9 November 2020 — Global Justice in the 21st Century
by Richard Falk
The victory by the Biden/Harris ticket in the 2020 American National Elections are basically good news for the country and the world, although not as good as expected (by pollsters or enthusiasts) or nearly as decisive as desirable given the dreadfully regressive behavior of Trump and the Republican Party over the past four years. And there is some bad news, as well, lurking just beneath the surface. Not only the strength of Trumpism in America, but the likely drift toward the center-right of the Biden presidency.
Why Good News?
Above all, Trump’s reelection would have meant a tighter embrace of an American version of fascisim with constitutionalism, the rule of law, and human rights repudiated, and an autocratic/plutocratic style of leadership consolidated around an ideology of chauvinistic or nativist nationalism.
The vote was not as one-sided as anti-fascists might have hoped, but the Biden ticket did prevail in the popular vote by an almost 5 million margin, and won the electoral college by a comfortable margin. This achievement is even greater than the statistical results if account is taken of the various Republican voter suppression efforts.
In policy terms, the result seems clearly beneficial with respect to the short-term domestic agenda. The CORONA pandemic is likely to be immediately handled in accord with guidelines by health specialists rather than by the macho whims of the Trump White House, which means that the virus is likely to be brought under control as rapidly and humanely as possible, assuming that the inauguration of Biden occurs on January 20th. Beyond this, presuming some Congressional flexibility, a stimulus package beneficial to the poor and unemployed, as well as to small businesses is likely to be quickly forthcoming. Such policies should pave the way to a broader, more sustainable and fairer economic recovery, although the second wave COVID spike in Europe warrants caution as to what the future will bring.
Looking beyond these immediate challenges, it would seem reasonable to expect improvements in health care, public education, judicial appointments, racial and gender equality from the Biden presidency, with a realistic prospect of progress toward realizing such goals, especially if the two Georgia runoff elections on January 5th go the Democratic Party way, which seems possible, but not yet probable.
Internationally, the Biden victory will be greeted by world leaders around the world with a huge sigh of relief. It will have, additionally, some positive impacts on global problem-solving, giving rise overall to a more cooperative atmosphere. A revived posture of U.S. global activism is certain to be welcomed at first raising hopes of crafting compromise solutions to common problems. It seems also like to produce some increased appreciation of the role of the United Nations and international law, highlighted by reactivating membership in and refunding of the WHO. This kind of participation by the United States is likely to a partial renewal of the global leadership role that the U.S. played in the decades after the end of World War II, although in a more muted manner, due to preoccupations with domestic challenges, and in a spirit more related to functional concerns, above all, climate change and health, than to ideologically adversary geopolitical relations.
Now, the Bad News
While the referendum on Trump as leader and fascism as ideology were formally repudiated, the threats posed remain existentially viral, likely to become entrenched in some kind of organizational Trumpist format that will stalk the future of governance and quality of political life in the United States during the years ahead. It is chastening to acknowledge that if the pandemic had not struck the country so hard or Trump had handled it more prudently, he likely would have been reelected. The stock market would have attained a record high, while unemployment would have remained at record lows. As it was, as Republicans gleefully point out, their party won the 2020 elections except for the presidency—so far holding their Senate majority, even picking up several seats in the House of Representatives, gaining in Federal contexts, meaning greater influence among the legislatures and leadership in the 50 states. I can only imagine the dire morning after had there been no health crisis, no economic downturn, and no crazy leader in the White House!
Less obvious, but no less serious, the Biden victory is also a victory for the American deep state, which has presided over the implementation of an evolving bipartisan consensus that has shaped American foreign policy ever since the wartime unity governments of 1941-1945. This foreign policy consensus can be identified with four overlapping dimensions: (1) a global military security system consisting of hundreds of overseas military bases, all-oceans naval presences, operational intelligence capabilities in every strategically important country in the world, and a hegemonic control of nuclear weaponry; (2) a string of formal and informal alliances and special relationships that connect U.S. diplomacy and geopolitical muscle with strategic priorities such as the defense of Europe, Taiwan, and Israel; (3) a shifting continuing need to identify sufficient global security threats and interest to satisfy private sector arms sales interests and to ensure Congressional support for high defense budgets; the promotion of such goals tend to magnify security threats and induce geopolitical confrontations; (4) a support structure for a market-driven world economy premised on ‘Neoliberal Globalization,’ premised on facilitating transnational capital investments and beneficial trading frameworks, and backed up by international economic institutions (World Bank, IMF, World Trade Organization), and supplemented as necessary by various hostile responses by the U.S. Government in reaction to displays of foreign economic nationalism, including reliance on sanctions, covert interventions, and coercive diplomacy.
