US president Joe Biden’s first international meetings and visit to Europe as US president were certainly different from Donald Trump’s visits, but how much in substance has really changed?
Internationally, Trump’s defeat was met with relief by a majority of Nato countries who had hopes of change, especially a more stable and less unpredictable relationship. Certainly, Biden has a made a difference. Just a few months into his presidency it is clear that Biden’s approach is less crude, less obviously egotistical, less concerned with promoting the family brand and less mercurial than Trump’s was, but on a number of key issues, Biden’s goals remain the same.
Biden has not even gone as far as Obama did in loosening US sanctions on Cuba. As Madrid’s El Pais reported, “not one of the 240 measures adopted by Trump to toughen the embargo on Cuba have been rescinded” by Biden.
This continuation of policy especially applies to China. As is widely acknowledged, a major feature of the current world situation is the dramatic rise of China’s unique state capitalist regime which has upended the previous world balance of forces and put the dominance of US imperialism into question.
While not physically present at the recent G7 summit (although China’s President Xi Jinping will be at G20 meeting in October), China’s growing shadow certainly was, and how the ‘older’ imperialist powers in G7 should deal with it was a key item on the agenda.
The New York Times put it clearly: “Biden is engineering a sharp shift in policy toward China, focused on gathering allies to counter Beijing’s coercive diplomacy around the world and ensuring that China does not gain a permanent advantage in critical technologies.
“At first glance, it seems to adopt much of the Trump administration’s conviction that the world’s two biggest powers are veering dangerously toward confrontation, a clear change in tone from the Obama years…
“It focuses anew on competing more aggressively with Beijing on technologies vital to long-term economic and military power, after concluding that President Donald J. Trump’s approach – a mix of expensive tariffs, efforts to ban Huawei and TikTok, and accusations about sending the ‘China virus’ to American shores – had failed to change President Xi Jinping’s course.
“The result, as Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, put it during the campaign last year, is an approach that ‘should put less focus on trying to slow China down and more emphasis on trying to run faster ourselves’ through increased government investment in research and technologies like semiconductors, artificial intelligence and energy.”
US imperialist interests paramount
While large elements of Trump’s policies were based on personal whims, prejudices and family interests, insofar as Trump’s general idea of protecting and boosting US imperialism’s position is shared with Biden, especially in regard to China. The central difference is that Biden has returned to the previous administration’s policies of trying to establish alliances to defend and advance the interests of the US ruling class rather than Trump’s simple ‘America First’ strategy with its long list of rivals.
The Chinese regime’s ‘Made in China 2025’ economic plan, along with its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, is seen as a major threat to US capitalism’s pre-eminence. Thus, one of Biden’s earliest measures has been the US Innovation and Competition Act, passed overwhelmingly in the Senate in early June, which asks the US House of Representatives to agree to pour a total of nearly a quarter-trillion dollars of state aid into key sectors of the US economy. The semi-conductor industry alone would get $52 billion in emergency subsidies.
This policy of the state propping up the US economy will probably mean a further sharpening of international competition even with some of its allies. Against this background, Biden’s administration aims to re-establish the US’s position as leader of alliances, prepared to live with a certain amount of ‘give and take’.
Of course, this will not be straightforward, even within formal or informal alliances each ruling class will attempt to pursue its own interests and clashes of interest will be the result. Thus it is not certain what will be the outcome of the current talks regarding the full reinstatement of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and lifting of the extra sanctions Trump imposed on Iran.
Trump had a more simple transactional approach to foreign policy more akin to property deals. Thus, for example, Trump accepted Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara in return for Morocco signing a peace deal with Israel. Furthermore, Trump had a wider list of immediate adversaries than the Biden administration currently has.
Clearly, Trump aimed to weaken the European Union (EU) as a potential rival by supporting Brexit, exploiting internal EU divisions, and cultivating support among the EU’s central and eastern European members.
But even this was not new. As it grew in strength US imperialism looked to weaken and undermine its rivals, especially Britain and the British Empire. Thus, despite Boris Johnson’s talk of Britain’s “indestructible relationship” with the US, it was less than 100 years ago, in December 1925 actually, that the US Army began drawing up ‘War Plan Red’ to fight Britain. The justification for this was “the expulsion of Red (Britain) from North and South America… and the definite elimination of Red as a strong competitor in foreign trade”.
Substitute the US for Britain and this could sound like similar discussions probably taking place within the Chinese regime or, vice versa, in the US regarding China. But there is a big difference now as currently the US is still the world’s mightiest military power. However, this does not automatically rule out the possibility of military incidents taking place, for instance in the seas around China where there are competing territorial and other claims.
Alongside China, Trump saw German capitalism, and its domination of Europe, as a challenge to his simple ‘America First’ policy, especially if it tried to balance between US and Chinese capitalism.
Biden, on the other hand, has given the current German government a sweetener by dropping some of the sanctions Trump imposed to try to stop the completion of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. He wants to fully include Germany in his alliance against China. However, such moves will not eliminate competition and clashes of interests, especially as China is an important market for German capitalism and China invests heavily in some EU countries.
In an uncertain world, instability is guaranteed and a relatively declining US imperialism cannot expect its allies to always accept US imperialism’s hegemony. This means that other ruling classes, including powerful ones, may try to avoid being tied too closely to the US’s coat-tails and, especially in relation to China, try not to lose access to the Chinese market and goods.
The unstable world situation has increased uncertainty. On the one hand there is the continuing impact of Covid, especially when now there are regular reports of new variants causing upsurges in infections, most recently in Guangzhou in China.
In addition, the economic situation, notwithstanding the sometimes sharp immediate recoveries from lockdowns, is uncertain as before Covid the global economy was slowing down. Now there is increasing discussion among capitalist economists about the danger of ‘stagflation’, the combination of inflation, slow growth and unemployment.
