H I G H L I G H T S
• Biden's First Fortnight
• Foreign Policy Signals
• American Techno-Politik
• World Approves
• Democratic Blues
• Indians Fund Indians
Biden's First Fortnight
Joe Biden officially became the 46th President of the United States on January 20. His inaugural address, coming in the wake of the January 6th mob attack on the Capitol Building, stressed the need for unity in his deeply divided country. The new administration is faced with multiple pressing challenges. The most important is the continuing Covid-19 pandemic which has ravaged the US more than any other country with nearly 26 million cases, over 430,000 deaths and about 160,000 new cases a day. Biden began his presidency by revoking over a dozen executive orders passed by Trump and issuing over two dozen of his own on an array of issues ranging from the Paris climate treaty, working rights for H1-B visa holder spouses, racial inequality, and stopping oil and gas leases on federal land.
The US Congress began moving to impeach Trump for inciting protesters who stormed the Capital in a quixotic attempt to overturn the election results. The Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives voted for impeachment, making Trump the first US president to be so censured twice. But the move looks set to founder when the Senate eventually votes for a conviction. This requires a minimum of 17 Republican senators to vote against Trump, something that would require a small miracle to take place. An indirect Senate vote on the constitutionality of the impeachment process only garnered five Republican votes, a measure of Trump’s continuing grip over the base of his party.
Republican leaders, after some assertiveness against Trump, have begun seeking to mend fences with him. Biden’s legitimacy continues to be held in question by most Republican voters. Polls show nearly two-thirds of Republicans question November’s election results with even 42% of independents raising questions as well. Biden has not invested much in the impeachment process, feeling the Congress should get on with urgent legislative tasks. His chief of staff, Ron Klain, released a memo outlining four major crises that the new administration has to tackle: “The COVID-19 crisis, the resulting economic crisis, the climate crisis, and a racial equity crisis.” The new president will be helped by relatively low expectations: only half of the US believes he has a chance of uniting the country.
The indications are that the Biden administration will move decisively leftward when it comes to domestic policies, possibly the most left the country has moved since the Great Society of Lyndon Baines Johnson. For example, the new president has embraced government-based health insurance and halted almost all undocumented immigration deportations – both policies that President Barack Obama felt went too far. Biden has also indicated he will stress livelihoods over the size of the fiscal deficit, abandoning the financial conservativeness of Bill Clinton. Biden’s call for tax-supported abortions, his $ 2 trillion green energy push and plans to reduce defence spending are much more liberal than stances he took as a senator.
Biden seems to have moved leftward during the campaign because of the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. Also the foreign policy challenge of China requires a greater and more intrusive role for the state. “In the Biden administration, there is one clear, dominant ideological view — left of Obama in 2016, not as left as [Elizabeth] Warren now,” as one analysis noted. He has already sent a strong signal in choosing the most demographically and racially diverse cabinet and senior administration in US history.
Foreign Policy Signals
Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, in their nomination hearings, spoke at length about Asia and China. Blinken said, “There is no doubt [China] poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state to the United States.” He also said the Trump administration was “right in taking a tougher approach to China” and Trump’s “basic principle was the right one” but that he differed on the tactics need to take on China. He also said “genocide” was the right description of Beijing’s treatment of the Uighurs. He seemed to have avoided attacking the Chinese Communist Party, a common target of his predecessor Mike Pompeo.
Austin labelled China the major “pacing threat” facing the US. He promised a “laser-like focus” on retaining the US’s competitive edge over China’s military and ensuring military parity between the two “never happens.” The defence secretary avoided any change to the US’s “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, iterating the standard policy of ensuring Taiwan can defend itself. In the Pentagon, China hand Ely Ratner will be special assistant to the secretary of defence, while Michael Chase will be deputy assistant secretary (China) both of whom are seen as relatively hawkish. Kelly Magsamen, another Asia hand, will be Austin’s chief of staff. Interestingly, concerns about China were also mentioned by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines during their nomination hearings, indicating a possible “whole of government” approach to China by the Biden administration.
Yet there is an overall expectation of a Biden administration that will practice a minimalist foreign policy, compensating for its focus on domestic issues with a lot of coalition and alliance building. Also, it will seek to practice a foreign policy that connects with the interests of middle-class Americans rather than seek to lay out grand strategies and project members of its team as statesmen.
