The Democrats and America’s Place in the World
By Richard Maude, Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute and Executive Director, Policy, Asia Society Australia
The last men standing for the Democratic presidential nomination have a few things in common – and some big differences.
“It’s a rescue mission”
The Democratic presidential contest unfolding in America presents the party of modern American liberalism with a stark choice between two utterly different candidates.
This is a choice between the high-taxing, radically progressive climate change, health and education policies of Senator Bernie Sanders and the centrist approaches of former Vice President Joe Biden. The choice is at once about who has the best chance of beating President Trump in November’s election and about the future shape of America.
It would be a mistake to view the contest as simply one over domestic economic and social policies, even those these dominate the campaign. America’s place in the world is also up for grabs. The voters have yet to have their say, but there is potentially much at stake for Australia and the Indo-Pacific.
The centrist and progressive camps of the Democratic Party critique US foreign policy under Trump in broadly similar terms. They argue he has alienated allies, emboldened autocrats, left American diplomacy in tatters and “trashed” the sources of US soft power abroad, particularly its ability to lead on the basis of “American values”.
Withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement and the nuclear deal with Iran has damaged US credibility and weakened US global leadership. Trump has confronted China without effectively competing with it, and his “clumsy” trade war has hurt American farmers and manufacturers.
Joe Biden argues things have gotten so bad US foreign policy needs “rescuing” more than it does re-thinking.
So much then for what the Democratic Party candidates stand against. What do they stand for?
Biden says he will take “decisive steps” to renew America’s “core values” so that the US can lead by the power of example. Sanders also calls for a foreign policy that “clarifies our commitment to democratic values both at home and abroad”. Liberty, accountability and the rule of law are the starting points. These foundation stones of American democracy are to be restored at home and asserted abroad, including by standing up to authoritarian regimes like China and Russia.
Both Biden and Sanders endorse a green “new deal” – a “national mobilisation” against climate change covering emissions, investment in technology, infrastructure and economic and social adjustment packages. The candidates have pledged to re-join the Paris agreement. Biden has committed to a net zero emissions by 2050 target and Sanders argues for “complete decarbonisation” by that date.
There are some important differences in the detail of these climate change policies, including on nuclear power, gas and the respective roles of government and the private sector, as this useful summary shows. Even so, the shared ambition on climate change across the progressive-centrist divide is palpable. Australia will be on notice if the Democrats win the Presidential election.
Elsewhere, there are promises to restore America’s regard for allies and close partners. Both progressive and centrists want to get the US out of the “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East, albeit with some variations on how a drawdown should be achieved and what should be left behind to focus on counter-terrorism. Moreover, America should learn from the strategic and moral disaster of the Iraq intervention: military force should be the last option, reserved for direct threats to America or to avert mass atrocities, for example. Diplomacy is to be privileged.
Another striking feature of the Democratic primaries is the strong emphasis on working families and the US middle class. This reflects now mainstream concerns about the negative effects of globalisation, particularly the swathe cut through US manufacturing in recent decades by trade competition and automation. Nor can any Democratic Party candidate afford to cede this political ground to President Trump’s brilliant ability to tap into American discontent.
Sanders sees globalisation as the enemy and free trade agreements as a problem, not an opportunity – just one part of an overall economic model that has to be radically overturned to reduce inequality and drive, as he sees it, fairer and more sustainable economic growth. But even Biden and his fellow centrists won’t contemplate new trade deals without significant conditionality.
Some Democratic Party foreign policy thinkers go further. Jennifer Harris and Jake Sullivan, for example, argue that America’s foreign policy establishment needs to contribute a geopolitical perspective to the debate on what should follow economic “neoliberalism”.
This is not just about re-thinking the net effects of free trade, but looking afresh at other economic policy approaches once banished under the Washington Consensus, like industry policy, for example. Harris and Sullivan argue US firms will continue to lose ground to China if Washington relies solely on private sector research and development. Some on the Republican side of US politics make the same arguments – a remarkable shift away from the primacy of free markets and private enterprise.
Not much has been said yet on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, with its hard to predict short and long-term effects on the global economy and geopolitics. It seems highly likely, however, that whoever wins the Presidential election will be re-thinking what US resilience means in a hyper-connected world, and dealing with a set of challenges and priorities not foreseen when the campaign began in earnest.
The campaign focus on domestic issues tends to mute somewhat the differences between Democratic progressives and centrists on foreign policy. But these exist and are important. Biden is a known quantity on foreign policy. Sanders decidedly is not.
Sanders wants to cut the US defence budget at a time when China’s military is closing the capability gap. He would set a much higher bar for the deployment of military force. He may trade off balancing China’s power in the Indo-Pacific for more ambition from Beijing on climate change. His opposition to free trade surpasses even that of President Trump. Inevitably, a highly progressive domestic agenda would come to shape other aspects of US foreign policy. Astute observers of US politics suggest that in office Sanders could prove as revolutionary as Trump has been when it comes to America’s place in the world and how it prosecutes its interests globally.
