As the leader of the free world, the United States stands apart when it comes to elections. The U.S. President, by virtue of extremely strong powers granted by Article II of the Constitution, is often considered the most powerful individual on the planet. As commander-in-chief, chief executive, and head of state, the individual sworn in on January 20 every four years has tremendous impact on our allies, trading partners, rivals, and foes. It should be no surprise that our greatest geopolitical rivals, China and Russia, are watching the result of our most recent federal election with great interest.
This time around, there is considerable tension in the aftermath of the presidential election. Not only do we not have a clear victor, but both Donald Trump and Joe Biden seem to be no fans of China. While Trump famously embarked on trade disputes with the rising superpower, Biden infamously called Chinese president Xi Jinping a “thug” during the first presidential debate. While some might brush off Biden’s gaffe as a heat-of-the-moment barb, the comment likely rankled leaders in Beijing, especially given that their culture emphasizes personal relationships and cordiality.
While China and Russia might be able to anticipate what a Biden/Harris administration will look like, given that Biden served two terms as Barack Obama’s vice president, they have to figure in political forces that may complicate Biden’s foreign policy goals. The Senate, for example, is likely to remain in Republican hands. Unless Democrats win both of Georgia’s run-off elections for U.S. Senate seats on January 5, the GOP will retain a powerful check on Democratic policies. Given how riled up conservatives are in the aftermath of November 3, you can bet that they will leave nothing on the table to win those two Georgia races.
And, even though Biden will almost certainly be the next president, his ungainly victory denies him a popular mandate. While most incoming presidents tout their political muscles by declaring either a popular vote or electoral vote blowout, Donald Trump’s refusal to concede will hinder Joe Biden’s celebratory lap. While liberals may shrug off Trump’s machinations as sour grapes, it must be noted that a large swath of voters believe that fraud was afoot. The GOP’s attempts to cast Biden’s victory as illegitimate have tainted his inauguration and will deflate some of his foreign policy goals.
Eager to appear loyal to an outgoing Donald Trump, you can expect many Republicans in Congress to resist any Biden administration efforts to reduce trade barriers with China. Conversely, you can expect the GOP to stand ready to criticize any attempts by Biden to crack down on Russia, arguing that Biden is only antagonizing Putin out of partisan spite. Remember, Russia stands accused by Democrats of helping Donald Trump win the presidential election against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and some have accused Russia of being complicit in a recent attempt to frame Hunter Biden and – by extension – Joe Biden of illegal business dealings.
But, ironically, Russian president Vladimir Putin came out later and declared that he saw nothing “criminal” in Hunter Biden’s behavior, perhaps hoping to cozy up to Joe Biden due to the former veep’s steady poll numbers. This last-minute action will likely do little to overcome the tensions generated between the U.S. and Russia while Biden was vice president, which featured Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula and Russian intervention in Syria on behalf of autocratic leader Bashar al-Assad. With Biden and his Democratic Party colleagues likely still smarting over 2016 and Russia’s rivalrous tinkering in foreign policy before that, expect relations between Washington and Moscow to remain decidedly cool in 2021.
China will be given far more grace in foreign policy and trade as Biden looks to boost the U.S. economy back to normal. While Trump supporters will likely criticize any new trade deals with China as reverting to the old days of manipulative deals that harm U.S. businesses, other conservatives will welcome any trade that gets the economy churning again. As a result, China has incentives to make friendly overtures, even if Washington remains strongly divided.
Ultimately, there won’t be much breakthrough in foreign policy next year. Reeling from Covid and fighting divided government, Joe Biden will likely spend his first year as president trying to restore the nation to some form of equilibrium before focusing abroad.
1.) Campbell, C. (2020, November 09). How Joe Biden Can Start Fixing Relations With China. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://time.com/5908121/joe-biden-us-china/
2.) Kim, C. (2020, November 09). Poll: 70 percent of Republicans don’t think the election was free and fair. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/09/republicans-free-fair-elections-435488
3.) Bohan, C., Johnson, K., Brown, M., & Neiburg, J. (2020, October 18). A tabloid got a trove of data on Hunter Biden from Rudy Giuliani. Now, the FBI is probing a possible disinformation campaign. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/10/17/fbi-probes-possible-russia-link-hunter-biden-data-trump-ally-giuliani/3661895001/4.) Aitken, P. (2020, October 26). Russia’s Putin appears to defend Hunter Biden business dealings in Ukraine: ‘I don’t see anything criminal’. Retrieved November 12, 2020, from https://www.foxnews.com/world/vladimir-putin-defends-hunter-bidens-business-dealings