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Biden confines his radicalism to the home front

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It is the zebra-shirted guitarist in the background who completes the tableau. A video is doing the rounds that shows Donald Trump taking to post-presidential life with less than, say, Jimmy Carter-ish equanimity. The clip has him on a hotel bandstand, alleging dirty tricks in a now six-month old election, dressed as though a summons to resume his White House duties is not merely possible but imminent.

The Norma Desmond of Palm Beach has at least two consolations. One, unlike the washed-up fantasist in Sunset Boulevard, a comeback is feasible. Betting exchanges favour him as the Republicans’ White House nominee in 2024.

Second, while he awaits that restoration, he can watch a gratifying number of his foreign policies still at work under a new president.

Trump had proposed to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by last Saturday. Joe Biden’s reform has been to push the date back by all of four months. Trump refused to scold Saudi Arabia for its role in the killing of a US resident-journalist and a cruel war in Yemen. Under Biden, the kingdom is nothing like the “pariah” he had promised to make it. Trump took the US out of the Iran nuclear pact. Biden’s revival of it has been slower and more conditional than most had expected.

In all three cases, the Trump line was seen as an unconscionable dereliction: proof of the US as the world’s absentee landlord. In all three, Biden has retained more than he has thrown aside. The continuity implies some blend of bad judgment in the new president and underrated wisdom in the old policies.

Nor do the examples stop there. Biden has not been above a bit of vaccine nationalism. Only after rebukes from his own side did he raise Trump’s cap on refugee admissions. Any rapprochement with Cuba remains mostly theoretical. In Washington, a city that gave its name to a pro-trade consensus, Trump’s taste for autarky was briefly subversive. Biden is now able to propose a Buy American procurement scheme to general rapture. The same bad case for economic protection, a much nicer case-maker: liberals must take solace where they find it.

And none of this touches on the bilateral relationship of the century. Biden’s posture towards China is truer to Trump’s than to Barack Obama’s, and by a margin that must make for awkwardness in catch-up sessions of old boss and deputy. The tariffs are still there. The two navies are still shadow boxing.

Biden’s grievances with China have a moral or at least a philosophic dimension: Trump, at his most anti-Beijing, did not mind its authoritarianism. But that implies more, not fewer, routes to a military showdown under Biden. In his speech to Congress last week, he likened the US presence in the “Indo-Pacific” to what “we do in Nato in Europe”. Cold war allusions have passed from columnist’s trope to the sitting president’s way of perceiving the other superpower. Hopes of a post-Trump detente now rest on — what? — Biden’s vague openness to co-operate in fields of mutual interest.

Trump’s hold over his successor’s worldview is not total. It is likely that Biden will never commit a more profound act than virtually his first: re-signing the Paris climate accord. He is restoring aid to the Palestinians (though not the embassy in Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv). His tonal warmth towards familiar allies, Nato and the very idea of internationalism is welcome, to the extent that tonal anything matters.

It was natural, though, to expect more points of departure. Foreign affairs are where a president really is as powerful as the job’s outward grandeur suggests. Congress is a complication, not a Bermuda Triangle for best laid plans. If Biden wanted a clean rupture with the nationalism of the previous four years, he could be much further along in that project. No doubt his slowness owes something to the Democrats’ often disastrous fear of being seen as soft. (Remember which party started and escalated the Vietnam war.) But the rest of it is an authentic hardening of views on the centre-left over recent years. For a one-term president, Trump changed America’s thinking about the world by an astounding amount. It falls to that world to live with the effects.

This is another reason to hold back on the idea that we are witnessing a Mount Rushmore presidency. The truly momentous US leaders have tended to transform foreign policy. Judged on his early work, Biden aspires merely to adjust it. In the snatches the world sees of him now, his predecessor radiates a tragicomic irrelevance. In the highest affairs of state, he remains unignorable.

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