With president-elect Biden due to be sworn in today, countries around the world will be wondering whether the United States will attempt to reclaim the mantle of global leadership. With the world embroiled in international crises, be it the global pandemic, economic crisis, or global warming, the ‘Free World’ seems long in need of its leader.
Biden says he aims to re-engage in multilateralism, harking back to the Obama-era days. But the world has changed since the four years the former president has left office. Populism is on the rise, and illiberal powers are emboldened after Trump’s neglect of the multilateral order.
Critics are rightly skeptical over whether the US can retain its traditional place at the forefront of the world order, an image that has tarnished since the Cold War days. American soft power – characterised by liberal democracy, human rights, and free market economics – has further deteriorated under Trump for two reasons.
Trump’s repudiation of these values has plunged America into various domestic crises. Trump also discarded multilateral frameworks, preferring to go at it alone under his ‘America First’ foreign policy. Biden will face these two challenges – domestic and international – on his mission to reclaim America’s title, these challenges present implications for Thailand to consider.
Firstly, Biden must get America’s own house in order, before turning his focus on foreign policy. The president-elect rightly prioritises myriad challenges at home, the most pressing of which are handling healthcare in a pandemic, dismantling systemic racism, and revitalising the US economy after the pandemic. Four years under Trump revealed institutional weaknesses and entrenched political polarisation, which marked and altered the American image worldwide– perhaps irreparably so. When such issues remain unresolved, it becomes increasingly difficult for the US to command respect on the world stage.
This is why the storming of the US Capitol reverberated worldwide, as allies watched in horror and enemies watched in glee at the hostile assault on American democracy by its own people, incited by its own president. Indeed, the irony of the title ‘Leader of the Free World’ is not lost on anyone. The Venezuelan government posted a communiqué stating that “the United States is experiencing what it has generated in other countries with its policies of aggression”; Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny tweeted that Punitists are cheering the chaos at the United States; and Chinese state media mocked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling the fiasco at the Capitol “a beautiful sight to behold” – mimicking the words she once used to describe the protests in Hong Kong.
In an unparalleled event, American diplomats filed two dissent cables following the US Capitol insurrection, as reported by The Diplomat. The banana republic-like scenes that unfolded at the heart of government are such that American promotion (or imposition, depending on your point of view) of democracy abroad is severely hampered. In other words, it will be very difficult for the US to instil democratic values on a wide range of issues, ranging from Hong Kong’s security law to China’s treatment of the Uighurs.
More crucially for Thais, the effect of the US diplomatic setback also extends to the human rights situation at home. The president-elect may not appear to cosy up with autocrats and illiberal leaders unlike the outgoing president, but any calls the new administration may make for Thailand to respect the democratic process will have little effect. One needs only to point to Trump supporters’ complete desecration of US democracy to call the US a hypocrite. Any rebuke of human rights crackdowns in Thailand can be sharply retorted with Trump’s order to tear-gas Black Lives Matters protesters for a photo-op.
While Biden is busy dealing with numerous domestic political issues, the international community will not wait. Allies have lost confidence in US leadership over the last four years. Trump has simply been absent through global crises and multilateral cooperation: regarding global warming, Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement; in the midst of a pandemic, he withdrew the US from the World Health Organization; on security, he disregarded arms control agreements and remained silent or in denial of cyberattacks. These allies will find other ways to consolidate, safeguard, and advance their national interests.
On the other hand, Putin has become more brazen under Trump, having no qualms in poisoning his opponents on foreign soil or hacking into US systems. North Korea has recently unveiled a new submarine missile at a Workers’ Party Congress. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran led the latter to enrich more uranium at higher levels and has recently begun installing equipment to produce uranium metal.
Meanwhile, Biden also faces a stronger China, who has checked off a laundry list of achievements over the past few years. Last year, Beijing announced success in the enormous feat of total eradication of extreme poverty in the country. Despite its initial failure to contain the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, its ensuing effective and decisive lockdown measures have yielded fruit. While the Western world’s responses to the virus founders, China returned its focus onto the economy. It has expanded its Belt and Road Initiative, advanced cutting-edge technology, and recently signed an investment deal with the European Union. It promoted its soft and sharp power through ‘Mask Diplomacy’, donating medical aid, supplies and equipment to countries abroad to combat the pandemic. By doing so, China won over states in critical need but were alienated by a bureaucratic European Union or an isolationist America. On the security front, it has expanded its naval base in the South China Sea, disputed its borders with India, and exerted greater domestic repression particularly against the Uighurs and Hong Kong pro-democracy dissidents.
Should Biden’s foreign policy echo the Obama administration’s Pivot to Asia, Thailand will remain caught in the middle of these two superpowers. As a middle power, our traditional foreign policy approach has been to ‘bend like a bamboo in the wind’ – that is, remain flexible and pragmatic – in order to survive: on one hand, we are the longest-standing ally of the United States in the region; on the other, we are also a close friend of China. However, this flexible approach will be increasingly difficult to maintain. It is even more so given Thailand’s reliance on China, especially in our pre-COVID tourism sector.
As such, there are two further things Thailand should keep in mind other than our aforementioned human rights situation. Firstly, we must reduce our reliance on China in order to build resilience to our economy and to maintain bamboo diplomacy. In this view, the coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining– it forced a reset in our tourist and export-oriented economy, and the government’s Special Tourist Visa scheme remains necessarily limited especially with the second domestic outbreak. While we prop the tourism sector back on its feet, we must also look for ways to continue expanding and diversifying our markets. This is especially for our areas of expertise, such as rice production. Furthermore, in the midst of an acceleration of technological expansion due to the pandemic and the US-China tech war, we must strengthen our technological capacities.
Secondly, Thailand must be ready for US re-commitment to engage in the multilateral and regional order to counter Chinese influence, through frameworks such as the US-Mekong Partnership or free trade agreements. With regards to the latter point, China and Thailand have recently signed the The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the largest free trade agreement in the world comprising ASEAN states and its major trading partners– with the US conspicuously absent. Thailand has also set its sights on joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), an agreement that evolved following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just days after signing RCEP, China announced its intention to also join the pact. With this in mind, Biden may seek to also join the CPTPP to avoid exclusion in another key regional framework, should he be able to garner enough Congressional support.
Trump’s legacy will continue to be felt on many issues throughout America. His role – or lack thereof – in foreign policy is no exception. With declining US soft power and a rising China, how much damage control Biden can do to US foreign relations after Trump leaves office remains to be seen. Whether or not America remains the leader of the free world, its response to these challenges in the next four years will create an impact that countries around the world, including Thailand, will still have to reckon with.