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Opinion

Watch what you wish for, including a Biden victory

Donald Trump has done much to restore the credibility of US power

| North America
Joe Biden speaks as Barack Obama listens during a campaign in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, on Oct. 31: Obama's vice president cannot disavow all responsibility for what happened on Obama's watch.   © Reuters

Bilahari Kausikan is former Permanent Secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

American foreign policy will not automatically return to a prelapsarian state of grace if Joe Biden becomes the 46th President of the United States. We should not idealize pre-Trump policies.

Listening to Barack Obama speaking about "pivoting" to Asia was a pleasure. It was flattering when he made time to attend ASEAN meetings. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, was a substantive achievement.

But some aspects of Obama's foreign policy were terrible. Obama had little stomach for exercising power. There was even reason to wonder whether his administration, particularly in its second term, really understood international relations. It is not all about soft power.

One of the silliest statements I have ever heard was then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry criticizing Russia's actions in Ukraine in 2014 as unacceptable 19th-century behavior in the 21st century.

There was indeed much to criticize. But criticizing Russia for disregarding your values and rules assumes that your competitors ought to share your commitment to them. Why should they? You need muscle and the will to use it to make them respect your values and rules.

The first Obama administration brokered a deal between Beijing and Manila, an American ally, on Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. When China reneged, the U.S. did nothing. In 2016, Xi Jinping promised Obama that China would not militarize the South China Sea. But when Beijing did so, using its coastguard rather than its navy as a fig-leaf, the U.S. again did nothing.

Calling it "strategic patience," Obama did nothing for eight years as Pyongyang pushed forward with its nuclear program. North Korea is now a de facto nuclear state, Asia's fourth after China, India, and Pakistan.

Complete nuclear disarmament is a chimera. Stability between nuclear states can be maintained only through deterrence. For the American nuclear umbrella to be credible, the U.S. must be willing to use conventional force. If you are reluctant to use conventional arms, how can you credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons?

When Obama drew but failed to enforce a redline over Syria's use of chemical weapons, the credibility of American power everywhere was undermined. Trump's abrupt rejection of the TPP was a slap in the face for American friends and allies. But not everything Trump did was wrong.

Trump understood power, albeit instinctively. And he wielded it crudely, and sometimes incoherently. But when he bombed Syria over the use of chemical weapons while at dinner with Xi Jinping, he did much to restore the credibility of American power.

In 2017, North Korea tested a missile on a trajectory over Japan. Pyongyang boasted that this was "a meaningful prelude to containing Guam." Guam is U.S. territory. Responding, Trump threatened "fire and fury" against North Korea. All subsequent North Korean tests have been on trajectories that put its missiles nowhere near American territory.

USS John S. McCain transits through the South China Sea with the Royal Australian Navy HMAS Ballarat while conducting integrated operations on Oct. 27: not everything Trump did was wrong. (Handout photo from U.S. Navy)

The U.S. under Trump has for the first time explicitly rejected China's claims in the South China Sea. He has empowered the Seventh Fleet to conduct freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, to challenge them. Beijing will not abandon its claims or change behavior. But neither can Beijing stop the U.S. and its allies from operating in the South China Sea without risking war. This is not ideal. Still, freedom of navigation can be exercised as a right, and not by China's leave and favor.

By contrast, during Obama's second term, FONOPs provoked loud public debates between the Pentagon and the National Security Council, which undermined their effect. Hard power needs to be balanced by hard power; the balance stiffened by credible nuclear deterrence to keep other nuclear powers in check. The U.S. is an irreplaceable component of any Asian balance. No combination of Asian powers alone has sufficient strategic weight to balance China.

The most dangerous issues in Asia require hard power: the Himalayas, the Taiwan Straits, and the East and South China seas. Asia's continued prosperity rests on a foundation of the stability provided by a balance of hard power.

If Biden wins, he will carry all the baggage of the Obama administration with him to the White House. Obama's vice president cannot disavow all responsibility for what happened on Obama's watch. Friend and foe alike will scrutinize his every move for any sign of weakness.

As a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden undoubtedly understands diplomacy. He will not shift direction on China or trade. But policy will be made and communicated in a more orderly manner and with more consideration for friends and allies. The form and atmospherics of American diplomacy will improve. All this is very welcome.

But it will not matter much if American foreign policy lapses back into Obama's reluctance to use power or Trump's incoherence. This possibility cannot be dismissed.

Biden's priorities must be domestic. Dealing with the consequences of the pandemic will demand almost all of his time and attention. Who he appoints as Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State and National Security adviser will be more than usually crucial.

Biden will not enter the White House with entirely free hands. He must manage and balance the divergent agendas of the progressive and traditional wings of the Democratic Party. Policy may well be pulled in different directions. Appointees may not all be of like mind. Foreign and domestic policies traded-off.

A Biden administration could end up as incoherent as its predecessor, but without its grasp of power.

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