There are times that one hears a phrase and it just simply forces you to stop what you are doing as a frisson goes down your back and you have to force yourself not to let others see your discomfort. The phrase “We’re Back” not only brings to mind horror movies when you think the evil killer is destroyed and yet comes back to life time and time again, think of Hammer horror movies with the constant revival of Dracula for yet another blood fest or something like Poltergeist when sweet and innocent Carol Anne says “they’re back” … so this is what comes to mind when I hear that phrase.
One thing is hearing a phrase like that in the context of a horror movie; it is quite another thing altogether when it comes from the mouth of the current US President. Upon arriving in Britain a bit early for the G7 meeting held in Cornwall this week, Biden announced “we’re back” as the basis of his foreign policies. Having nothing of relevance to say, the BBC described his “we’re back” as a motto. When you think of a motto of an organisation, it is supposed to be something that unites the group in its future actions. “We’re Back” is not a motto; instead to many in the world when the leader of the US says this it is a threat; a friend argued that this is also a promise to back up that threat as well.
Are we supposed to be relieved that the US is back in the business of imperialist foreign policy? When did it stop being in that business?! I somehow cannot remember when that happened. Because for some reason, that is clearly what Biden thinks – this is meant to be reassuring that the “incoherence” of US foreign policy under Trump is over and the “good guys” are back in charge.
Trump’s Foreign Policy
During Trump’s tenure in office, the two existential crises for humanity came to a head and one major international political crisis became extremely clear, more so because Trump’s election was a symptom of the political crisis of liberalism.
The two existential crises for humanity (i.e., climate change and the covid-19 pandemic) were both disastrously handled by Trump. Trump’s climate change denialism and his close ties to the fossil fuel industry literally meant that any possible shift in US domestic and foreign policy to address climate change did not happen. In point of fact things got worse because of this in a situation when time is running out before climate change becomes permanent. His incompetence addressing the coronavirus pandemic led to the further spread of disease and more contagious mutations arising.
The political crisis that we are living through is the rise and normalisation of the far-right and fascism both domestically in the US and around the world. There is no question that there are international alliances between the far-right and Trump as their poster-boy certainly provided not only legitimacy to their politics internationally but brought this politics into the mainstream of American politics as well. The international far-right and fascists are no longer isolated in various countries and on the fringes of politics; they are in political power either elected directly (e.g., Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil),they are members of mainstream politic parties, they are holding seats in various Parliaments, and sometimes in coalition with other parties on the right.
Without a doubt, there are some significant changes under Biden relative to Trump’s presidency on foreign policy. Trump’s close relationships with authoritarian and far-right populist leaders was the hallmark of his Presidency; their concerted attacks against migrants and refugees and other marginalised groups (so we are talking about racism, misogyny, disablism, and homophobia and transphobia) are defining characteristics of these political leaders (as well as the whole of the far right).
Alongside of this normalisation of the far-right and its ideology, is these leaders refusal to work collectively nternationally collective towards ending the Coronavirus pandemic. In many cases, these right-wing populist leaders actually refused to actually address the virus as the existential threat to humanity that it is. Many of them refused to endorse masks and guaranteeing access to PPE and make them available to health care workers and their citizens. This will be addressed further in our discussion on Biden’s foreign policy.
Just as a reminder, Trump insisted over and over again that, of course, all countries should cover their own citizen’s vaccines rather than globally ensure that the vaccine was distributed throughout the world.
Trump’s abrogation of international treaties (e.g., Iran nuclear deal, the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change (remember George W Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto Protocol, this is not something new from the US), nuclear weapons proliferation agreements, etc) and his refusal to work alongside traditional US allies has been treated as part of an isolationist foreign policy.
It wasn’t, rather it was an expression of Trump’s far-right nationalism and jingoism and his rejection of multiculturalism and the “liberal tradition” that unites Europe and the US. So he had a foreign policy which was very clear, it was based on xenophobia and racism, unity with and support for other hard-right political leaders (governments and far-right organisations) that rejected the political liberal consensus while at the same time moving away from traditional allies. This is not isolationism where the US essentially just does not get involved with foreign policy and solely concerns itself with domestic affairs.
