Can Biden’s win stop the decline of the West and restore the role of the United States in the world?

Many commentators argued that the 2020 election was the most important presidential election since FDR’s victory during World War II. In fact, the most important election was that of 2016. That was the turning point, which marked the dawn of a new era, of the New World Disorder: the unravelling of the U.S.-led postwar liberal institutionalism; the decline of American influence and soft power across the world; the undermining of established alliances and institutions (UN, NATO); regional power vacuums rapidly covered by ethnocentric authoritarian regimes such as Xi’s China, Putin’s Russia, and Erdogan’s Turkey, which are now engaging in a New Cold War against the West.

By no means did the decline of the West start in 2016. Its roots lie in the Bush Administration’s flawed strategy of quasi-imperial overreach after 9/11; the catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which destabilised the Middle East and led to the emergence of ISIS (which, in turn, led to waves of refugees and home-bred Islamist terrorism in Europe). Coupled with the timid handling of the 2008 financial crisis, which only increased structural inequality, left intact global networks of tax evasion, and hit the West’s middle and working classes, these phenomena ultimately led to the wave of radical populism that produced Trump and Brexit in 2016.  

Thus, the West has been undergoing structural disintegration for many years, even before Russia unleashed a campaign of political interference and misinformation across the West, and China launched its neo-colonialist expansion.

Can the 2020 Biden win stop this decline and erosion of Western liberal democracies?

This looks unlikely. Biden’s victory was not a cathartic one. The 2020 election could have marked a turning point had there been a massive, national wave against the politics of Donald Trump – a moral, ideological, and cultural defeat of the politics of fake news, absurd conspiracy theories, and civil strife. Rather, what the 2020 election does signify is the consolidation of Trump’s politics into a movement. It formalizes the division of the United States into two separate universes that hardly communicate with each other, mirroring similar (albeit less acute) patterns in Europe.

Global power is not simply a matter of military might or assertive foreign policy (China and Russia possess both), not even vast economic growth and technological leadership (China possesses those, too). Postwar U.S. leadership was ultimately embraced and owned by other Western countries because of the combination of those assets with cultural alignment: America’s commitment to freedom, civil liberties, justice and the rule of law; equality and the successful integration of diverse demographic groups; an institutional system of checks and balances; a model of capitalism that, for a long period, worked for the middle classes; intellectual and creative excellence; and infrastructural investment leading to a better quality of life. The American Dream was constructed and broadcast across the world by Hollywood, then by the advertising agencies of Madison Avenue, and then by the libertarian tech innovators of Silicon Valley.

To the rest of the world, the United States increasingly looks like a broken, battered doll. This is not about U.S. foreign policy per se, but about domestic dysfunction. Widening inequalities and rural poverty; crumbling infrastructure; tragic mismanagement of the COVID19 pandemic; a campus culture that defies reason and stifles freedom; latent racism; a fragmented and fragile election system; perhaps above all else, a fundamental crisis of values and a collapse of the moral consensus regarding the value of science, truth, and tolerance: these are just some of the things that people across the world who used to look up to the United States now see; things that make them doubt about the value of liberal democracy itself, of which the U.S. had been the beacon for decades.

When Joe Biden and Kamala Harris finally manage to formalize this messy victory, and when they manage to get through what is likely to be an ugly and disorderly transition during which anything could happen, they would then have to: 

•Lead the effort to scale back China’s authoritarian clampdown in Hong Kong, its territorial expansion in Nepal and the South China Sea, its neo-colonial practices in Africa, and more pertinently, its campaign of infiltrating Western institutions (including universities);

•Stop Russia’s campaign of misinformation, confusion, and interference;

•Repair ties with European allies and restore faith in NATO, which includes disciplining – possibly expelling – Erdogan’s Turkey, which has become a rogue state in Europe, Caucasus and the Middle East;

•Lead global coalitions on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), enact urgent climate action, and help build resilience against extreme weather phenomena;

•And do all that amidst a global pandemic that has highlighted the structural weaknesses, and dependence on national whims, of multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organization, leading to the revival of nationalist fantasies.

A mission impossible, if there ever was one.