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Areg Galstyan

Ph.D. in History, RIAC Expert

The recent U.S. election has been one of the tensest and most unpredictable in American history. Suffice it to say that, for the first time since 1920, the race for the Oval Office took place with a global pandemic as its backdrop. Back then, the Spanish flu took the lives of over 600,000 Americans, and this played an important role in Republican Warren Harding defeating Democrat James Cox. The GOP boosted its ratings by criticising the passive stance taken by the Woodrow Wilson Administration and the entire democratic elite, who had failed to make the promised progress in reforming the healthcare system. This year, during the Republic Administration's tenure, 238,000 Americans had already died from COVID-19, which is the world’s highest number of deaths in absolute figures. This situation by default provided the Democrats with ammunition for their guns as they built their strategy on the Republican leadership having ignored problems in healthcare for four years and having developed no clear plan of action for emerging from the crisis. Over the last year, the number of Americans displeased with the measures the White House used to combat the pandemic has grown exponentially.

In general, Joe Biden's victory should not be seen as a precursor of inevitable radical changes in domestic and foreign policy. The new President and his Administration will have to devote a significant chunk of their time to searching for formulae that would enable them to overcome the deep rift in American society. The record voter turnout also evidences a highly politicised nation, which is a marker of deep-running systemic problems. As a rule, heightened expectations do not materialise (as Barack Obama’s story clearly demonstrates), while many problems remain unresolved. The dilapidation of today’s political system (particularly the party system) is so obvious that no president, no administration will be able to introduce fundamental changes without revamping the system first. Only time will tell whether Joe Biden sets himself the task of going down in American history as a president who launched an in-depth transformation or whether he will become another top manager for the executive branch mired in the Washington swamp. One thing is certain: this election showed how serious and dangerous the crisis of state and national identity in the U.S. is.

The recent U.S. election has been one of the tensest and most unpredictable in American history. Suffice it to say that, for the first time since 1920, the race for the Oval Office took place with a global pandemic as its backdrop. Back then, the Spanish flu took the lives of over 600,000 Americans, and this played an important role in Republican Warren Harding defeating Democrat James Cox. The GOP boosted its ratings by criticising the passive stance taken by the Woodrow Wilson Administration and the entire democratic elite, who had failed to make the promised progress in reforming the healthcare system. This year, during the Republic Administration's tenure, 238,000 Americans had already died from COVID-19, which is the world's highest number of deaths in absolute figures. This situation by default provided the Democrats with ammunition for their guns as they built their strategy on the Republican leadership having ignored problems in healthcare for four years and having developed no clear plan of action for emerging from the crisis. Over the last year, the number of Americans displeased with the measures the White House used to combat the pandemic has grown exponentially. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign only had to construct the technical part of their broad anti-Trump propaganda shrewdly.

Another distinctive feature of this race is its racial backdrop. Two major waves of discontent had swept across the U.S. during Donald Trump’s presidency. The first included fighting against the remaining Confederate monuments and flags. Unbridled though it was, it was mostly localised in Southern states, with a high percentage of the Black population. Protesters attempted to put forward demands, but the President responded rather harshly: he called on the protesters to respect the symbols of American history and not to politicise them. After that, the public and human rights organisations secured the support of the biggest media and launched a broad campaign painting the President and his administration as crypto-racists and white supremacists. The second wave took place after the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a police officer pressing a knee on his neck during his arrest. A wave of “Black Lives Matter” mass rallies swept across the U.S., accompanied by pogroms carried out by African Americans and radical left-wing activists. Democrats had great experience of using such a situation in their favour (John Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964), and they immediately seized this highly valuable electoral agenda. Donald Trump’s only response was statistics showing that his presidency marked the lowest growth rate of Black unemployment. Yet all the pragmatic figures were predictably drowned in well-organised propaganda campaigns.

Clearly seeing their inevitable defeat in COVID-19 and racial unrest cases, Republicans attempted to find some damaging information about Joe Biden in the Ukrainian case. The attempts themselves and the hullaballoo surrounding them did, for a while, slow down the growing popularity of the former vice president, who was alleged to have used his position to lobby his family’s business interests on the Ukrainian market. The famous “Burisma case” did not, however, produce the expected results. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s pushy manner turned against him. After dismissed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified in Congress, the President was forced to cease his attacks and go on the defensive. To be fair, we should say that the Democrats’ elite launched the anti-Trump campaign on the first day of his presidency. The unique feature of the state systems devised by the founding fathers is that the presidential race is not a race between two persons but between elite systems proposing a particular philosophy for the future and appropriate mechanisms for putting it into practice. Groups and clans who used to be rivals now united to suppress the Trump-led Jacksonian revolt, and they poured huge financial, human, technological and media resources into achieving their goal.

