Implications of Biden’s victory
The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election ended with former Vice President Joe Biden’s decisive victory in the presidential race and a disappointing stalemate for Democrats in Congress. The moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party have already started fighting over the result, with moderates warning that the leftward drift of the party hurt them in the House and progressives claiming that their followers were critical to Biden’s success at the presidential level. Meanwhile, President Trump is destroying all decorum, precedent and norms with outlandish claims of voter fraud, sabotage of the transition process and refusal to concede. This is a stressful and embarrassing time for Americans, but despite the viscosity at home, the results are a net win for the United States-Korea alliance. Here are five implications.
First, U.S. forces will not withdraw. Republicans in the Senate have been regularly introducing legislation to block President Trump from withdrawing troops without congressional approval for a reason — they believed (as do I) that Trump intended to walk out of the Special Measures Agreement (SMA) talks, declare peace on the Korean Peninsula, order the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), claim credit for saving money and demand the Nobel Peace Prize. Those same Republicans told me that they were not sure they could stop Trump from following through on that threat — which he has made repeatedly to them — if he were re-elected. That threat is now off the table. There will still be a tough negotiation over SMA with the Biden administration, but it will not represent an existential threat to the alliance.
Second, there will not be a Biden summit with Kim Jong-un. Joe Biden has an enormous set of challenges in foreign policy: he will have to rebuild trust with European allies, rejoin international climate change negotiations, re-engage with multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization and World Trade Organization, compete with China and Russia and undo the massive damage Trump has done to the institutions of American foreign policy. And these are not even his highest priorities. Americans in polls clearly expect him to focus first and foremost on addressing the pandemic and the economic crisis. Add on top of that the likelihood that Republicans will retain control of the Senate after two rematch elections in Georgia in January, and it becomes obvious that Joe Biden simply will not have enough political capital to risk on a summit with Kim Jong-un that none of Biden’s advisors think would lead to actual denuclearization. The fact that Republicans did not object to Trump’s summit with Kim should not fool anyone: they will quickly attack Biden for looking even a little bit soft on North Korea.
Biden said in the debates with Trump that he would meet with Kim after evidence of denuclearization from the North — which he will pursue first through incremental talks between experts if Pyongyang is willing.
Third, the next few months could be dangerous. While there is more stability and predictability again in American alliances and foreign policy, the transition to a Biden administration involves some treacherous terrain. As my colleague Victor Cha has demonstrated, recent history suggests North Korea will engage in a major provocation during this period. Pyongyang greeted the Clinton administration with escalation at Yongbyon; the Bush administration with escalation of the HEU program; and the Obama administration with a nuclear test. The fact that Trump is vindictively firing senior national security officials like Defense Secretary Mark Esper and refusing to cooperate with the Biden transition team on national security and intelligence briefings does not help, to say the least. The good news is that the career military and civilian officials overseeing the alliance have never been more prepared or better coordinated with their Korean counterparts — and the incoming Biden officials will bring much needed expertise and experience — but more rests on the personalities of Trump and Kim Jong-un over the next few months than I would like.
Fourth, democracy works. Despite the disturbing scenes of protestors and the deepening polarization of Americans’ political views, the fact is that more Americans voted than ever before in our history and did so peacefully and without any measurable foreign interference or fraud. Moreover, the casting of votes in the election belonged to the independents and moderates, who rejected Trump’s incompetence and right wing nativism while punishing the Democrats in Congress for drifting leftward and flirting with socialism. Biden is a man of the middle and divided government puts him where he may be most comfortable — trying to build coalitions and consensus.
This will be more difficult on the domestic front, but there is a strong bipartisan consensus around alliances and deterrence, and the alliance will benefit from that on the foreign policy front. Democracy will also form a centerpiece of Biden’s foreign policy, with one of his first moves likely to be a summit of democracies that would likely feature Korea prominently. However, the Moon administration should recognize that many democracy experts around Biden are concerned at some of the authoritarian tendencies in the Blue House that emerged while Trump indulged in his own strongman tactics at home.
Lastly, Trumpism is not dead. The greatest disappointment for many around the world in this election is that Trumpism lives even as Trump himself has lost the presidency. But what is Trumpism? The cult of personality around “The Donald” reflects the anti-elite identity politics of white Americans in small towns and rural communities across the country but not necessarily a clear foreign policy agenda. Those vying to replace Trump or serve in his cabinet if he makes a comeback in 2024 come in two stripes on foreign policy: those like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky who favor withdrawal of the U.S. military from the world and those like Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas who favor a muscular anticommunist foreign policy. The majority of “quiet” Republicans in Congress support international engagement and alliances because the majority of their constituents do, but the battle between the isolationist and hawkish wings of Trumpism could have a profound impact on the alliance in four years.
What does this mean for the Moon administration? The answer seems straightforward: don’t waste time pushing the new Biden administration to have a summit with the North; think about how Korea can help America on regional policy and how it can play a prominent role in global coordination on the Covid-19 pandemic; and pay more attention to democratic norms within Korea.