Will Australia be Biden’s first foreign policy dilemma?

17 Dec 2020 | 5 mins

Edition | The Biden Presidency and its implications for US, China, and Australia relations

Mark Beeson unpacks some of the likely new dynamics in the alliance between Australia and the US under a Biden presidency, which will be undoubtedly informed by differing policy approaches to climate change as well as tensions in the two countries’ respective relationships with China.

Of all the countries that might have been expected to give Joe Biden’s incoming administration an early problem or two, few would have picked Australia. After all, Australian policymakers have generally gone out of their way to demonstrate their uncritical and obliging loyalty to the United States ever since it became our notional security guarantor.

Indeed, no other country has participated in every one of the conflicts the Americans have found themselves embroiled in since they became the world’s dominant power. Few countries have shown such uncritical – even enthusiastic – support for the Trump administration either, despite its energetic efforts to tear down the fabled ‘rules-based international order’ upon which less powerful states depend.

One might think the election of Joe Biden would be greeted with relief in Canberra, as ‘the Blob’, or Washington’s seasoned foreign policy professionals, take over again from the erratic and unpredictable Trump administration. One might be wrong, however. It is not just Canberra’s elites who may be experiencing an attack of the diplomatic vapours, either. Their American counterparts may also be wondering quite how to deal with an ally that was disconcertingly comfortable working with the Trump regime.

“The principal problem for the Biden team, and the potentially greatest source of angst for the Morrison government, will be Australia’s climate change policies, or their absence, to be more precise. ”

Mark Beeson

It is not controversial to suggest that Australia has one of the worst records amongst OECD countries when it comes to honouring the spirit of the Paris Agreement and working to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Biden administration, by contrast, has made addressing climate change one of its principal policy commitments. The appointment of John Kerry as the US’s ‘climate envoy’ suggests that they are actually serious about this, too. It is not hard to see how Australia’s recalcitrance and unwillingness to rapidly fall into line with the US – and China, for that matter – and address a problem that actually affects us more than most is a recipe for fraught relations.

If the Biden administration really wants to restore its place as an international leader and work cooperatively with allies, then Australia is an important test case of its influence and America’s ability to ‘save the planet’. Admirable though the rhetoric might be around this issue, it is not clear that the Biden administration will be able to act effectively in the US, let alone climate laggards like Australia. Even more problematically, it is not clear that it will even try.

The US also suffers from even more potentially consequential policy conflicts and political road blocks. Not only is it far from clear that the Biden administration will be able to push through it legislative agenda in the event that the Republicans retain control of the Senate, but it’s not clear what their foreign policy priorities would actually be even if they could.

Biden has made a point of calling out China’s increasingly problematic foreign and domestic policies, which are a growing mix of domestic repression and foreign bullying. China also represents a profound long-term challenge to the international order the US did so much to create, of course. If Biden thinks dealing with a ‘thug’ like Xi Jinping requires a united front on the part of America’s allies, he may be reluctant to make life difficult for the trustiest ally of all.

Ironically, the US may be just as conflicted as Australia is when deciding how to deal with China. Is addressing climate change, with all the wrenching, contested domestic change that it will inevitably involve, really more important than the sort of traditional geopolitical calculus that has generally informed American policy and its ‘exceptional’ sense of itself? If the historical record is any guide, the answer is probably not.

So while many commentators are expecting the Biden administration to pile pressure on an Australian government that remains hostage to parochial political calculations and powerful vested interests in the resource sector, this may not happen. When viewed from Washington, Australia’s greatest significance may still be an important element of American grand strategy. After all, as the Coalition government never tires of pointing out, Australia only contributes a little more than one per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Paradoxically enough, therefore, the alliance really may protect the Morrison government, at least, although not quite in the way anyone envisaged. It’s yet another reminder that conventional strategic thinking is simply not capable of recognising, much less actually dealing with, the very real climate problems that directly affect our long-term collective security. It’s not clear that the elderly figure of Sleepy Joe Biden is quite the man to deal with this, or encourage his Australian counterparts to do likewise.

Mark Beeson is Professor of International Politics at The University of Western Australia. Before joining UWA, he taught at Murdoch, Griffith, Queensland, York (UK) and Birmingham, where he was also head of department. He the founding editor of Critical Studies of the Asia Pacific. Professor Beeson is a prolific author and editor in International Relations and Asian Politics. He has published more than 150 articles and book chapters and written or edited more than a dozen books.

Media references

Anneke Forster, Events and Business Support Coordinator, 08 6488 5825

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