Can America Lead Again?
The US president-elect has advanced a vision of America that is back in charge of the liberal international order. But while that would go a long way toward enabling constructive competition with China, there is good reason to believe that Americans do not want their country to lead again.
ANN ARBOR – US President-elect Joe Biden’s impending inauguration has raised hopes that his administration will “make America lead again.” If the United States is to transform its rivalry with China into constructive competition, this is the right approach. But whether Biden can restore and sustain America’s global leadership depends on how effectively he mends domestic fractures and addresses deep-seated misgivings about globalization held by segments of the US electorate.
Biden has repeatedly pledged to restore America’s international reputation and global standing, which were severely damaged under Donald Trump. To that end, he will quickly rejoin multilateral institutions (such as the World Health Organization) and international agreements (beginning with the Paris climate agreement) from which Trump withdrew the US.
These pledges point to a vision of the US back at the head of the liberal international order, a position from which it can more effectively compete – and cooperate – with China. But there is good reason to believe that many Americans do not want their country to lead again.
Biden’s electoral victory in November fell short of the decisive repudiation of Trump and his toxic brand of populism that liberals expected. Yes, Biden won over 81 million votes – more than any US presidential candidate in history. But Trump received more than 74 million – the second-highest number on record – and increased his share across minority groups, compared to 2016. This is despite an unprecedented parade of scandals and a disastrously mismanaged pandemic.
What explains Trump’s enduring popularity? One explanation, advanced by Peter Singer in November, is that nearly half of America has “lost its soul.” This diagnosis is certainly true of the most disturbing elements of Trump’s voter base, which includes the white nationalists and neo-Nazis who stormed Capitol Hill on January 6. And even those who do not fit into this category did vote for an openly racist president, who refused to denounce white supremacy.
Still, it would be simplistic to dismiss support for Trump as nothing more than an endorsement of bigotry. It is worth remembering that 13% of those who voted for Trump in 2016 voted for Barack Obama in 2012. And Trump received ten million more votes in 2020 than in 2016.
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Trump draws support from a motley array of sources. Racism and xenophobia are among them, but so is anger among rural and working-class voters over stagnating incomes and rising inequality. Some Asian voters also fell for his hawkish stance on China. As a political outsider, Trump was able to exploit resentment of the political establishment, hack the Republican apparatus, and package himself as a champion of the disaffected.
These voters have been misguided to put their faith in Trump, who never intended to address their grievances in any genuine way, and has no qualms about inciting them to mount an insurrection and then abandoning them. One structural factor has made it easy for Trump and his conspirators to dupe these voters: globalization has created many losers alongside winners.
The winners include big companies that shifted their manufacturing to cheaper locations, thereby considerably expanding their profit margins, and the developing economies – especially China – to which they moved. The losers include millions of American manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs. Mix in America’s legacy of racism and the spread of fake news via social media, and the result is flammable.
But it is not only the working class that is disillusioned with globalization. As the global economy’s center of gravity has shifted toward emerging powers like China, these countries have gained a greater say in international institutions, which are supposed to represent all countries rather than only these institutions’ architects. For many US policymakers, this was unacceptable: if the US bears the costs of sustaining a world order, they believe, it should get to ensure that its interests come first.
True to his promises of “America First,” Trump withdrew the US from its previous global leadership commitments, pared down its engagement overseas, and built a wall. He delivered exactly what his voters wanted. But his policy inevitably produced a consequence that US leaders couldn’t accept: China’s rising profile, as it stepped in to fill the leadership vacuum the US left behind.
In response, the Trump administration portrayed China as America’s mortal enemy, launched a ruinous trade war, and imposed a slew of sanctions. For Beijing, such hostility confirmed long-held suspicions that the US would never accept its rise without a fight, so it has reacted defensively. The resulting vicious cycle of mistrust and antagonism has yet to be broken.
For the Biden administration, two lessons stand out. First, the US cannot have it both ways. It cannot withdraw from global leadership and refuse to allow anyone to take its place; if it insists, confrontation and brinkmanship will ensue. Second, America’s clash with China over the last four years has been as much a divorce from that country as a divorce from globalization.
This means that, if the US is to reclaim the leadership position that will enable it to compete constructively with China – and retain it for more than an election cycle – the Biden administration must tackle inequality and the costs that globalization has brought. Otherwise, Trump – or, worse, a more competent version of Trump – could well recapture the presidency in 2024 or 2028, and reverse whatever progress the Biden administration makes in the coming term.
Correction (January 14, 2021): This commentary previously misstated the percentage of 2016 Trump voters who had previously voted for Barack Obama in 2012.