Decoding Biden’s presidency, for India and the world

There was a time not long ago when Indian attention was not riveted on the American election results. Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi have drawn India close to the happenings in Washington, together with fawning on prominent Indian-Americans and well-publicised warmth towards American leaders.

Every country is trying to assess if a Biden presidency will be good, bad or neutral. Perhaps Mr. Modi does not know Mr. Biden well, but neither had he met Mr. Trump before Mr. Trump became President. Personal relations must never be over-estimated as a guide to foreign policy, which is best developed on the basis of objective interests. Hostility to a third country cannot constitute a foundation in a world with inconsistent priorities. Mr. Modi might have been prompted by the Indian community in the United States, but his ‘Namaste Trump’ event of February 2020 in Ahmedabad was ill-advised. The Biden administration will forgive but not forget.

Comment | The real significance of the Biden win

No wishing away Trumpism

Despite being world leader in terms of economy, military size and technological prowess, fear and hatred were predominant features of the American elections. Hatred of Republicans and Democrats for each other, fear of what President Trump might do in vindictive destruction during the days before he leaves office, and dread that he might find some pretext not to quit at all. Offensive personal insults degraded the dignity of the process, and hatred of Mr. Trump translated into support for his opponent, even if it was the elder, lacklustre Mr. Biden. Fear caused the record turn-out, with over 78 million voting for Mr. Biden and over 73 million for Mr. Trump. The two parties will suffer fragmentation and internal conflict. Trumpism, still formidably popular as evidenced by the voting figures, will devastate the already diminished liberal and moderate wings of the Republican Party, while Democrats suffer clashes with progressives and centrists accusing each other for the party’s disappointing electoral results.

Of particular discomfort for America’s image, Twitter, Facebook and mainstream TV channels issued warnings on the veracity of Mr. Trump’s messages and his incitement to violence. There is apprehension that before President Biden takes office in January, Mr. Trump will cancel many Obama-era regulations, nobble various agencies, promote his personal financial interests, and issue pardons including pre-emptively for himself against the threat of prosecution for crimes before and during his presidential tenure.

With its President claiming for months that the polls were rigged, the simultaneous appeal of the American government (the U.S Embassy) to West Africa’s Côte d’Ivoire on its presidential election, to “show commitment to the democratic process and the rule of law”, was singularly ironic, and the refusal of the outgoing administration to provide briefings for its successor, adds grist to those who accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy. For decades, the U.S. situated itself as an arbiter for verifying democracy around the world, ignoring its own discrimination against black, Hispanic, native Americans and other minorities that makes it difficult and often impossible for them to vote. One in 11 African American adults is in prison, on probation or parole.

Comment | Trumpism still remains unvanquished

A weakened America

American global dominance has relied on economic, military and cultural power, and a foreign policy that operates on threat and force through its military deployed in nearly 800 bases in approximately 70 countries, and extravagant use of direct, secondary and extra-territorial sanctions which currently afflict an estimated 30 countries and territories. Unilateralism based on presumed exceptionalism masks America’s weakened moral and political authority and loss of confidence in its leadership. The U.S. political system is dominated by powerful corporations and entrenched interests which control politicians for their own interests and not those of the working population. Massive trade deficits reveal that the U.S. is no longer a manufacturing economy, and collapsing social conditions are indicators of deficiencies ranging from health care to civic infrastructure.

India apprehends a lessening of American pressure on China as does Taiwan. Russia fears Mr. Biden would oppose the almost-complete Nord Stream pipeline, reprise his erstwhile campaigns against Russia in Eastern Europe, and that the incoming team of Obama veterans will pursue an aggressive interventionist policy. China fears more acute trade wars and an Obama-era hostile pivot to Asia. Israel and some Gulf states are warning against diminishing pressure on Iran. Venezuela, Iran and Cuba hope for a moderation in Washington’s Trump-era hostility. Europe seeks greater respect and consideration. Already these countries are laying down markers of their expectations.

Comment | Like long COVID, there is long Trump

Biden’s concerns

These fears and hopes may be unfounded. Mr. Biden’s preoccupation will be on his domestic agenda in a country divided down the middle. Half the electorate is seething with discontent stoked by Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden must deal urgently with the novel coronavirus pandemic, the economy and race relations; in his short tenure, he must work for a more equal society though Mr. Trump has packed the Supreme and Federal Courts with reactionary nominees. The 2,497 counties that voted for Mr. Trump generate only 29% of GDP, while 477 counties won by Mr. Biden contribute 70%, revealing the economic divide even as the stock market registers record gains. Mr. Biden is an emollient politician with political skills, but because Trumpism looms so large, much will depend on his relationship with Mitch McConnell, Republican leader in the Senate. The Senate has the right to confirm 1,200 of Mr. Biden’s appointments, endorse or reject treaties, and can frustrate restoration of membership of the World Health Organization, the Climate Change accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and restoring credibility to the World Trade Organization.


The United States, not Britain, is the nation of shopkeepers. American business regards China as a major market and driver of its economic prospects, as do Japan and Australia. Without the impetus, driven for blatant political purposes, of the Trump administration, the future viability of the Quad formation is in doubt. New Delhi should concentrate on building its economy and re-set its external relations, reverting to the recently discarded formula of pluralist multi-alignment.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 5:26:33 AM |

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