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What Biden’s domestic approach means for US foreign and security policy—and for Australia

Posted By on March 25, 2021 @ 15:18

Since becoming US president on 20 January, Joe Biden has shown that he’s a changed animal to the vice president he was under Barack Obama. He’s learned some important lessons since then and is applying them to how he operates domestically and internationally, with some striking parallels.

What this means for Australia is starting to get clearer and creates opportunities for Australian national security and economic interests—if we can lift our speed of action and delivery.

Obama tried to bring America—and the US Congress—together and get big initiatives through using negotiation, consultation and reaching across party lines. The Affordable Health Care Act is a totemic example [1] of this approach.

The bill was signed into law by Obama on 23 March 2010 after the enormous effort he put into working with congressional Democrats and a small number of Republicans failed in the preceding year. The law itself was a compromise that came from the failed consultations, and so achieved less than the original design.

What Biden seems to have learned from this is that big initiatives have to be driven hard, and that consultation with those who fundamentally don’t want you to succeed will likely result in big initiatives being blunted. So, even if they proceed, they do so in a way that underwhelms and underdelivers. That’s not how Team Biden wants to roll.

Biden has already put forward and signed into law [2] a US$1.9 trillion stimulus bill despite not a single [3] Republican in either house voting for it. And he’s been rewarded by polls [4] showing that 70% of American adults support the package (including 41% of Republican voters surveyed). Uncomfortable reading for Republicans in Congress, and a signal of more to come.

At the same time, Biden has made unity a signature part of every element in his administration’s priorities—starting with his inaugural address [5] to the American people:

Few periods in our nation’s history have been more challenging or difficult than the one we’re in now … To overcome these challenges—to restore the soul and to secure the future of America—requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.

But this unity is not defined [6] by bipartisanship with congressional Republicans. It can be despite them.

Biden is now taking the same approach to an even bigger economic plan, with a multi-part package of some US$3 trillion. The first tranche will apparently [7] ‘center on roads, bridges and other infrastructure projects [8] and include many of the climate-change initiatives Mr Biden outlined in the “Build Back Better” plan [9] he released during the 2020 campaign’.

This tells us Biden is in a hurry because he knows speed of delivery matters. It also tells us that he’s comfortable with building support where he can, outside the normal centres, institutions and forums like Congress, and that he doesn’t intend to have delivery slowed and blunted by interminable negotiations and consultation with partners who either don’t want what he does or can’t move with the speed and momentum he sees as essential. If you are to provide company, you also need to make a contribution. Biden won’t throw away his strength as a pragmatic negotiator, but he also won’t lose focus on outcomes.

This is the same method Team Biden is using internationally. And it’s what seems best described as ‘fast multilateralism’ [10]. The Quad leaders’ meeting [11] is an example. Biden sought unity on things that matter, with speed of delivery a key factor. That explains the Quad focus on vaccine production, financing and delivery in the Indo-Pacific, with Southeast Asia and the Pacific as focuses. And it explains why taking risk out of critical supply chains, notably for high-technology items, was also at the heart of the Quad agenda. One reason Biden will have chosen the Quad as the right grouping for this work is that, while it’s brand new as a leaders’ forum, it has the unity and sense of urgency these challenges require.

There’s a similar ‘fast multilateralism’ in US preparation for engagement with China: Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made sure they consulted with Japan and South Korea, and built on Biden’s Quad discussions and early calls to allied and partner leadership to set the scene for the Alaska meeting with China.

Broader, slower consultation—with NATO, the EU, the Five Eyes and the G7, for example—will follow, as we see with Blinken’s engagement with Brussels [12]. But again, a signature feature of Biden’s international action will be that it values momentum and delivery. Process and consultation are being seen much less as values in themselves than many may have expected.

Out of this, as with US domestic policy, Biden judges that unity of purpose and action will be the likely result, not just at the political level, but at the population levels in the US and its allied and partner communities. That’s a deeper unity that’s more likely to last and affect underlying trends.

This is a big call and a very new a way of operating. It shows us that the Biden administration understands that taking some big risks is what the current strategic environment requires, and that the opportunity costs of not doing so are high.

For Australia as a US ally with some very clear overlaps in our national interests that map to Biden’s priorities, this is both challenging and good news, because it creates enormous opportunities for us politically, economically, technologically and for our security.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison can position Australia as one of the primary contributors to Biden’s free and open Indo-Pacific initiative [13] by taking some fast, hard-nosed decisions to enable closer US–Australian maritime operations, and to enmesh the rebuilding of Australia’s economy with the huge stimulus-driven rebuilding Biden is undertaking.

Here are three simple big examples that could be on this year’s AUSMIN agenda, or even in a package that Morrison and Biden announce.

