As the election night excitement quickly wears off, Jacinda Ardern has work to do. There is a refreshed cabinet to select from a much larger range of MPs. There are talks to be had with James Shaw about the role that the Greens might play. And the big challenges have not disappeared. Each new case of the virus, however well managed, is a fresh reminder that the international pandemic is still with us. And before long, there will be renewed attention to the government’s plan to get New Zealand’s economy humming without adding to an already strenuous covid-era debt burden.
But the Prime Minister’s thoughts must occasionally turn to the US federal election on 3 November. Ardern and her colleagues, like so many New Zealanders, will be waiting and hoping for Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump. But New Zealand hasn’t been waiting for Joe since the Democratic Party made Biden its nominee. We’ve been doing that for the best part of four years.
As English’s successor, Ardern has seen an even richer array of destructive choices from the 45th President. Trump has taken the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran which had been endorsed unanimously by the Security Council when New Zealand was chair. His embrace of dictators has strained the credibility of America's commitment to value relationships with fellow liberal democracies including New Zealand. Trump’s xenophobic call for Ilhan Omar and her Democratic colleagues to leave the United States could not have been further from the message of tolerance that Ardern emphasised after the Christchurch massacre. To cap that all off, Trump has turned America’s back on the World Health Organisation in the midst of an ongoing global health crisis.
When a president is elected to a second term, there is normally some reassurance from the continuity this offers. But four more years of Trump would cement in the damage already done to America’s reputation and its relationships with key allies and partners. The diplomats and national security officials who have stayed on to keep America as engaged as possible under the circumstances might no longer have a reason for hoping there would be much to save. 2024 would simply be too much of a gap to bridge.
Even a thoroughly mediocre Democratic President would be preferable to Trump. If he is elected, Biden will be rather more than that. While huge domestic challenges are in store for Biden, his overall approach to world affairs would be music to New Zealand ears. America would once again have a leader who believes that international cooperation can be good for America and its partners and is not a contest between winners and losers. The United States could be expected to rejoin global efforts to deal with climate change, the issue Ardern has suggested is this generation’s version of the nuclear free movement. Biden would be less addicted to tariffs and more favourable to the multi-party trade agreements supported by New Zealand. And America would have a President who behaves as if the norms of liberal democracy actually matter.
But before we get carried away, a Biden Presidency would also bring new challenges for Wellington. Ardern’s international profile has been built partly on the proposition that she is a necessary antidote to Trump’s recklessness. She was an international star at the United Nations in September 2018 not just because of the content of her message. It was because of the contrast her performance drew with Trump’s fear-mongering and anti-internationalism.
President Biden would be a voice of moderation and reason. The contrast with New Zealand’s leader would vanish. Trump may have emphasized America’s strength. But because it was all about him, and his toxic personality and opinions, he became a great equalizer, allowing more scope on the international scene for smaller powers as long as they had principled leaders. That’s the international role that Ardern has played.
A Biden Presidency would be less about the person and more about America’s traditional strengths, some of which have survived four years of Trump. We’d be more aware of the inequalities of economic and military power, which favour the US and the other great powers, and give less scope to small players like New Zealand. And Wellington should not expect Biden to find a nice warm détente with China. Had she won in 2016, Hillary Clinton would have seen a firm and consistent American line on Beijing right from the outset. In a similar vein, a Biden-Harris era of American politics would make it easier for the Washington policy establishment to translate its deep distrust of Beijing into a more sustained campaign of competition.
And that means a Biden Presidency would have America setting clearer expectations about what allies and partners should do to counteract China’s growing power. No longer distracted by the antics and unreliability of a self-obsessed leader, Washington would have more time to measure the posture of friends and adversaries alike. As one of the former, New Zealand might find those clearer expectations difficult to deal with. It’s harder to avoid the pressure for unity when the US administration is no longer a mess.
What happens when Biden’s Secretary of State comes to town next year wanting to translate New Zealand-US cooperation into much firmer anti-China messaging on the South Pacific, the South China Sea, on human rights and technological competition? Who in the Ardern government’s new cabinet will play the Winston Peters role: speaking soothing words to Washington through dissembling narratives which suggest we oppose China’s role in the region without always saying so directly? And how does New Zealand respond when its closest ally Australia finds all sorts of extra reasons to speak as one with Washington?
None of this means that for New Zealand a Biden Presidency would be a case of being careful what you wish for. We’ve been waiting for Joe for very good reasons: by epic and even bigly proportions, the prospective benefits outweigh the costs. But if and when Biden takes the oath of office in the first month of 2021, Ardern’s second government needs to be thinking about the reassertion of America’s power in the world and not just the rediscovery of America’s principles.
Image credit: Joe and Jill Biden at the 2019 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa. Picture by Gage Skidmore from Wikipedia Commons