Can Joe Biden Rewrite the Rules of the Road?

We’re beginning to get a few hints about how different US foreign policy will be under Joe Biden, unless it remains fundamentally the same.
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Joe Biden in Cleveland, Ohio, USA on 9/29/2020. © Alex Gakos / Shutterstock

During his presidency, Donald Trump found a new way to keep the American public and its media alert. It was a kind of educational game called “Spot the Lie.” If the media had understood how the game worked, the nation and the world would have benefited. Instead, it tended to degenerate into a shouting match in which each side would shriek with increasing volume to express its indignation.

What was special about his prevarication? It was systematic and provocative, attention-getting. Traditionally, US presidents lied quietly, covering their reprehensible acts in expressions of virtuous intentions. Even the most obvious lie of the 21st century — George W. Bush’s claim that Saddam Hussein was hiding a massive store of weapons of mass destruction — was presented as a concern for ensuring peace by preventing an imminent act of war by a mad Iraqi dictator. It turned out that both the madness and the capacity for war were on the American side. But nobody noticed because, well, the American military is by definition “a force for good.”


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With the incoming Biden administration, there will be fewer obvious lies. Given President-elect Joe Biden’s limited rhetorical skills, there may even be moments when Americans have access to the true intentions of a government that ordinarily seeks to hide them.

After the signature by 15 Asian nations of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) last week, Biden explained what would be behind US strategy after he becomes president on January 20, 2021. “We make up 25% of the world’s trading capacity, of the economy of the world,” he said. “We need to be aligned with the other democracies, another 25% or more, so that we can set the rules of the road instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Rules of the road:

The prescription of behavior for a group of supposed equals that clearly favors the interests of one member of the group whose dominant status allows it to impose its values and preferred behaviors on other members of a group without having to consult an external authority or waste too much time negotiating among equals

Contextual Note

Leaders of hegemons rarely explicitly lay out their hegemonic agenda. No one could doubt the bold claim Biden has made about the “rules of the road.” The United States always seeks to set the rules rather than play by them. But his statement deviates from the truth when he compares the US attitude with China’s. When it’s about the US defining the rules, Biden uses the verb “set.” But when it’s China, he uses the verb “dictate.” After all, China is a communist dictatorship, so logically anything it does can be called dictating.

That’s how clever diplomatic language works, at least in the hands of Democrats. They prefer to select the effective verb to instill the idea of good versus evil. Republicans prefer to use the language of moral judgment or downright insult. President Trump likes to call them purveyors of evil, “illegitimate” or even “shitholes.”

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But the major difference between the rhetoric of the two parties is that the Republicans shy away from admitting the hard reality that results from the muscular use of power relationships. They prefer to present it as the logic of history, divine will or predestination that have put the US in the role of unique decision-maker for the rest of the world. The shining city on the hill spreads its light across the globe by virtue of being the shining city, not through its complex interplay with other nations. It has an existential quality that can no one can ever doubt.

That is what Trump means by “America First.” He presented the slogan as if it turned around the idea that the US should decide to tend only to its own needs and not worry about what happens elsewhere in the world. But it also contained the idea that because America was “first” by virtue of its might, it produced the light that illuminated the rest of the world. It didn’t actually have to be good and fair to stand as a model for everything that was good and fair.

The primary difference between these two interpretations of American exceptionalism lies in the respective rhetorical strategies rather than policy. That is why Biden’s foreign policy may not be very different from Trump’s in its overall effect on the rest of the world. It will be a variation on hegemonic rhetoric, but the military and financial base will be nearly identical. 

Democrats believe that American exceptionalism, the success story of the nation, endows it with the authority to write the rules of the road for the rest of humanity. The Republicans see it as the result of writing the rules for themselves which they expect the rest of the world will naturally follow.

Historical Note

When, alluding to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the RCEP, Joe Biden compared the attitude of the US quite naturally seeking to “set the rules of the road” and the Chinese who “dictate outcomes.” The case can be made that he inverted the truth concerning the history of these two trade arrangements.

When the TPP was still awaiting signature at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, the BBC noted that the deal designed to put the US in the position to set the rules of the road was contested inside the US. The BBC reports: “US opponents have characterised the TPP as a secretive deal that favoured big business and other countries at the expense of American jobs and national sovereignty.” That highlights the problem Biden will be facing in many of his future decisions: how to define the US and its interests. In other words, who defines the rules? Is it big business or the American people?

Commenting on the historical background of the “secretive deal,” Vox reported: “Negotiations over the TPP’s terms were conducted in secret, with well-connected interest groups having access to more information — and more opportunities to influence the process — than members of the general public.” Even Congress was refused full access to the terms of the draft.

In other words, when Biden refers to setting the rules of the road, it is anything but an openly negotiated procedure. In contrast, the RCEP was drafted conjointly and largely democratically by all the interested parties, which include some of the strongest allies of the US: Australia, Japan and South Korea. It is a lie of Trumpian proportions to suggest that the RCEP was dictated by the Chinese.

Statements of that kind by the president-elect do not bode well for the future foreign policy we can expect from the Biden administration. Biden’s future secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, sounds refreshing when he more realistically characterizes the state of the world at a forum at the Hudson Institute in July: “Simply put, the big problems that we face as a country and as a planet, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s a pandemic, whether it’s the spread of bad weapons — to state the obvious, none of these have unilateral solutions. Even a country as powerful as the United States can’t handle them alone.” 

Blinken’s approach to foreign policy is likely to be similar to Obama’s, which does indeed appear refreshing in comparison to Donald Trump’s. But it is likely to be a return to a certain form of wishing to write the rules alone, if not handling the problems alone. In an interview in July, Blinken regretted that, under Trump, the US had lost the ability to dictate the rules. “If we’re not doing a lot of that organizing in terms of shaping the rules and the norms and the institutions through which countries relate to one another,” he said, “then one of two things, either someone else is doing it and probably not in a way that advances our own interests and values or maybe just as bad, no one is and then you tend to have chaos and a vacuum that may be filled by bad things.”

The problem Biden will face is that the world has changed. Unlike a few decades ago, few now believe the US has a divine right to “shape the rules” or the ability to stave off chaos.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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