America’s best chance for unity
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America’s best chance for unity

Published on 23 January 2021 in the Australian Financial Review.

Watching the images of America on inauguration day was like seeing an old friend who has been in the grip of a terrible fever. But now his vision is clear and his brow is cool, and you recognise him again.

America has indeed been febrile these past months and years – suffering not only from the COVID-19 pandemic but from the presidency of a despicable man who brought incompetence, corruption and misrule to the Oval Office. Donald Trump has never accepted external limits on his behaviour. In the end, there was nothing he wouldn’t do to feed his vanity and preserve his power, including inciting a violent assault on the Capitol.

It is unforgivable that so many politicians and commentators went along with Trump, and for so long.

The Grand Old Party – the party of Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan – now appears to be a dried-up husk.

Kudos to the small band of conservatives, including Republican senator Mitt Romney and observers such as Bret Stephens and Bill Kristol, who adhered to their principles and maintained their dignity. Shame on those who did not.

Then there are those Australian pundits who say they wish America well, but barracked for a man who did it great harm. Plagiarising a weak joke made by others, they diagnosed the president’s critics with TDS, or Trump derangement syndrome. In fact, it was they who suffered from TDS: Trump denial syndrome.

Now Donald Trump is the first president in the history of the United States to be impeached twice. It is a fitting fate for Trump and a humiliating rebuke to those who supported him and argued for his re-election.

Today we can say that the US President is a decent person. That has not been the case for four years.

Joe Biden is not a perfect person. As a senator he was cocky and long-winded. He has been wrong on some important issues. But as his biographer Evan Osnos told me for my podcast The Director’s Chair, there has been “a kind of humbling” of Biden over the years.

He is a different person now – older, certainly, but also wiser, more attentive, more willing to listen.

He retains his lifelong instinct to reach out to those who disagree with him. If anyone can bring Americans together, it is Biden.

And with appointees of the quality of Jake Sullivan, Tony Blinken, Kurt Campbell, Avril Haines, Bill Burns, Samantha Power and Ely Ratner, as well as Kamala Harris, his administration looks like it will be a government of all the talents.

The priorities of this new administration are different from Trump’s. Australia will have to adapt quickly to them.

Washington will look to compete, but also co-operate, with Beijing. We will need to be in the new administration’s ear to make sure our interests are taken fully into account. We will need to be a busy ally.

The new President has signalled that ambitious global action on climate change is a key priority. In his inaugural address he spoke of “a cry for survival that comes from the planet itself, a cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear”.

He has appointed the energetic former secretary of state John Kerry as his special climate envoy. And his national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on The Director’s Chair that Biden will look to America’s friends to “do more” and to “step up and fulfil their responsibilities to what is fundamentally a global problem”.

To date, Trump’s recalcitrance on climate change has shielded Australia from criticism. But now our two great Anglospheric allies – the United States and Britain – are on a unity ticket to help the world avoid dangerous global warming. We should join that ticket.

Biden’s most severe challenge, of course, is COVID-19. Soon America will have lost half a million souls to the virus. The pandemic has exposed awful frailties in the US system and turning things around will be very hard.

But in the meantime, the defeat of Donald Trump and the inauguration of Joe Biden are essential steps towards the return of an America that is recognisable to the world – a country that is, in the unforgettable words of the young inauguration day poet Amanda Gorman, “bruised, but whole, benevolent, but bold, fierce and free”.

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions