There is an understanding that the American relationship to Europe is not only about military relations or economic interests but should also be key to addressing so-called ‘soft’ issues which are clearly existential: the climate crisis, this pandemic (and those to come) and standards for labour and social welfare. A new transatlantic trade agreement could not only set trade standards but social and consumer standards too. Overhauling dysfunctional multilateral institutions—the World Health Organization or the World Trade Organization come to mind—would be another potential area for co-operation. Just imagine what could have happened in January 2020 if the US, the EU and China had been honest with each other about the novel coronavirus.
There is only so much a Biden administration alone can do to bring social-democratic policies home to America—and even less that Europe can effect directly in American politics. But Europe has its own social-democratic policy areas which demand attention. The past four years have been a disastrous flirtation with right-wing populism and extremism, in the US and in Europe. This is an opportunity to reimagine the transatlantic partnership beyond militarism and economics and to reject these siren voices on both sides of the Atlantic.
The question remains who Biden’s progressive European interlocutors will be and how well they can work with—hopefully—the next American president.
This is part of a series on US Election 2020 supported by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. The FES is organising a post-election analysis event online on November 4th, ‘Taking stock: the day after a historic election’, at 13.30 EST / 19.30 CET
Knut Dethlefsen serves as the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung representative to the US and Canada. Previously, he led FES offices in Warsaw, Jerusalem and Shanghai and was head of its Asia and Pacific Department in Berlin.