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BIDEN SWEARS IN: WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD IN STORE

Today Joseph. R. Biden Jr. will become the 46th President of the United States. It is an historical “Inauguration Day” (hopefully peaceful) not only because Biden will be the second Catholic or the oldest Commander in Chief to enter into office, but because he is Trump’s successor. Trump’s presidency has been characterized by a toxic combination of a rude populist over-excitation and a vast use (first and foremost through his own Twitter account) of disproven and discredited conspiracy theories aimed at invalidating electoral results and subverting the Constitutional order. Donald Trump is both the effect of the current hyper-polarization of U.S. society and the cause of a spiral of events that culminated in the 6th January assault on Capitol Hill. It was the lowest point in U.S. democracy since Nixon’s scandals and one of the most shameful chapters of the whole U.S. history.

In a moment of extreme social tensions and political fragility, the primary goal of President Biden will be to reverse the democratic decay of the United States and lead the country into a cultural and social (and, yes, also legal) reckoning. American civil society needs to embark on a process of de-Trumpification in which wrongdoers have to be held accountable. The new impeachment procedure against Trump, accused of “incitement of insurrection”, is not a matter of party politics. It should not be seen as a Jacobin trial led by radical Democrats, but as the first of many inevitable acts of Constitutional and judicial defense against a deliberate democratic destabilization operated by the (former) President, a few Congressmen (Senators Cruz and Hawley above all), those who participated in the attack on Capitol Hill, and a movement (QAnon) that, despite being labeled by the F.B.I. as “domestic terrorist threat”, has succeeded to elect one of its supporters, Marjorie Taylor Greene to the U.S. House of Representatives – one may also count Lauren Boebert, although she now denies the involvement. There is a mounting pressure on the Republican Party by corporate donors who do not want to be associated to Trump anymore.

Today, in his “Inauguration Speech”, Joe Biden will be tempted to start his presidency by adopting some of the words used by former President Jimmy Carter (another Democrat) to heal the wounds created by the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate: the country’s need of moral rejuvenation and spiritual rebirth. As Andreas Kluth argues, the fate of the American Republic is not necessary the same of Weimar Germany (collapsing under the push of armed mobs) or Ancient Rome (falling into a civil war). Yet, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said, in order to put itself back on track, the U.S. must come to terms with the corrosive power of Trump’s “Big Lie”: the fact that his victory (November 2020) has been stolen by a plot orchestrated against himself by a Deep State to be crushed by “The Storm” and whose members will be “arrested, judged and executed by military tribunals”. It is a dystopian world made by deviant cognitive processes, conspiratorial beliefs, and an extremist value system whose relevance has been amplified by the economic grievances affecting U.S. society. Yet while these people are still a small minority, Trump obtained the unprecedented amount of 74 million votes, which are more than the entire French population. It is clear, therefore, that this is not something related to a bunch of “crazy guys”, but is a nationwide issue.

What are the priorities of the new U.S. President? What can we expect from the Biden Administration? Will the U.S. return to a benevolent policy towards Europe? There are three expectations that we can reasonably have.

The first is that the next four years will be dominated by a domestic-based, and not foreign-oriented, agenda. This is a typical attitude of all newly elected Administrations, especially if the President is a Democrat. Yet, today this is a necessity that derives from the critical situation of U.S. economy and society. The most urgent matters are the relaunch of the economy, the curb of unemployment, and the struggle against the Covid-19 pandemic. The top line agenda of Biden’s economic policy is a platform intended to shore up the middle class, in particular by extending health insurance coverage, raising taxes on the wealthy, increasing minimum wage to $15 an hour (in Spain is lower), forgiving student loan debts, investing $1.3 trillion on infrastructure, and spending $2 trillion on green energy. In addition, on 15th January Biden announced a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 stimulus plan. It is a highly ambitious reform package, especially if compared to the €1.8 trillion of the E.U. Recovery Plan adopted last 17th December. An outcome, however, that cannot be taken for granted given the very minimal majority held by the Democrats in the Senate and all “institutional resistances” that keep characterizing U.S. politics, the controversial role of big tech corporations included.

The second, and directly related, prospect is that the Biden Administration’s foreign policy will be subordinated to the fulfillment of its economic domestic objectives. Put it differently: although Biden himself and his closest foreign policy aides, such as Anthony Blinken, Wendy Sherman and Victoria Nuland, or Samantha Power, share a clear liberal internationalist vision (some have already coined the nickname President Joebama), it is unlikely that his presidency would be characterized by the degree of transformative interventionism we witnessed in the pre-Trump era. As in the aforementioned case of Jimmy Carter, Biden’s foreign policy will be likely based on the desire to promote domestic renewal. This (very difficult) goal will not be only pursued by a “detox strategy” of “Trumpim” and its heirs, but also through a so-called “foreign policy for the middle class” originally proposed in an article published in “Foreign Affairs” during the campaign. It is a plan aimed at reducing domestic social inequalities caused by globalization by boosting U.S. competitiveness and implementing a set of “Buy American” policies to be largely financed through a higher federal budget deficit. Something that is not necessary in line with the interests of America’s allies.

What does this mean in terms of, for instance, global governance or international trade? Biden promises to return to the traditional image of the U.S. acting as the benign leader of the democratic world and revitalize multilateralism, such as nuclear arms control (Iran) and climate change (the Paris Accords). On the other hand, it seems unlikely for Biden to go back to Obama’s regional trade agreements such as the TPP or the TTIP. Today, free trade is a much more problematic policy to be promoted, domestically and internationally. Simultaneously, China’s influence in East Asia, as the signing of the RCEP demonstrates, is growing fast and at the expenses of the U.S. itself. In the case of the technological decoupling promoted by Trump, President Biden is expected to soften the U.S. position towards China, which however will remain a strategic challenger for the decades to come. It will not be surprising, therefore, that the new Administration would seek to position himself in a sort of middle ground between Trump’s trade wars and an uncritical acceptance of free trade.

The third expectation is about the role the next Administration will give to Europe. As said, President Biden will change the U.S. attitude towards the E.U. by recreating a friendly and constructive environment. The aggressive, and even insulting, tones of Donald Trump will disappear and smiling picture opportunities will come back again. Yet, this does not mean the transatlantic relationship will magically return to its golden age. As the Indo-Pacific region is destined to retain central stage in global affairs, the U.S. will keep asking the Europeans to do (and spend) more, especially when it comes to NATO and collective defense. In addition, President Biden has promised to forge a more common position between the two sides of the Atlantic with relation to China, but it seems the recent Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between Beijing and Brussels is going to “complicate matters”. The E.U.-U.S. relationship needs a fresh new start, which is a prospect that, however, both parts may find quite hard to achieve.

Last: what about Spain? Bilateral Spain-U.S. relations remain cordial and, at least from Madrid’s angle, are expected to improve significantly. So far Joe Biden has remained silent about the chance to reduce, or even revoke, tariffs against E.U. exports, nevertheless Spain’s olive oil producers hope the new Administration could lift tariffs already in the first part of 2021. Simultaneously, Spain and the U.S. have temporarily extended for 1 more year their military agreement regarding the bases of Rota and Morón de la Frontera. And equally strong are the hopes that the new Administration will reverse Trump’s unilateral decision to recognize Moroccan sovereignty over the Western Sahara. Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sánchez, said the election of Biden is good news for Spain. Let’s be optimistic, indeed (and hope there will be no riots today).

Michele Testoni

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