Consider the current international scene.
The president of the United States is a stable, decent and law-abiding person. His advisers are smart and competent. America’s allies feel assured and comfortable. Meanwhile, Russia and China look rattled.
What a difference a few months makes.
The Biden administration is off to a confident and composed start. President Biden wants to approach the world, in the words of National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, from ‘a position of strength’. That means effective governance at home and adroit alliance management abroad.
You can’t be successful abroad if you’re not successful at home. President Trump’s shambolic mismanagement of COVID and his inexcusable involvement in the storming of the US Capitol weakened America enormously. In two months, however, Biden has restored a good part of its strength.
He quickly assembled a Cabinet and passed a $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill. He turbo-charged the vaccination program, 100 million doses of which have now been administered.
Biden’s comportment in office is very different from that of his predecessor. For Trump, everything was about him. His instincts and phobias were crucial to most decisions, which he insisted on announcing personally.
Biden is less needy, and less visible. Peter Baker of The New York Times notes that at this point in office, Trump had given five news conferences, whereas Biden has given none. When it comes to decision making, Biden weighs in on directional matters but is comfortable delegating lesser issues to his officials.
The Biden team is uniformly impressive, selected not just for their loyalty but for their governing experience and collegiality. It makes for a refreshing change after the vicious infighting of the Trump White House, which often felt like The Hunger Games.
On the international front, the administration has adopted an ‘allies-first’ approach in the sequencing and tone of its early telephone calls and meetings. In the Trump era, for reasons that remain mysterious, Vladimir Putin had the US president exactly where he wanted him. Now Putin looks distinctly off balance, flailing around in response to every Biden remark, even challenging the president to a live debate.
(As strategist Lawrence Freedman suggested on Twitter, Putin should first agree to debate his domestic challenger Alexei Navalny.)
In our part of the world, Biden’s approach feels a bit like a return to George W. Bush’s Asia diplomacy. Both Barack Obama and Trump, in different ways, took a ‘China-first’ approach to the region. Obama had hopes of forming a G2 with Beijing that could solve global problems such as climate change, before he realised the hard men in Zhongnanhai felt differently.
Trump was an unbeliever in alliances who regularly disrespected and even threatened America’s friends in Asia. His behaviour towards China was erratic: sometimes he was the oily maître d'hôtel at Mar-a-Lago, with a ‘beautiful piece of chocolate cake’ in hand, ready to make a deal with Xi Jinping; at other times he was needlessly aggressive and insulting towards the world’s second most powerful country.
Like the Bush team, Biden’s advisers are realistic about what they can get out of the China relationship. They went first to America’s allies, to make sure they felt comfortable and assured – and only then parleyed with Beijing.
In the early days of the last administration, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and had a ‘hostile and charged’ phone call with Malcolm Turnbull. In the early days of this administration, President Biden convened the first meeting of Quad leaders and told Beijing that improvements in the US-China relationship require an end to Chinese economic coercion of Australia.
For us, the difference is night and day.
The Quad leaders meeting was a welcome sign that the most capable like-minded powers in Asia are moving closer together. Also welcome was the Americans’ elevation of China’s economic coercion of Australia to a first-order issue. ‘We are not going to leave Australia alone on the field,’ said Biden’s Indo-Pacific Coordinator Kurt Campbell.
It is heartening to see the new administration show this kind of solidarity with Australia. Key members of the Biden team, including Secretary of State Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Kurt Campbell and the National Security Council senior director for China Laura Rosenberger, have close ties to Australia. Sullivan and Campbell are both former Distinguished Fellows of the Lowy Institute.
But this wasn’t just the right thing to do from Canberra’s perspective: it was also the smart thing to do from Washington’s perspective. The United States needs to be seen as a reliable ally, not just a powerful ally. Protecting your ally is good alliance management.
Last week the Chinese went to Anchorage hoping for a ‘reset’ of their relationship. They certainly got one.
Australia doesn’t want the present uneasy competition between these superpowers to slide into confrontation. We want Washington and Beijing to manage their competition and find a mode of co-existing in which each can achieve its objectives – while also allowing the rest of us to make our own way in the world, free of external domination.
Even though hard times lie ahead, the first months of the Biden administration make that end result seem more likely.
Michael Fullilove is the Executive Director of the Lowy Institute.