In forthcoming posts, we explore what these differences might mean for Australia’s interests in the Indo-Pacific.
The Democrats and China: "Our values are not a bargaining chip"
Throughout the Democratic Party primaries, the candidates have been rhetorically tough on China, especially its hardening authoritarianism, human rights violations and trade practices, in keeping with the long winter of American discontent with Beijing. Equally, both Biden and Sanders argue the United States must find space to cooperate with China where interests align, notably on climate change.
“Cooperate where we can, push back where we must” is fine so far as it goes, but falls a long way short of a comprehensive strategy – progressive or centrist – to deal with a peer competitor like no other the United States has faced. We are left largely guessing as to how the multi-dimensional challenges posed by China will be met.
Some consequential questions are worth considering. First, would competition with China continue to drive American grand strategy under a Democratic Party president?
The Trump Administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) marked a decisive shift from nearly two decades of focus on terrorism and other transnational threats towards state-to-state competition with China and Russia. The NSS commits the United States to “compete with all tools of national power to ensure that regions of the world are not dominated by one power”. In the Indo-Pacific, America’s goal is to “uphold a regional order respectful of sovereignty”.
The roll out of a plan to implement the NSS has been patchy and President Trump’s focus on trade deficits and ambivalence about alliances significantly undercut its objectives. Even so, renewed US commitment to compete with China is welcomed by Australia, Japan and India and, more quietly, by others such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Even those Asian nations who worry about being caught in the middle of great power competition want the US to balance China’s power in the Indo-Pacific.
If he made it to the White House, Biden would almost certainly persist with an Indo-Pacific strategy that puts competition with China at its heart and which invests in US allies and partners. There is no shortage of ideas in Washington on how to do this more effectively. We could also expect continued strong support for Taiwan (even Sanders, whose Congressional record on Taiwan is mixed, appears prepared to consider military force if China were to attack Taiwan).
Democratic Party centrists, at least, see the need for US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific to be backed by hard power in the form of a US military able to deter aggression. They point also to the ultimate source of US power – the economy - arguing America must out-innovate and out-compete China.
The outlook under a Sanders presidency would be much less clear. Sanders has been comfortable confronting China when the subject is values but has had little to say about geopolitical competition.
Sanders’ advisers have expressed doubts about the long-term costs of sustaining US alliances, including in Asia. And Sanders himself has wondered aloud whether US-China competition could be softened in order to focus on the “common enemy” of climate change. Such a trade-off would give China enormous leverage over the United States in the Indo-Pacific. The two issues do not need to be linked: renewed US engagement in the Paris Agreement is the place to push Beijing harder on emissions reductions.
In office, would Sanders have the interest and international focus for an immensely hard, drawn out struggle over global power and influence with China? Would his approach to defence policy and unwillingness to use force sustain American deterrence against rivals like China and Russia?
It’s too early to say if any of this would amount to the United States abandoning any efforts to balance China’s power in the Indo-Pacific (“retrenchment”, as the strategists call it), under a Sanders presidency, but the possibility hangs in the air. This would be a disastrous turn of events for Australia and Asia, hastening the arrival of a Chinese sphere of interest in which our ability to protect our sovereignty and the independence of our decision-making is likely to be significantly weakened.
Second, what might happen to the complex intertwining of the American and Chinese economies under a Democratic president?
The centrists are probably not instinctively in favour of managed trade outcomes, but it’s hard to see any Democratic Party candidate walking away from the “phase one” deal negotiated by the Trump Administration, with its massive commitments to buy US goods and commodities (assuming China doesn’t scrap the deal – a good test for a new President – because of the coronavirus).
A Democratic Party president would continue to battle Beijing on long-standing grievances like forced technology transfer, protection of intellectual property and subsidies for state-owned enterprises. Trump’s “phase one” deal did not address all of these issues. Enforcement of others will remain a challenge.
We could also expect some partial de-coupling to continue, driven by a combination of economic and security factors. Sanders could be even harder on China on trade than Trump: he has made it clear he wants to re-write US trade policies so they favour American workers and to bring more manufacturing jobs back to America.
The COVID-19 pandemic will amplify the voices of those calling for the United States to reduce its dependency on China. China won’t suddenly stop being a major global manufacturing hub. Shifting production is expensive and China still has some significant advantages, including an immense and readily deployable labour force. But the pandemic is likely to accelerate an existing trend towards some diversification of supply chains and the shifting of production by US companies closer to other global markets. In some industries, such as the production of essential medicines, change is likely to be faster and more substantial.
Competition over technology will also continue to drive partial decoupling. Any future Democratic president, for example, is likely to want and/or face significant pressure to keep Chinese companies out of US critical infrastructure like America’s 5G networks.
CPTPP: "The trade agreement America loves to hate"
The fate of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) symbolises, perhaps more than any other large trade agreement, the collapse in support for free trade in the American polity, concerns now so deep that they comprehensively overshadow arguments that the CTPP could be an important component of an integrated American strategy to balance China’s power in the Indo-Pacific.