First is an Australian package that sets up Darwin as a major port to enable greater Australian, US and Japanese naval presence and operation—yes, and that resolves the pocket of sand in the oyster that is Landbridge. This will work with the grain of Biden’s global force posture review [14], which in our region is about enabling the US military to operate and be sustained from more dispersed locations, notably in Southeast Asia. Darwin makes strategic sense here.

Interestingly, this port package might be cheaper than expected, because a set of ad hoc planned investments by government and private actors has the bones of a master plan already. They just require orchestration. It’d help with Australian engagement with Southeast Asian partners, with momentum coming out of both the US and Japan.

The second could be an Australian plan on quantum technologies as they apply to national security that partners with the US national security community’s work, and puts new Australian money into our quantum research and development community. Quantum makes sense because it’s probably one of the ‘commanding heights’ of future technology that will determine national power and prosperity.

And the last could be a package that’s about accelerating key new capabilities into service with the Australian and US militaries, with core items being co-production of advanced missile systems to reduce supply risks in conflict, rapid movement from development to production of hypersonic missiles [15], responsive space systems like small satellites, and a joint program on unmanned undersea systems like Boeing’s Orca [16]. This package would also deliver on the government’s drive [17] to give the Australian military more offensive firepower sooner than the mid-2030s.

Funding of the Australian defence elements can be made available out of the growing defence budget, even if getting hold of it in the early years will make some unhappy by cancelling or delaying things they love very much.

Outside these areas of joint priority for Australian and US security, similar imagination by Australia can connect to Biden’s priorities. Critical infrastructure and the digital technologies it involves are an example, along with using Australia’s renewable energy and natural resources to remove key supply-chain vulnerabilities for both countries.

There’s time, but not much time, for Australia to get ahead of Team Biden and benefit from the momentum of working with our huge US partner. Let’s be company that contributes—in our interests and for our joint prosperity and security.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/what-bidens-domestic-approach-means-for-us-foreign-and-security-policy-and-for-australia/

URLs in this post:

[1] totemic example: https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/10.1377/hlthaff.2016.1080

[2] signed into law: https://www.forbes.com/sites/sarahhansen/2021/03/11/its-official-biden-signs-19-trillion-relief-bill-clearing-the-way-for-1400-stimulus-checks/

[3] not a single: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/06/the-senate-passes-biden-stimulus-whats-next.html

[4] polls: https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/03/09/broad-public-support-for-coronavirus-aid-package-just-a-third-say-it-spends-too-much/

[5] inaugural address: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/01/20/inaugural-address-by-president-joseph-r-biden-jr/

[6] not defined: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/02/09/you-want-unity-bidens-got-unity/

[7] apparently: https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-administration-officials-put-together-3-trillion-economic-plan-11616443881

[8] infrastructure projects: https://www.wsj.com/articles/biden-buttigieg-to-push-infrastructure-plan-11614859200?mod=article_inline

[9] “Build Back Better” plan: https://www.wsj.com/articles/democrats-face-test-of-party-unity-as-they-plan-next-legislative-steps-11615557601?st=nsllfizkzliguw8&reflink=desktopwebshare_permalink&mod=article_inline

[10] fast multilateralism’: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/china-comes-alone-while-us-brings-fast-multilateralism-to-anchorage/

[11] Quad leaders’ meeting: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/quad-leaders-joint-statement-spirit-quad

[12] Brussels: https://lnks.gd/l/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJidWxsZXRpbl9saW5rX2lkIjoxMDAsInVyaSI6ImJwMjpjbGljayIsImJ1bGxldGluX2lkIjoiMjAyMTAzMjQuMzc2NDU4NDEiLCJ1cmwiOiJodHRwczovL3d3dy5zdGF0ZS5nb3Yvc2VjcmV0YXJ5LWFudG9ueS1qLWJsaW5rZW4tYW5kLWV1cm9wZWFuLWNvbW1pc3Npb24tcHJlc2lkZW50LXVyc3VsYS12b24tZGVyLWxleWVuLWJlZm9yZS10aGVpci1tZWV0aW5nLyJ9.i29wqew_78KNZKOtzlDtABQ4b2Q1S2t-oDxs_H-mrh4/s/1204490267/br/100586918255-l

[13] free and open Indo-Pacific initiative: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/03/12/remarks-by-president-biden-prime-minister-modi-of-india-prime-minister-morrison-of-australia-and-prime-minister-suga-of-japan-in-virtual-meeting-of-the-quad/

[14] global force posture review: https://www.defense.gov/Explore/News/Article/Article/2495328/global-posture-review-will-tie-strategy-defense-policy-to-basing/

[15] hypersonic missiles: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/coming-ready-or-not-hypersonic-weapons

[16] Orca: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-should-do-more-than-just-wait-for-the-attack-class-submarines-to-arrive/

[17] government’s drive: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/address-launch-2020-defence-strategic-update

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