Biden’s National Security Council is largely in place, with Jake Sullivan in charge. The departments dealing with the Indo-Pacific are the most important insofar as India is concerned. Kurt Campbell has been appointed Indo-Pacific Coordinator, a new position that encompasses both East and South Asia. The China team is headed by Laura Rosenberger, but includes Rush Doshi and Julian Gewirtz. The South Asia desk is headed by AlbrightStonebridge partner Sumona Guha. Interestingly, the Russia and Central Asia directorate will also be brought under the Indo-Pacific. The NSC has already begun to reflect this administrative change with the staff strength of the Asia directorates being beefed up and the West Asian sections being downsized.
Before the election, Sullivan wrote and spoke extensively about the post-Trump foreign policy that he believes the US needs. He has been nuanced on China. He once wrote the “ ‘responsible stakeholder’ consensus in the American strategic community, premised on integrating China into a US-led order, has come apart.” However, the emerging theme of “strategic competition” may be a move too far. “It has been disorienting to watch the pendulum swing so fast from a benign view of China to a dark one.”
He stresses multilateral cooperation is a must, “required to tackle climate change, pandemic disease, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and the risk of another global economic crisis.” When it comes to collective action, “the motivating theory for many in the foreign policy community may actually be closer to classical republicanism—with its emphasis on institutions, interdependence, and the rule of law—than to classical liberalism.”
Campbell’s new position has elicited considerable interest in Washington. In his pre-election writings, he outlined a view that the Indo Pacific required a balance of power, an order the region’s states recognize as legitimate, and a coalition to address China’s challenge to both. “Such an approach can ensure the Indo-Pacific’s future is characterized by balance and twenty-first-century openness rather than hegemony and nineteenth-century spheres of influence.” US policy should seek to “modernize and strengthen” parts of the present system. He argues for a military response that follows the same asymmetric capabilities being adopted by Beijing, a greater dispersion of US forces across Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, and a wider range of “military and intelligence partnerships between regional states.” On the economic side of the coin, the Indo-Pacific must also “revolve around supply chains, standards, investment regimes, and trade agreements.” While the US will re-shore sensitive industries and pursue a “managed decoupling” from China, it has to reassure regional states that “moving supply chains out of China will often mean shifting them to other local economies.”
Campbell envisages a future of many coalitions in trade, technology, supply chains, standards and values – the latter similar to the “Democracy-10” that will meet at the G-7 summit in London and includes India. In the military realm, he says an expansion of the Quad makes sense while infrastructure investment could be done with Japan and India. He also posited a human rights coalition built around those countries which had openly criticized China over Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Campbell elsewhere says that if “Washington is to reckon with China’s predatory economic practices,” the US may need an “office that can consolidate information on industrial capacity, supply chains, economic bottlenecks, and import dependence.”
Laura Rosenberger, the NSC’s Senior Director for China, has written democracies need to understand “their values are their principal competitive advantage, and to use them as the source of strength.” She argued the contest between “democracies and autocracies” takes place in the” political, economic, technological, and information spaces,” and less and less in the military sphere.
A running theme among the Biden appointments is the belief a global technological contest between democracies and autocracies is unfolding. The underlying difference is the autocracies’ use of new digital technologies to place their populations under unprecedented surveillance and strongly limit space for protest and dissidence. China and, to a lesser extent, Russia are the key digital dictatorships and they are now seeking to export their model. Blinken, during his secretary of state nomination hearings, spoke of “an increasing divide between techno democracies and techno autocracies.” Which of these two competing groups of countries define how technology is used in the world “will go a long way toward shaping the next decades.”
Andrea Kendall-Taylor, the NSC senior Director for Russia and Central Asia, has been commented extensively on this issue. In one article she discussed how led by China “today’s digital autocracies are using technology—the Internet, social media, artificial intelligence (AI)—to supercharge long-standing authoritarian survival tactics.” In particular, the Chinese are using the digital dark arts to counter “the most significant threat” to authoritarianism today: mass anti-government protests. Such autocracies have grown much more durable over time. She has noted the “Chinese Communist Party collects an incredible amount of data on individuals and businesses” and then uses AI to analyze this information “to set the parameters of acceptable behaviour and improve citizen control.” The US response must become the world leader in AI and shape global norms so that such technologies are deployed in line with democratic values. She has also argued that in this and other issues the US should begin treating Russia and China as being a combined geopolitical entity.