Tens of millions have been plunged into poverty by Covid’s economic impact. Youth unemployed has jumped upwards, while at the same time the numbers working as child labourers has risen. And all this is against the background of increasing evidence of the impact of climate change in one region after another region around the world.
Increased tensions have caused military spending to rise, globally up 2.6% in 2020, to total nearly $2 trillion. Different regions are seeing mounting conflicts and sometimes fighting between and within states.
While a world war between the superpowers is not posed at this stage, other clashes are entirely possible. Some like those between Russia and Ukraine or China and India could have global implications, while others in the West or East Africa have large regional effects.
The Biden administration’s response to the recent bombardment of Gaza was typical of previous US administrations. For the first eight days, its emphasis was on refusing to criticise the Israeli government’s actions and blocking even a token call by the United Nations for a cessation of violence.
Even when Biden finally called for a ceasefire it was without any concrete proposals, something which indicates the inability of the capitalist powers to come up with anything more than a token ‘solution’ which, in reality, would not deal with the fundamentals of the Israel/Palestine crisis.
Of course, as is to be expected, there are attempts to cover this up by increased use of the language of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’. Biden tried to set the tone just before G7 summit, saying that “the United States is back and democracies of the world are standing together to tackle the toughest challenges, and the issues that matter most to our future”.
The so-called New Atlantic Charter 2021 that Biden and Johnson grandiosely agreed on 10 June was even clearer, as it opens: “First, we resolve to defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies … We will champion transparency, uphold the rule of law, and support civil society and independent media. We will also confront injustice and inequality and defend the inherent dignity and human rights of all individuals.”
But, to say the least, these fine words are hardly borne out by the facts. Yes, as the G7 summit communiqué showed, currently a big Western campaign is running about the Chinese regime’s persecution and control over the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in China. Their plight is repeatedly highlighted in the western media but, in contrast, persecution in Muslim countries is ignored if, like in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, their leaders are friends and allies of US imperialism.
The facts need to be examined, not just the words. One of the first foreign policy decisions that Biden had to take was in regard to the Saudi state’s 2018 murder (and then cutting up into pieces) of the Saudi dissident and US resident Jamal Khashoggi in its Istanbul consulate.
Despite the opening words of a US national intelligence report officially published in February this year stating that: “We assess that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi” Biden simply refused to even verbally sanction the Crown Prince.
Later, on 17 March, Biden justified this by explaining: “We have never that I’m aware of, when we have an alliance with a country, gone to the acting head of state and punished that person and ostracized him”.
In other words, rulers allied to the US have a blank cheque so long as they remain allies and reliable. So much for the New Atlantic Charter’s words about being willing to “confront injustice and inequality and defend the inherent dignity and human rights of all individuals”!
But this is nothing new, it is a long-established practice. Back in 1939, referring to the Nicaraguan ruler who had effectively seized power in 1936, the ‘New Deal’ President Franklin Roosevelt is alleged to have said: “Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
Biden is simply continuing a tradition not just of the US ruling class but of capitalist rulers internationally.
Afghanistan is also somewhere where Biden is following Trump, by finally withdrawing US troops stationed there. In reality, this withdrawal is an admittance of failure. The US is really cutting its losses after a nearly 20-year campaign in which it failed to meet most of its objectives, despite spending huge amounts of money.
According to the US Department of Defense, the total military expenditure in Afghanistan from October 2001 until September 2019 was a staggering $778 billion.
It is possible that now the Taliban may extend and consolidate their rule and the US may continue to negotiate with them. The fine words of the US, Britain and other Nato countries about ‘democratic rights’ for Afghans were never seriously implemented and will now be thrown out of the window.
Trump tried to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. He was, in a way, following both Bill Clinton’s and George W Bush’s US administrations. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, they both had negotiated with the Taliban to get them to broaden their government by involving regional warlords, as well as favouring US companies’ attempts to construct an oil and gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan.
Afghanistan is a real example of the hollowness of imperialist promises. It has been devastated by over 40 years of war which the US was deeply involved with. The wrecking of the country stems back to imperialism’s sponsorship and arming of the reactionary Mujahedeen who fought the Stalinist regime after the 1979 Russian intervention – an intervention which Marxists opposed, but without supporting the counter-revolution which the Mujahedeen represented.
Eventually, in 1993, the Mujahedeen took over the central government, but the brutality of their short-lived rule led to the Taliban being initially welcomed by some in Kabul and elsewhere. Now, the Afghan people face the possibility of an even worse situation. The failure of the mission, initially led by the US and Britain, to end the suffering of the Afghan people poses sharply the question that it is only movements of the working class, power and oppressed that can fundamentally change the situation.
This question of building such movements is really the key one for working people and youth internationally. It is even more vital now, as the capitalist leaders have no clear ideas of what to do. They are unwilling to challenge their own system and instead they react to events, launch plans, etc, but are fundamentally now at the mercy of a world in turmoil.
However, the repeated national and international shocks, crises and unwelcome developments – like Covid – are creating a growing questioning of how countries are run, who really benefits, and what the future is.
Again and again, there are mass movements seeking change. Currently, we especially see them in South America where Chile, Columbia and Peru have all recently experienced mass movements that reject the old leaders and parties, and demand fundamental change, an end to the old system.
Discussing what needs to be done, drawing socialist conclusions, and building socialist movements and organisations that can put such ideas into practice, are key. Only the breaking of capitalism’s grip can open up the possibility of genuine change, of democratically planning the use of the world’s resources and talents in the interests of humanity. Then, jamborees like the G7 summit will be seen for what they are, expensive shows where some of the world’s rulers meet and issue trite statements.