Technically, Joe Biden has secured the requisite number of electors to become the 46th leader of the U.S. and the second (after Kennedy) Catholic president. Even so, Donald Trump’s campaign is insisting on recounts in several states where the incumbent claims elections might have been rigged. The Republican’s behaviour shows that he is unwilling to concede defeat and do down without a fight. This situation is creating additional tensions and deepening the rift in the country. Consequently, we cannot rule out both candidates’ supporters holding more rallies throughout the country and new confrontation lines emerging. The future course of events will largely depend on the Republicans’ regional leadership and their leadership in Congress. Their united front in support of Trump will mean they are ready to stand to the bitter end even if this means a second civil war. This scenario is only possible if the Supreme Court agrees to consider the possibility of vote-rigging and makes the decision to recount votes. Otherwise, the incumbent will eventually have to acknowledge defeat and transfer power peacefully. During his tenure, however, Donald Trump managed to provoke the dislike of many influential fellow Republicans, which makes the Republican elite less willing to undertake such grave risks for his second term in office.

Be it as it may, Joe Biden has essentially been elected, and the main question now is his policies for the next four years. He hails from one of America’s oldest political clans: one of his paternal ancestors was William Biden, among the richest capitalists in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware; on his maternal side, he comes from the once politically influential Blewitt family, who had for a long time been the backbone of Pennsylvania’s political and financial elite. Joe Biden’s great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, is believed to have been the founder of the Irish Catholic lobby and a key figure in the Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, who assisted Irish immigrants and strove to have their representatives in all important public and political areas. With time, the organisation became an important mechanism for balancing the excessively powerful Celtic Protestant groups (Ulster Scots, Scotch-Irish), and the Bidens and the Blewitts played an important part in that respect. Throughout his career, Joe Biden had close ties with the U.S. Irish Catholic elites and enjoyed their support, particularly that of the Kennedys and the Fitzsimmonses. So it is unsurprising that, when he left the office of the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2008, he handed on the vacant post to his closest comrade-in-arms, the Irish Catholic John Kerry; during Barack Obama’s second term, Joe Biden lobbied Kerry’s move to the office of State Secretary.

Personnel decisions Joe Biden made in the Senate and in the Obama Administration show that the notional Irish factor will become a principal element in forming the future cabinet. In domestic politics, the new President will face several fundamental difficulties. Even though the Democrats have retained their majority in the House of Representatives, the party rift will become more obvious under the new administration since, over the last four years, the Democrats’ iron party discipline and their unity stemmed from their mission to prevent Trump from being re-elected. This goal has been achieved. Now individual special interest groups (ranging from neo-socialists to moderates) will fight tooth and nail to advance their own agenda and initiatives on the most topical issues, the most pressing being combating the coronavirus pandemic (a reason to reform the healthcare system). Joe Biden’s principal trump card is his extensive experience in working within the legislation as a senator and with the legislation as vice president. Additionally, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker (an Italian Catholic) will also directly lobby Biden’s line on Capitol Hill; over the last two years, Pelosi has become quite influential among various narrowly partisan groups.

Another problem is the difficulty of completely rolling back all of Trump’s economic policies and those initiatives that are already being actively implemented throughout the country. Of course, as far as rhetoric is concerned, he will stress the importance of boosting social programmes by raising taxes and cutting military spending and by going back to the globalist model, which entails re-launching talks on Trans-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic projects. During a first term, however, being an experienced politician well-versed in the rules of the game, the new president is unlikely to become locked in open conflict with the military-industrial lobby, the energy sector, the intelligence, and particularly with farmers and industrialists. The last two categories are the backbone of the Republic and Trumpian electorate for whom Joe Biden should become one of their own, otherwise overcoming the painful rift will be virtually impossible. Unlike the inexperienced Donald Trump, Biden knows that a re-election campaign begins the day after the election and it depends for its success on the ability to build the correct balance of power between all actors in social and public life: from public workers to billionaires. So, in 2020–2024, Biden should not be expected to take any radical economic steps. On the contrary, he is likely to keep in place many of the protectionist measures instituted by his predecessor.

Many American analysts predict that Joe Biden’s foreign policy will continue Barack Obama’s neo-Wilsonian line. This forecast, however, is hard to agree with. In his first four years, Obama largely relied on his State Secretary Hillary Clinton, who, through internal struggle, succeeded in dampening the influence of neoconservatives such as Robert Gates (Defense Secretary until 2011) and Leon Panetta (CIA director until 2011 and Defense Secretary until 2013). Even so, many of her initiatives failed and the Libyan Benghazi fiasco seriously hurt her influence among her fellow party members, forcing Barack Obama to distance himself from Hillary Clinton. At that time, the experienced Joe Biden preferred to hover on the sidelines and influence the President through National Security Advisors James L. Jones Jr. (2009–2010) and Thomas Donilon (2010–2013), whose appointments he had lobbied. He also used his influence with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by his long-time protégé John Kerry. This leverage was very important, given that all appointments from top positions to ambassadors go through this committee. During Barack Obama’s second term, Biden solidified his standing: he promoted John Kerry (Irish Catholic) to the office of State Secretary, Chuck Hagel (an Irish Catholic who later converted to Protestantism) to the office of Defense Secretary, and Denis McDonough (Irish Catholic) to the office of the White House Chief of Staff.

