Will Biden's US cease to be a disrupter of global processes?

America’s global economic engagements had also changed beyond recognition.

Published: 10th November 2020 07:19 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th November 2020 10:42 AM   |  A+A-


US President-elect Joe Biden. (Photo | AP)

The 2020 presidential election was easily the most significant one that the US has seen for decades, for its ramifications would surely be felt both internally and in the rest of the world.

Over the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, the world’s most powerful country not only became bitterly divided, it was also transformed into a nation whose strong institutional foundations - many of which were anchored in its constitution - were seriously tested like never before. 

America’s global economic engagements had also changed beyond recognition. While all previous administrations were actively engaged in shaping global governance institutions, President Trump remained deeply suspicious of nearly all of them.

Thus, not surprisingly, in the past four years, the US became increasingly disengaged from several global and regional processes, some of which - like the Paris Agreement on climate change and the Trans Pacific Partnership, the largest free trade agreement ever to have been conceived - were shaped by the Obama administration.

President Trump also challenged the global trade rules when he sanctioned unilateral increases in tariffs on a number of products in 2018, targeting all the major economies. This was the first time since the US imposition of Smoot-Hawley Tariffs in the 1930s that countries were dragged into a veritable trade war.

The World Trade Organization (WTO), designed to maintain a rules-based global trading system, also faced non-cooperation from the Trump administration on two counts. One, the US refused to allow new members to be appointed to the Appellate Body of the WTO's Dispute Settlement Mechanism, a move that has prevented resolution of disputes between members of the organisation.

Two, the appointment of the Director General of the WTO, which by convention is decided by consensus, has also run into rough weather; the Trump administration has not agreed to the appointment of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria, who would have become the first woman and African to lead the Organization.

With Joe Biden’s election as the US President, is it reasonable to expect that the new administration would cease to be a disrupter of global processes and get back to contributing to them? This question may not have a straightforward answer, the reason being that President Trump could leave his imprint on the future administrations stemming from his twin rhetoric, "Make America Great Again" and "America First".

It was this sense of nationalism that was the heart of the Trump administration’s global dealings, both economic and political. But more importantly, the twin rhetoric had caught the imagination of the American people in no uncertain terms as was revealed in the available numbers from the popular vote.

If the votes that Joe Biden had received was just shy of 75 million, the largest number ever in the history of the US, Donald Trump had received more than 70 million votes, an increase of nearly 8 million over his 2016 tally. Thus, the incoming Biden administration could find it difficult to side-step the Trump rhetoric altogether.

However, Biden’s victory speech provides considerable room for optimism. By seeking "the confidence of the whole people" in America, the President-elect has signalled that his approach will be hugely different from that of his predecessor.

Hopefully, this tone, signalling the spirit of inclusion, will permeate into the global arena as well, where the Covid-induced economic crisis makes it imperative for countries to work collectively in order to reverse the downturn. This would necessitate serious re-engagement of the US in all the critical global processes on which the Trump administration had turned its back.

Thus, putting the global trading system back on track by reposing faith in the WTO should be among the priorities of the Biden presidency, as would be a forward movement on issues related to climate change, on which the President-elect had expressed his personal commitment.

What can India expect from the new US administration? Personal bonhomie between the leaders of the two largest democracies notwithstanding, trade relations between India and the US have not been at their very best under the Trump administration. India lost its preferential access to its largest export market under the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), besides getting drawn into the trade war.

In order to undo some of the damage, the Indian government has proposed a free trade agreement with the US, but the Trump administration had insisted that New Delhi must open up its market in sensitive areas, including in agriculture. Whether the Biden administration changes the script would be watched with interest.

(The writer is Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, JNU
and can be contacted at


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