The G20 Summit may show whether President Biden has finally read the memo that this is the era of Cold War 2.0, and that the lead adversary is no longer Moscow but Beijing, writes Prof. Madhav Das Nalapat
The results of the 2022 midterm elections in the United States came as a surprise to at least three of the four heads of the great powers of the 21st century. The response of Prime Minister Modi is not known, but Presidents Biden, Putin and Xi had expected a Democratic meltdown, given the toxic consequences of the war in Ukraine that NSA Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken ensured that Biden hyperactively led. Xi and Putin must have been disappointed by the close result, for to both Moscow and Beijing, a much weakened Executive and an even more sharply feuding Legislature in the US would have been welcome.
Instead, despite the unpopularity of President Biden, the Democrats have surprised themselves by putting up a good showing, making the US President ecstatic and putting within reach the enactment of the $2 trillion Biden Social Justice Plan. The Republican leadership expected to gain a record number of seats in the US Congress as a result of the inflation and supply dislocations caused by the very war in Ukraine that they were vocally backing, including by voting with the Democrats on the huge amounts of money regularly expended on the war by the White House. Unfortunately for the GoP, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had ensured through then President Trump the transformation of large swathes of the US judiciary into crusaders for what may be termed Theological Republicanism.
Clearly, McConnell had not factored in the distaste felt by several independent voters, especially young women, at a Supreme Court that appears to be basing many of its judgments less on settled laws and democratic logic than on theological and ideological justifications. In particular, the US Supreme Court’s open sesame to the proliferation of mass killing automatic weapons in the hands of citizens, added to its shock overturning of Roe v Wade took away not just public safety but freedoms that for half a century had been taken for granted by US citizens. The evident ideological and theological bias of the six Republican-leaning Justices in the US Supreme Court helped the Democratic Party to avoid a predicted Republican sweep during the November 2022 midterms.
Apart from the Supreme Court, the other factor that boosted vote tallies of Democratic Party candidates was Donald J. Trump. Several independent voters swallowed their distaste for Biden’s unwillingness to minister to voter priorities in his obsession with Russia and Ukraine, and voted Democratic out of fear that a Republican midterm sweep in 2022 would make another Trump bid for the US Presidency in 2024 inevitable. Even if Trump were to lose that contest, which he would unless Joe Biden were his opponent, his consistent refusal to accept any result other than a victory for himself would continue to poison politics and society in the US even from 2024 onwards, to the delight of Xi and Putin. The strands of Trumpian logic, including denying that losing in a fair election was normal in a democracy, brought down Republican candidates such as Mehmet Oz and Karri Lake, who would have won but for their extravagantly advertised embrace of Trump and his views.
In contrast, a future superstar, who has yet to be acknowledged as such in US media, J.D. Vance, in effect, only had a handshake with Trump rather than a full embrace, which was why he was elected as a US Senator from Ohio. Tellingly, Vance thanked more than 30 individuals by name in his victory speech, but left out Trump. He was clearly aware that from the 2022 midterms onwards, Trump’s stock was going to be in decline even amongst the Republican faithful, and so the incoming first term Senator did not want his popularity to get dragged down by adherence to Trump in the manner that several other legislators in his party are experiencing. The combination of public dread of a rerun of Trump’s tantrums, together with a Supreme Court that in some of its judgments do not go by the legal logic that is the foundation of democracy, but the belief systems of particular religious theologies mixed with political ideologies, hurt the Republican candidates. The 6:3 majority in the Roberts Court has exhibited a method of deciding cases that had not been anticipated by those who wrote the US Constitution in 1787.
U.S. RELIABILITY UNDER A CLOUD
As had been predicted much earlier in these columns, the November 2022 US midterms have shown that Donald Trump would be the ideal Republican candidate for a Democratic opponent to defeat, provided that such a candidate not be Joe Biden. Although known to be well-intentioned and straightforward, Biden’s hyperactivity in leading NATO’s proxy war on the Russian Federation in the battlegrounds of Ukraine has crippled the 46th President of the US in the way that the Vietnam War made the continuation in office of Lyndon Baines Johnson beyond the close of his Presidential term in 1969 impossible.
So blinded have key Europeanist advisers of the White House been in their fixation on kneecapping “Putin’s Russia” that they neglected to take account of the collateral damage that the US and its allies would suffer, especially in economic terms, because of the Biden-led sanctions that were imposed on Russia that accelerated in wave after wave since the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces on 24 February 2022. The harm to citizens in the US, EU and the UK (not to mention the rest of the world) that has been caused by worldwide shortages and price rise (including within key NATO member states) in the aftermath of each round of western sanctions on Russia has yet to deter the frenzied effort by that alliance to “teach Putin a lesson”, but it has made a growing number of US-UK-EU voters turn away from those NATO leaders who are responsible for such policies, including Biden and Scholz.
In the 1960s, President Johnson was persuaded to expand US involvement in the Vietnam War by Kennedy-era holdovers such as NSA McGeorge Bundy and Defence Secretary Robert Strange McNamara. After Biden’s victory over Trump in 2020, the still thriving Cold War 1.0 (USSR-US) enthusiasts, who had come of age in matters of policy under President Clinton, individuals such as Jake Sullivan and Antony Blinken, convinced President Biden that the very future of western civilisation was at stake in the Ukraine conflict. In the 1960s, Bundy and McNamara had similarly convinced President Johnson that the future of non-communist Asia was at stake in the paddy fields of Vietnam.
