For America to lead again, Joe Biden must heal domestic fractures and address misgivings about globalisation
- The US cannot withdraw from global leadership and refuse to allow anyone else to take its place. If it wants to reclaim and retain its position, it must tackle inequality and the costs of globalisation – or risk a second Trump
US President-elect Joe Biden’s impending inauguration has raised hopes that his administration will “make America lead again”. If the United States is to transform its rivalry with China into constructive competition, this is the right approach.
But whether Biden can restore and sustain America’s global leadership depends on how effectively he mends domestic fractures and addresses deep-seated misgivings about globalisation held by segments of the US electorate.
These pledges point to a vision of the US back at the head of the liberal international order, a position from which it can more effectively compete – and cooperate – with China. But there is good reason to believe that many Americans do not want their country to lead again.
But Trump received more than 74 million – the second-highest number on record – and increased his share across minority groups, compared to 2016. This is despite an unprecedented parade of scandals and a disastrously mismanaged pandemic.
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As a political outsider, Trump was able to exploit resentment of the political establishment, hack the Republican apparatus, and package himself as a champion of the disaffected.
The winners include big companies that shifted their manufacturing to cheaper locations, thereby considerably expanding their profit margins, and the developing economies – especially China – to which they moved. The losers include millions of American manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs. Mix in America’s legacy of racism and the spread of fake news via social media, and the result is flammable.
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For many US policymakers, this was unacceptable: if the US bears the costs of sustaining a world order, they believe, it should get to ensure that its interests come first.
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This means that, if the US is to reclaim the leadership position that will enable it to compete constructively with China – and retain it for more than an election cycle – the Biden administration must tackle inequality and the costs that globalisation has brought.
Otherwise, Trump – or, worse, a more competent version of Trump – could well recapture the presidency in 2024 or 2028, and reverse whatever progress the Biden administration makes in the coming term.
Yuen Yuen Ang, professor of political science at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, is the author of How China Escaped the Poverty Trap and China’s Gilded Age. Copyright: Project Syndicate