The United States in 2021

The US presidential election has now concluded with the Electoral College confirming Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the winners (by 306 to 232 votes).  It remains for Congress to certify the Electoral College votes on 6 January, before the Inauguration on the 20th.

The 2020 election was held under unprecedented circumstances – marred by racial protest, street violence, political dispute from the outgoing incumbent, and deep cultural divisive within the country.

So what to make of this bastion of democracy, in 2021?  What are the implications for us all – proceeding by scale, from the national, to the regional, international, and global?

National: India

Let me begin with a focus on my own country.  A positive India-US bilateral relationship has enjoyed bipartisan support in both countries over the years.  The relationship has seen a steady ascent in both scope and form, especially during the Obama years.  This increasingly has regional implications – policy analysts judge that a future India-US relationship must not be seen in isolation from Asia at large.

India is increasingly seen as a significant counter-balance to China, within Asia and even beyond. This is reinforced with the existence of the QUAD – a group of democratic nations (US, Japan, Australia, India) aligning together for a ‘safe, secure, and open Indo-Pacific region’.  The cooperation includes joint military exercises in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea, and various security pacts concluded. The QUAD has had a discernible impact on how Europe is crafting its own rules of engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, and with India.

The Indian-American community, along with the South Asian-American community more generally, has played a key role in recent US elections, in respect of both influence and voting pattern.  They are likely, as a result, to attract more attention within the US, including in the foreign policy agenda.  It is significant that incoming Vice-President Kamala Harris has strong Indian roots; and the President-elect also has a genealogy connected to India.

India and the US have, in fact, recently moved closer across the spectrum of the bilateral relationship, from security to technology, to cooperation on terrorism, and reform of the multilateral system.

It is likely that future bilateral relations will largely be seen through the lens of regional security, territorial disputes, sovereignty frictions, infrastructure connectivity projects, and transparency and governance in development cooperation. The US may adopt a more flexible foreign policy in Asia, strengthening its bilateral cooperation with Taiwan, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

It is, moreover, almost certain that the US presence in Asia will be further consolidated, and will substantively hinge on the regional security situation, having regard to more assertive diplomacy by some major regional powers in quest of a more dominant role.

Regional: Asia

Asia is home to over half of the global population.  Besides being also one of the largest markets in the global economy, it is one of the world’s security hotspots. It is therefore likely to remain a key priority area for the US.  The region also gains salience with all major powers in view of the recent recurring geo-political and trade disputes, characterized by:

  • the new security law in Hong Kong;
  • territorial contestation in Taiwan;
  • the militarized border stand-off between India and China in the Himalayas;
  • 5G technology and its competitive dimension;
  • infrastructure connectivity projects;
  • bad debt issues stemming from opaque and shady development cooperation; and
  • the health pandemic.

All these challenges will continue to be contested issues where coalitions and partnerships in the region will be scaled up, with a greater involvement of the US and other new allies and partners.

Yet Asia also seems to be on the cusp of a turning-point where contestation over territorial and trade disputes, among others, may intensify in the near future. Concern over the recent handling of Covid-19, its spread and origin, associated supply-chain blockade issues, and a lack of transparency in reporting the pandemic will also likely spike, impacting relations adversely.

The China-US relationship over recent years will be fashioned by the intended scale of US involvement in the region. Smaller neighbors such as Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar are also likely to play a complementary role in the shaping of US policy towards Asia.

Japan and South Korea, as key US allies, are likely to receive favorable attention. These will probably be centered on trade, technology and security issues. The change of leadership in Japan is unlikely to see any perceptible change in the continuing foreign policy approaches of the US towards their long standing allies.

North Korea, however, is likely be receive greater attention as it presents a new security threat to both the region and the US, given its aspiration to develop nuclear-armed ICBMs that can reach the Americas. Such a threat is further complicated by the secrecy around the domestic situation in the DPRK, including hostility with some of its neighbors. US policy on North Korea may substantively change – perhaps a termination in diplomatic negotiations, imposition of trade sanctions and economic blockade with verifiable monitoring mechanisms. Nations supporting the North Korean regime may also face surveillance, monitoring and sanctions.

