It is now evident that the unipolar moment has come to an end. After exhausting itself in failed forever wars against weak adversaries, the US military prepares for war against Russia, China, and a regional war in the Middle East, Glenn Diesen writes.
The world is attentively observing the US presidential election as it will have great implications for global governance. Biden and Trump have vastly divergent views on how the world should be governed and how the US should respond to its relative decline. Biden seeks to restore unipolarity with ideological economic and military blocs to harness loyalty from allies and to marginalise adversaries. In contrast, Trump has a more pragmantic approach in which he considers the alliance system to have excessive costs in terms of subsidising allies and limiting diplomatic solutions with adversaries.
Global Governance After Unipolarity
The US established a privileged position in key institutions for global governance after the Second World War. The Bretton Woods institutions and NATO ensured economic and military dominance within the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US aimed to expand its liberal hegemony within the West to the entire globe.
The US developed a security strategy based on global primacy and expanded NATO with the assumption that the overwhelming dominance of the US would mitigate the international anarchy and great power rivalry. Liberal trade agreements would cement the US position at the top of global value chains. Replacing international law with the so-called “rules-based international order” based on sovereign inequality would facilitate hegemony and an elevated role for liberal democratic values.
However, unipolarity is a temporary phenomenon as it depends on preventing the rise of rivals, and values are corrupted as they become mere instruments of power politics. The US predictably exhausts its resources and legitimacy to maintain hegemony, and rival powers collectively balance the US hegemonic ambitions by diversifying economic connectivity, responding militarily, and developing new regional institutions for global governance.
Furthermore, the Cold War was a unique period in history as communist adversaries were largely decoupled from international markets, while the military stand-off strengthened alliance solidarity to the extent it had a mitigating effect on economic rivalry between capitalist allies. After the Cold War, former communist giants such as China and Russia became increasingly skilled in economic statecraft and could not be adequately accommodated into a US-led economic system.
The alliance system also began to wane in terms of the quid pro quo in which the US subsidise European security in return for political influence. Washington shifted its strategic focus and resources to Asia and concurrently demanded that European allies display geo-economic loyalty rather than form independent economic relations with rivals such as China and Russia. In contrast, the Europeans aimed to use collective bargaining power through the European Union to establish autonomy and an equal partnership with the US.
It is now evident that the unipolar moment has come to an end. After exhausting itself in failed forever wars against weak adversaries, the US military prepares for war against Russia, China, and a regional war in the Middle East.
Biden’s Global Governance: Ideology and Bloc Politics
Biden seeks to restore the US global primacy by reviving a Cold War alliance system that divides the world into dependent allies versus weakened adversaries: Europe is pitted against Russia, the Arab states against Iran, India against China, etc. Inclusive international institutions for global governance will subsequently be weakened and replaced by confrontational economic blocs and military blocs.
Biden’s bloc politics is legitimised by oversimplified heuristics as the complexities of the world are reduced to an ideological struggle between liberal democracies and authoritarian states. The ideological rhetoric entails a demand for geo-economic loyalty from the “free world”, while contributing to an overly aggressive and undiplomatic language as adversarial leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are referred to as “dictators”.
Multilateralism is embraced to the extent it augments US leadership. Biden is less hostile to the UN and the EU than his predecessor, and under his administration, the US re-joined the World Health Organisation and the Paris Climate Accords. However, Biden did not rejoin the Iran nuclear deal or scale back the economic coercion against China that aims to repatriate supply chains. Institutions that can constrain the US, such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), will have limited support from both Biden and Trump.
The deteriorating socio-economic and political situation within the US will also influence Biden’s commitment to global governance. Biden will continue to be reluctant to enter into any new ambitious trade agreements as the domestic losers from globalisation and neoliberal economics seek refuge among the populist opposition. Biden will be hesitant to accept free trade arrangements in areas where China has a technological and industrial advantage, and the efforts to cut Europe off from Russian energy and Chinese technology will further divide the world into rival economic blocs.
Trump’s Global Governance: America First and Great Power Pragmatism
Trump seeks to restore American greatness by reducing the cost of the alliance system and hegemony. Alliances against strategic rivals are not seen as sustainable or desirable if they entail transferring relative economic power to allies. Trump has suggested that NATO is an “obsolete” relic from the Cold War as the Europeans should contribute more to their own security, the US should perhaps reduce its presence in the Middle East, and allies should in some way pay the US for the security it provides. Economic agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would advance US leadership but they were abandoned due to the excessive cost in terms of transferring economic advantage from the US to its allies. Trump does not reject the US Empire but wants to make it sustainable by ensuring a better return on investments.
Because Trump is less committed to the alliance system and not burdened by ideological dogma, he can take a more pragmatic approach to other great power. Trump can make political deals with opponents, use friendly and diplomatic language when referring to Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and even make diplomatic visits to North Korea. While Biden’s division of the world into liberal democracies versus authoritarian states makes Russia an adversary, Trump’s view of the world as nationalists/patriots versus cosmopolitans/globalists converts Russia into a potential ally. This ideological view complements the pragmatic considerations of not pushing Russia into the arms of China as the main rival of the US in terms of economic power.
Global governance will be utilitarian and the overarching objective is to restore competitive advantage vis-à-vis China. In his appeal to a disgruntled public, Trump tends to excessively blame China for America’s economic woes. Economic coercion against China has the purpose of restoring US technological/industrial advantage and protecting jobs at home. The economic nationalist ideas reflect that of the American System of the 19th century, in which economic policies are based on “fair trade” rather than free trade. Trump seemingly questions the entire post-Cold War security arrangement in Europe as a costly endeavour of subsidising a Europe with declining relevance, which has converted Russia into an enemy and pushed it into the arms of China. Trump’s unclear commitment to NATO even prompted Congress to approve a bill barring presidents from unilaterally withdrawing the US from NATO.
Both Biden and Trump are seeking to reverse the relative decline of the US in the world, which will have profound impact on global governance. While Biden’s aims to restore US greatness with ideological alliance systems will fragment global governance into regional blocs, Trump will seek an overall withdrawal from institutions of global governance to the extent they drain US resources and impede pragmatic considerations.