Throughout his prosperous career, Joe Biden has never displayed an overly ideological approach to foreign policy. On the contrary, he might be called a classical realist who has always had a nose for topical trends and has endeavoured to minimise his involvement in undertakings that were obviously doomed to fail. Given his cautious attitude to war as a means for achieving external goals, he will primarily stress the philosophy of soft power and collective responsibility (via allies in Europe and Asia, too). Once again, no radical changes should be expected: the trade war with China is hard to stop quickly and painlessly and regaining control over Venezuela is equally difficult (yet support for the opposition will continue). Democrats and Joe Biden consistently accused Trump of liking Russia and of having ties with President Vladimir Putin. Consequently, Biden has, by default, to step up the anti-Russian policies (increased sanctions). Clearly, in some cases, including the Ukrainian one (which Biden supervised under Obama), Russia and the U.S. have certain red lines that, in themselves, are likely to keep the parties from arriving at fundamental agreements. The U.S. Administration’s stance on Russia’s domestic developments and on Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space has always been an important indicator for the Kremlin. Open support for non-mainstream opposition forces and complete disregard for Moscow’s opinion on, for instance, the Ukrainian question, were the principal causes of the acute cooling-off in the bilateral relations.

In the near future, the Belarus matter, to which Russia is highly sensitive, and the Nord Stream II problem may become the most urgent issues. Joe Biden has dwelled much on these subjects and frequently stated that Lukashenko’s rule and Europe’s remaining energy dependence on Moscow are inadmissible. Being, however, a pragmatic Democrat, he will do everything possible to avoid direct confrontation with Russia. For instance, in the Obama Administration, Biden opposed selling lethal weapons to Ukraine, and they were provided during Trump’s presidency. Moreover, Joe Biden was always rather critical toward Kyiv and he repeatedly noted the Ukrainian authorities’ inability to succeed in fighting corruption and democratising their country. The scenarios involving the parties going back to the problem of dismantling the fundamental treaty framework that both played an important role in bilateral relations and served as a global security foundation (the INF Treaty, nuclear arsenal reduction, etc.) are quite possible. At the same time, as regards Joe Biden and his future Administration’s potential approaches, it is important to remember that a determinedly harsh policy toward Russia is based on a bipartisan consensus. Congress has always approved sanctions and other anti-Moscow measures virtually unanimously, which is very rare for them.

As for the Middle East, Joe Biden, as one of those who had lobbied the Iranian deal, will attempt to revive it. If Democrats succeed in January in taking the Senate away from Republicans, there is every chance of rapid developments in that area. Much will depend on Tehran itself being willing to resume the dialogue. Pro-Israeli lobbyists will have little influence on the White House, but Biden is unlikely to abolish Trump's decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and to recognise Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. At the same time, Israel should be getting ready for the new administration to put major pressure on it regarding the West Bank settlements. Some changes will certainly be seen in U.S. relations with the Gulf monarchies and with Turkey: the White House will certainly demand results in protecting human rights and it will also create new mechanisms for limiting the influence their lobbyists have in Washington. The Turkish opposition has been greatly inspired by Donald Trump’s defeat and has even congratulated Biden on his victory, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adopted wait-and-see tactics. The Turkish leader realises that Biden will certainly want to use the Fethullah Gülen (Erdogan’s principal opponent currently residing in the U.S.) factor and the mounting discontent with the current regime in Turkey itself to put pressure on Ankara on several strategic issues, including the purchase of Russian S-400s.

***

In general, Joe Biden's victory should not be seen as a precursor of inevitable radical changes in domestic and foreign policy. The new President and his Administration will have to devote a significant chunk of their time to searching for formulae that would enable them to overcome the deep rift in American society. The record voter turnout also evidences a highly politicised nation, which is a marker of deep-running systemic problems. As a rule, heightened expectations do not materialise (as Barack Obama’s story clearly demonstrates), while many problems remain unresolved. The dilapidation of today’s political system (particularly the party system) is so obvious that no president, no administration will be able to introduce fundamental changes without revamping the system first. Only time will tell whether Joe Biden sets himself the task of going down in American history as a president who launched an in-depth transformation or whether he will become another top manager for the executive branch mired in the Washington swamp. One thing is certain: this election showed how serious and dangerous the crisis of state and national identity in the U.S. is.

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Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
 
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