It is notable that the bureaucratic managers of the deep state, retirees from the CIA and Pentagon, were not comfortable with the Trump presidency because its leadership lacked a disciplined adherence to these four dimensions of the deep state consensus that had managed the transitions from World War II to the Cold War, from the Cold War to the War of Terror, and hopes perhaps for a new transition that generates tensions with Russia and/or China. It is not that Trump defied the consensus at the level of policy, but that he led with an unsteady hand less responsive to the nuances of geopolitical management of an increasingly complex global setting. With Biden the deep state has a reliable veteran adherent of the deep state consensus, someone who can be trusted to follow its signals as to policy initiatives, especially in the domains of foreign economic and security policy. In the present setting, Biden has almost total freedom to opt for the center-right on foreign policy as the political mood is currently dominated by how he delivers on the home front.
Finally, on the domestic scene, there is now a probable surfacing of post-Trump strife among the Democratic winners in the recent elections. The issue is one of policy influence as reflected by high profile appointments, policy priorities, and presidential tone. Will the progressive wing of the Democratic Party that preferred Bernie Sanders over Joe Biden as the anti-Trump candidate be given its due or will it be boxed in by the center-right leadership that blames the center-left for its setbacks in the 2020 elections? These self-styled Democratic moderates insist that progressive advocacy of the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, debt forgiveness for student loans were ‘socialist’ or hard left proposals that drove many Independents to vote Republican except for Biden/Harris. It seems doubtful that ‘the center will hold’ as Democrats on the left and right vie for influence, and it is quite possible that The Squad will go it alone, championing movement politics, while almost giving up on the two-party approach to American politics. We already finding the two wings each claiming credit for the Biden victory. The center-right contending that only a candidate of Biden’s conservative record could have won, and all other Democrat alternatives would have gone down to defeat. The center-left counters with the claim that without the progressive ground game and mobilization of voter turnout among minorities and youth, Biden/Harris would have been beaten by Trump/Pence.
Too many uncertainties exist to support any confident assessment as to how these clashing tendencies will play out. What seems clear is that there were two outcomes of the American elections: Trump was beaten, but Trumpism was not, garnering the support under the most unfavorable circumstances of over 70 million voters and a heightened sense of militancy under circumstances of higher political stakess. Will Trumpists, and the Republican leadership, interpret the election as a defeat because Trump lost or as a mandate because Republican conservative policy positions despite the adverse presidential tide made gains at the Congressional and federal levels of government.
One unknowable issue is whether Trumpism can flourish without Trump in the White House, and closely related, whether Trump after returning to private life will seek to lead the movement he inspired or resume his life as freewheeling business magnate.
Another area of uncertainty is whether the deep state will opt for a geopolitical confrontation with China or will be content to promote economic growth and political stability at least for an interim period during which the U.S. recovers its geopolitical composure. It seems safe to assume that Biden will govern in light of a new articulation of a deep state consensus responsive to its reading of the global scene, but how that will be weighted is far from clear at this time.
Biden’s clarion call has been to bring civility, if not a spirit of unity, back to the ebb and flow of American politics. This is an understandable response to the slash and burn presidency of Trump, but if it persists, it could lead to some discrediting compromises, with respect to stimulus, health care, immigration, unlikely to appease Trumpists or even non-Trump Republicans, and foster an image of the Biden presidency as out of touch with the harsh realities of American politics in their present configuration. Obama made this mistake, and was outmaneuvered by Republicans who took all they could get without giving away anything in return. It will be important to watch closely Biden’s attempts to induce a more cooperative atmosphere and, especially, how he handles a non-responsive Republican Senate. Indications remain strong that the last thing Trump-oriented Republicans want is compromise. Forgetting that it takes two to tango could quickly alter the welcome image of Biden the unifier into that of Biden the dangerous fool who fails to understand the ethics and politics of polarization. Unless a presently unseen and almost unimaginable will emerges on the political right to seek some level of reconciliation with the Democratic establishment, wasting energy on finding common ground is like looking for sunlight deep inside a cave.