Despite scuttling the political fortunes of their boss President Johnson, both Bundy and McNamara went on to lucrative careers in prosperous institutions, as no doubt Blinken and Sullivan will after Joe Biden becomes wholly unelectable by the initial months of 2023 as a consequence of the fallout of the intensity of the tactics the US President has signed on to in the Ukraine conflict. The US taxpayer largesse showered on that country stands in contrast to the absence of any armaments given away gratis by the US to India, the Philippines, Vietnam or Taiwan, despite Xi Jinping’s repeated efforts at encroaching on their sovereignty in land, sea and air. Given the contrast between the assistance given free of cost to the Ukrainian military and the pell-mell withdrawal during June-August 2021 of all US support to the Afghan National Army that had been till then been battling the Taliban at great cost in lives, the reliability of the US as a partner in defence and security matters has come to be doubted within the GCC, South Asia, East Asia and ASEAN.
BIDEN’S FAVOURITE COUNTRY
In the gifting of abundant supplies, President Biden’s open heartedness to Ukraine stands in contrast to his relative inattention to countries where human suffering is much worse, such as Somalia or Ethiopia. This has been noted in countries that are not part of what is referred to as the “civilised world” aka “international community” in media outlets of member-states of NATO. For the Cold War 1.0 policymakers within NATO the need is for continuing the war until their hopes are realised of Russia under Putin entering a meltdown.
Unfortunately for them, the Ukraine war has resulted in domestic constituencies tiring of the pain to themselves of the rising volume of aftershocks of the war and sanctions, even though President Biden appears focused on expanding US involvement even in 2023, exactly as President Johnson was fixated on increased US involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s. Seeing that candidates embracing Trumpian logic such as Karri Lake could overcome moderate Republican alternatives to get nominated as candidates in the midterms, although many subsequently lost to the Democrats, ex-President Trump’s hopes for the Republican nomination in the 2024 US Presidential elections remain alive.
While there remains a chance that Trump may still get his party’s nomination in 2024 and go on to lose to a rival so long as he or she is not Joe Biden, discontent within the Democratic Party base at the Biden White House is likely to ensure that President Biden gets defeated in the 2024 Democratic primaries, should he make the mistake of seeking a second term in the White House. Should Vice-President Kamala Harris detach herself from the White House in a way that Hubert Humphrey was unable to do in 1968, she may yet emerge as the Democratic nominee, but that seems unlikely. In the case of the Republicans, should Trump understand that he would lose in 2024 just as he lost in 2020, he could back son Donald for a Senate seat in 2024 rather than seek a rerun himself.
A balanced 2024 Republican ticket that showcases moderation and ethnic diversity may result in a Red Wave in 2024 that has been absent in 2022. In its effort at flipping seats, the Republican Party backing Independent Tulsi Gabbard for the US Senate from Hawaii may be the best way of flipping a Democratic seat in that scenic state. The economic storm intensifying as a consequence of Biden’s expensive and risky prosecution of the Ukraine war, plus the effect on much of Europe of facing winter cold without Russian energy will show that Gabbard was right in warning about the costs to ordinary US citizens of the Ukraine war.
Unfortunately for the regional powers focused on ensuring that the Indo-Pacific remain free and open to all, Biden is led by Cold War 1.0 enthusiasts in an administration that seems ignorant of the fact that the US and the rest of the world have decades ago slipped into the era of Cold War 2.0 (between the PRC and the US principally). In Cold War 2.0, Russia is only a secondary threat, in the way then US ally China was to its foe the USSR during most of Cold War 1.0 between the USSR and the US.
TO CHINA, WITH LOVE
Facts speak louder than statements, and if reports emanating from Washington are to be believed, despite the number of applicants from the PRC for a US visa being higher than the number of Indian citizens applying, it takes less than nine days for a citizen of the PRC to get a US visa and 900 days for a citizen of India. What the charm of Xi Jinping is that enables him to so influence the White House in a favourable direction remains unclear, but what is obvious is the growing doubt in the world’s most consequential continent about the sincerity of the protestations of President Biden that he has as much concern for Asia as he so evidently has for Europe minus Russia.
Friends of India such as Representative Raja Krishnamurthy and Senator Marco Rubio are still present in the US Congress, but the White House will need to do much more to not just improve its standing among US citizens but in that other huge democracy. And despite several accommodative signals of the Biden administration to Beijing, this is not the People’s Republic of China but the Republic of India.
ASIA WATCHING BIDEN
The G20 Summit may show whether President Biden has finally got the memo that this is the era of Cold War 2.0, and that the lead adversary is no longer Moscow but Beijing. 2023 will show whether Biden can get passed his societally transformative agenda, thereby replicating the feat of Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s.
The year will show whether Biden shows in action rather than merely in honeyed expressions that the White House understands that India, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam are much in the front line of US security interests as France, Germany and the UK were in the Cold War 1.0 era. Despite Biden, aided by the shadow of the US Supreme Court and Trump, the Democrats have managed to avoid a midterm collapse. As a consequence, the US President has the opportunity to course correct policies and actions concerning Eurasia. Whether Biden has the will to do so will become clear before the winter retreats in early 2023.