President Trump signed the executive order withdrawing the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP – as it was then known) on just his third day in office, after variously describing the agreement as a “bad, bad deal”, a “disaster” and a “rape of the country”.
Australia and Japan scrambled to save the deal, and the CPTPP was subsequently signed by 11 Indo-Pacific countries in 2018. To date it has been ratified by Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam. The signatory countries encompass some 500 million people and account for 13 percent of world GDP and 14 percent of world trade.
Where do the Democratic Party candidates stand?
Sanders flat out rejects the possibility the US would ever re-join the agreement – “under no circumstances”. He puts the CPTPP in a basket with other major trade agreements like NAFTA, which he says have resulted in “massive job losses in the United States and the shutting down of tens of thousands of factories”.
Democratic Party centrists strike a more pragmatic tone. Biden says the “TPP wasn’t perfect but the idea was a good one”. But he has also been clear he would not join the agreement in its current form. The centrists seek more labour and environmental protections, stronger intellectual property disciplines and, vaguely, clearer benefits for American workers. Biden goes further by pledging there would be no new trade deals were he to be elected until “we have invested in Americans and equipped them to succeed in the global economy”.
Renegotiating the agreement with all its parties to satisfy these conditions would be tortuous, if it is possible at all. How much does this matter? US economic engagement in the region is already immense and its leading companies prominent in the economic landscape. Still, for Australia and some of its like-minded partners in Asia, particularly Japan, the CPTPP made good sense.
First, the CPTPP is an exercise in rule-making by like-minded countries at a time when China is seeking more often to shape global rules to its advantage. The CTPP sets strong standards in areas important to modern economic activity, such as competition policy, digital trade, investment, and intellectual property rights.
Second, the agreement promotes open and inclusive economic regionalism. This is a partial hedge against the possibility of a narrower East Asian free trade area forming around China.
Third, the agreement was a way of reinforcing US economic engagement and integration with Asia, in part to help balance the immense gravitational pull of China’s economy.
For these reasons, withdrawal from the TPP left a hole in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy. “America First” is not an economic narrative that wins friends at a time of geopolitical contest. Plurilateral trade agreements in Asia are not just about setting rules and facilitating trade and investment – they are also about having a place in the region’s architecture.
North Korea: "No hot dish for the dictator"
Decades of US efforts to roll back North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs have foundered repeatedly on DPRK paranoia and intransigence. The Trump Administration offers supreme leader Kim Jong-un a grand bargain – denuclearisation in return for sanctions relief and transformational economic opportunity – but has made no headway.
The Democratic candidates talk in general terms of coordinated diplomatic campaigns and working with partners, none of which has made a jot of difference in the past. More interestingly, both Biden and Sanders seem willing to countenance an interim deal in which limited or “targeted” sanctions relief would be offered in return for some verifiable steps towards denuclearisation, preferably ones that would remove North Korea’s ability to target continental United States.
This is fine in principle but, as the talks under the Trump Administration demonstrate, North Korea’s idea of a great deal is full sanctions relief in return for not very much denuclearisation at all. Moreover, seasoned North Korea experts believe there is simply no prospect of the DPRK ever giving up the entirety of its nuclear program, which it regards as central to regime survival.
That doesn’t mean a partial deal, if it could be achieved, isn’t worth considering. Taking North Korean long-range missiles off the table and capping the nuclear program, for example, could reduce the risk of a dangerous miscalculation with the United States. Such a deal would, of course, leave neighbours South Korea and Japan still sitting unhappily under the threat of North Korea’s short and medium range, nuclear capable missiles.
Where then, would this leave policy on North Korea under a Democratic president? The starting point is likely to be more diplomacy in an attempt to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table. Sanders has said he is prepared to continue Trump’s personal diplomacy with Kim Jong-un, something Biden has ruled out.
It’s hard, though, to see how yet another round of talks can succeed where many others before have failed. Pre-emptive US military strikes would carry immense risks and would run counter to the candidates’ emphasis on restraint in the US of military force: they are unlikely to be countenanced short of a real and imminent threat to America or its allies.
The alternative might be for a Democratic President to accept the reality of a nuclear North Korea, at least for the foreseeable future, and double down on a tough policy of sanctions, economic isolation and deterrence.
This would require strict enforcement of existing UN security council sanctions, especially in Asia, at a time when Chinese enthusiasm for clamping down on the illegal oil and coal trade and other sanction-busting activities is waning. But assuming diplomacy fails again, and COVID-19 does not change the game somehow, for Australia such an approach is likely to represent the least worst approach to one of Asia’s most intractable security challenges.
Richard Maude is a Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute and Executive Director, Policy at Asia Society Australia.
An edited version of the piece appeared in three parts on the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter.
- The Democrats and America's place in the world: "A rescue mission" on 11 March 2020
- The Democrats and China: "Our values are not a bargaining chip" on 12 March 2020
- The Democrats on trade and North Korea: "No hot dish for the dictator" on 13 March 2020
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