Broadly, US intervention in Asia is likely to expand because of the region’s diversity and complexity.  No doubt each major power will contend that its foreign policy reflects an aspiration for a strengthened rules-based regime in the region, directly proportional to the need for regional safety, security, and well-being.  The challenge for analysts of global affairs will be to gauge how much is nationally subjective, and how much is objectively cast in the common interest as called for in the UN Charter.

International: The UN and other institutions

The US is generally seen as a globalist, and a leader in setting geo-economic, political, trade and a rules-based order for international peace, progress and increasing prosperity of all nations – and ‘We the Peoples’ through that.

Much of the global agenda is undertaken through multilateral institutions including the United Nations and its related agencies. But as one of the oldest national democracies, the US has played a significant role, not only as the lead architect of the institutions themselves but as a major contributor to their financing, governance and agenda-setting.

The past four years have witnessed a sharp drift away from this philosophy, with the Trump Administration withdrawing from, among others, the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization. This has led to an overall weakening of the multilateral system, exacerbating existing problems of funding shortfalls, indecisive leadership, poor collaboration and inadequate governance.

With the new US Administration already committing to rejoining the Paris climate accord and the WHO, with restored funding and new technical expertise, it is likely that the traditional US leadership will be reaffirmed. Restoring the WTO through the appointment of arbitrators is also on the agenda.

Developmental goals – whether they address health or climate issues – are usually less likely to be achieved in the absence of collective action.  President-elect Biden, during the election campaign, had made his intent clear to supporting multilateral institutions with financial support and more technical expertise, including reforming their governance structures to make them a better fit to serve humanity.

These initial commitments of the incoming Administration relate, in effect, to a wider undertaking to reform the United Nations itself as the world body struggles to retain relevance in a changing world. One of the key reforms awaiting the UN is expansion of the Security Council. It is widely anticipated that the US will now move ahead with more speed and intent with UN reform.  Improved governance will make the world body a truly representative platform – a long overdue expectation on the part of the comity of nations.

Global: “We the Peoples….”

People in today’s world are ever more closely connected by modern technology, and therefore more economically, socially and politically interdependent.  This calls for a more equal world without discrimination, and with fairer economic opportunity, more respect for human rights, freedom of assembly and speech. These goals can only be assured through stronger domestic and international law, in accordance with the principles of diversity and proportionality.

Notable among these goals is also data privacy, and its protection against IT misuse and theft. This can be done in a number of ways, including legal instruments and ‘coalitions of the willing’ to ensure a fair and transparent system that applies equitably to users of modern telecommunications. This is important for human rights and personal liberty, but also to inspire confidence of the global community of peoples in domestic and international legal instruments.  On this issue at least – the goal of a robust national, regional and global consensus for protection of peoples’ rights – there is probably a bipartisan consensus within the US.

Looking Ahead

The influence of US policy in India and Asia in general seems unlikely to change with the new US Administration. Senior diplomats in New Delhi and Washington are closely engaged in their deliberations over a new roadmap for enhanced bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the future, given the new US Administration is seized with the importance of the relationship between the world’s two oldest and largest democracies.

It seems a sheer coincidence that the new US Administration and India’s two-year term as a new non-permanent member of the UN Security Council begin simultaneously, in January ‘21. The two democracies should begin to work together in this ‘high council’ of multilateralism. Adoption of bilateral and multilateral approaches between India and US can only help build greater confidence of comity among the nations and among the peoples – in democracy, the rule of law, and in a fair and transparent dispensation and delivery of justice.

Author: Pooran Pandey

Pooran Chandra Pandey specializes in public diplomacy and development cooperation. A founding head of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (Berlin), he has also held senior positions with the UN and the Times of India. He now serves as a Resident Rep. to the Climate Scorecard (USA) and has non-resident academic roles in Cameroon, Australia, and Nepal. Pooran has an M.Phil. (Int. Relations) and has professional training in Russia, China, Sweden, Germany, US, UK and Fiji. He was a Chevening Scholar at LSE (London).

December 17, 2020

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