2020 US election: is Biden better for Australia?

By Shannon Jenkins

November 4, 2020

(Image: EPA)

The implications of a Joe Biden victory in the 2020 United States election may benefit Australia in terms of foreign policy, but the economic policy impacts could come as a disadvantage, according to the head of the Australian National University’s international relations department.

ANU Professor Wesley Widmaier told The Mandarin the re-election of Donald Trump would likely see the continuation of a “transformation” of American foreign policy that began when he won the 2016 election.

“There was a real shift in 2016 from post-war internationalism to something which had more market aspects of isolationism — not quite isolationism but there was a withdrawal from playing the traditional active role that America used to play on the world stage, and also a shift from America’s more liberal view of the world,” he said.

Widmaier argued that Australia had liked the Obama Administration’s Pivot to Asia, through which its focus moved away from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific, in response to China’s growing power.

The Trump Administration, on the other hand, has the Quad — an informal partnership between the US, Japan, India and Australia which recently held its second meeting of foreign ministers in Tokyo.

Widmaier argued that Trump’s approach to foreign policy is “not so much in Australia’s interest”.

“If Trump wins again — the adults in the room were kind of gone by the midpoint of his administration — I imagine his own personal stamp on foreign policy would intensify and it’s probably not so good for Australia, because Australia likes American involvement in the region and America playing that balancing role against China,” he said.

If Biden were to be elected, there’d likely be “a more coherent balance of power policy towards China”, Widmaier noted. Similarly, La Trobe University’s Tony Walker recently argued that “Australia should be hoping for a Biden victory on the grounds that a more normal diplomatic environment will enable a reset of our relations with Beijing”.

Read more: Hopes of an improvement in Australia-China relations dashed as Beijing ups the ante

In a report published by the Lowy Institute, the Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright wrote that, while Australia has “handled Trump better than any other liberal democracy”, the uncertainty around whether he will maintain the “regional order” in the Asia Pacific is a concern for Canberra in the event of his reelection.

“If Biden wins, he can be expected to continue to deepen the US alliance with Australia. This is something restorationists and reformers can agree on. Democrats, in particular, feel that there is much to learn from Canberra when it comes to tackling political interference. They are also keen to deepen relations between democracies in Europe and Asia, and Australia will play a key role in that effort,” Wright wrote.

However, a Biden win won’t mean the US will revert to Obama-era policies, Widmaier said.

“If Biden comes into power there can’t be a clean reboot. Things have changed over the past four years and sequence matters and history matters,” he said.

“In terms of foreign policy … [we’ll see] a return to the Pivot or a return to balancing, things like that, which are probably good for Australia. But in terms of economic policy, it’s not a reset.

“Biden is in favour of Buy American, even Obama was in favour of Buy American. And economic statecraft, geoeconomics, call it what you will, is going to be an intensifying problem for Australia, because Trump was responding to the hollowing out of the American middle class, and the pressures that led to Trump are still going to be there for Biden.”

Widmaier said Australia will see, even under Biden, less of that traditional American commitment to free trade, noting that “America is liberal but it’s self-interested”.

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