The new deputy secretary of defence, Kathleen Hicks, similarly has a past record stressing the importance of treating technology in a more holistic, more strategic manner. For example, she argues the US may need to adopt a “civil-military fusion” for its technological development, one where the state plays a larger role in terms of funding and direction. The US should consider “embracing a top-down approach to developing cutting-edge technologies with military applications” not dissimilar to what China practices today. “Direct federal investment is vital to progress in quantum computing, synthetic biology, semiconductors, and military-use artificial intelligence.” The Pentagon needs to restructure how it handles technological development, including streamlining budgeting and promoting innovation. She also questioned the Trump administration’s decision to clamp down on visas for Chinese students and researchers who have no military or intelligence ties as this would only “undermine US competitiveness.”
More than 60% of respondents in France, Mexico, India, and Indonesia said they approved of Biden as the new US president. Germany, a country that received more criticism than most from Donald Trump, gave the US president a 73% approval ratings. Damagingly for Biden and his domestic policy focus is that only half of his fellow Americans expressed approval for him. One saving grace: Trump approval rating was down to 34% when he left office. The country that has the lowest view of Biden? Russia, with a 23% approval rating.
The Democratic Party assumed the rising numbers of minorities and increased urbanisation would ensure a permanent majority among the US electorate. This was confirmed by its consistent edge over the Republicans in the popular vote. Only the electoral college sometimes thwarted its candidates. There was an assumption Trump’s embrace of white supremacy and open racism would only accelerate this process. All of this was rudely shaken up by the 2020 elections.
Trump increased support among black men and Hispanic voters in key swing states, while maintaining a grip on white non-college educated voters. The Democratic Party saw its majority in the House of Representatives shrink sharply. The November polls also saw the disappearance of split-ticket voting, a problem for Democratic legislators in Trump-friendly states. The Democratic Party, as one analyst noted, needs to win 54% of the popular vote for successive election cycles to ensure control of the legislative process.
A part of the Democratic Party’s problem lies in the other wing of its social base – college-educated urban white liberals. Concentrated in big cities, the media and institutions they depend on are out of touch with the rest of the country. Media coverage and even some polling missed out on the movement among chunks of the Hispanic voters towards Trump, despite warnings from Latino leaders. Even the white rural vote surge in favour of Trump was underestimated. “The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” says David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert who was part of the Barack Obama 2012 campaign.
The US media matrix is being further distorted with Trump supporters feeling the rightwing Fox News channel is too moderate while mainstream liberal outlets like the New York Times are seen insufficiently woke by the liberal-left. In the US, Twitter has been dubbed a “mass reality distortion field” for liberals while Facebook places a similar role among conservatives. YouTube is ecumenical in providing a biased canvas for both sides. Videos endorsing election fraud were viewed 138 million times during the first full week of November on YouTube.
Thanks to the controversies surrounding the last US elections there are currently 106 pending bills across 28 states restricting access to voting, according to the Brennan Center. Last year, there were only 35 such bills. More than a third of the bills sought to restrict voting by mail, a voting method that Republicans have treated with suspicion despite the lack of any evidence of fraud. Fourteen proposals are pending in Pennsylvania, the largest of any state. Seven bills seek to limit opportunities for election day registration. On the bright side, there are 406 bills in 35 states that sought to expand voting access with New York and Texas each having 50 such proposals.
Indians Fund Indians
South Asian political candidates in the US, at the start of their careers, depend heavily on raising funds from their community. Such funding does not guarantee success but it reflects the newness of the South Asian community and their lack of largescale institutional networks in the country. South Asians, mostly Indians, have become increasingly active in US politics: only two candidates ran in 2000 while 40 ran in the past two election cycles. Most of the candidates tend to be Democrats. Fivethirtyeight.com analysis indicates nearly 25% of the money donated by Americans with South Asian names was given to South Asian-origin candidates.
Some well-known Indian-American politicians like Ro Khanna, Ami Bera and Pramila Jayapal have become less dependent on money from their community over time. While they all hail from the liberal state of California, this funding trend may explain why some of them are openly more critical of the Indian government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is popular with at least half of Indian-Americans. Legislators who are dependent on Indian-American funding tend to be more willing to share platforms with rightwing Hindu activists. Raja Krishnamoorthi, though a Democrat, is among this category with 54% of his election funding coming from Indian-Americans – a dependency that is increasing. One unsuccessful Republican candidate, Bangar Reddy Aaloori, in Texas was notable for receiving all of his funding from Indian-Americans.
(The views expressed are personal)