Conflating isolationism with a shift in foreign policy and the manner in which it carried leads to a gross misunderstanding of the situation. Trump and his administration were very involved in foreign policy. Think of his inability to keep his mouth shut about Brexit, his abrogation of international treaties with allies, his insistence that the coronavirus was Chinese. Also, please think of the way that Latin American leaders and countries were treated under the Trump Administration (unless their leader was a right-wing populist political ally like Bolsonaro of Brazil).
Remember, Trump ended visits and tourism to Cuba, and like other US Presidents interfered in Venezuela’s and other countries politics in Latin America and the Caribbean. While his foreign policy was racist and imperialist (let’s not forget misogynist with the reintroduction of the gag rule on abortion), his treatment of refugees and migrants appalling and used for the purpose of divide and rule in the US, it was not isolationist.
Instead it was unilateralist with support given to right-wing political allies. In many senses and in many contexts, this was business as usual, with the US interfering against democratically elected governments and using its economic, political and military power to help perceived allies. There is also nothing new about unilaterally issuing tariffs against perceived enemies to pressurise them into compliance with American interests.
Another clear Trump policy related, of course, to Israel (saying Israel/Palestine is nonsensical in the context of this discussion). Trump’s policies toward Israel combined the antisemitism of right-wing Christian fundamentalists with support for an apartheid state while literally cutting those under occupation from the discussion completely. His son-in-law tried to force the Palestinians into compliance through cuts in foreign aid, refusing to recognise international law and treaties relating to people under occupation, and of course moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and declaring the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli; in both cases legally and unilaterally recognising territories under occupation as belonging to the occupiers which is contrary to international law. Gaza has been under siege with its land and water borders locked down and the West Bank and East Jerusalem have faced constant seizures of land and continued repression by both the Israeli army and Jewish settlers. Essentially, Israel is a single country with legalised apartheid in place; there is no two-state solution that is possible. In other Middle East policies, the Trump administration negotiated between Israel and several Gulf states to make individual peace treaties for trade and travel. Trump and his administration worked very hard to extend Israeli access in a period when the Nation-State Law legalised apartheid in Israel and the Israeli government tightened its control over the occupied territories.
Unfortunately, Biden seems incapable of dealing with the situation in Israel/Palestine. His insistence on a two-state solution is sheer delusion; there is no land left to form Palestine. Instead, what must be negotiated is the elimination of apartheid and the creation of democratic state with equal civil rights for all people living there. We need to stop spreading the delusion of a two-state solution and recognise the reality of what has happened there. So, unfortunately when the latest outbreak of violence started in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, when attacks occurred during Ramadan at Al-Aqsa mosque and racist attacks happened against Palestinians living in the Green Zone standing there and blaming Hamas for starting the violence is tantamount to justifying war crimes; demanding that people under occupation do not have the right to self-defence while those occupying them do have that right justifies the actions of a colonial settler state against the indigenous people living there. While I am not surprised that this is Biden’s position (and for that matter all US Presidents since 1948 have held the same opinion) we need to remember that the US has essentially done the same thing to Native Americans, the right of people living under occupation to self-defence is enshrined in international law and the dangers of suspending that have been demonstrated historically over and over again. So again, nothing new there and, of course, the US embassy remains in Jerusalem.
Unilateralism is not isolationism; Trump did not retreat from the international scene (although many of us would have preferred him to do so). Unilateralism is not new in terms of how the US conducts foreign policy although that is primarily used against its closest physical neighbours in Latin America and the Caribbean. The US continuously tries to get others to join them on their military and economic adventures; but it has been willing act unilaterally if it cannot get “coalitions of the willing.” So honestly, Trump’s policies were nothing new, just variations on a recurring theme (you can think of it as a “running joke” in a horror movie lasting decades if it makes it easier).
Biden’s “We’re Back” Tour
Biden’s attempt to revive the US as the dominant world leader (in what is clearly becoming a multipolar world) is what lies behind his “we’re back.” Biden is signalling loudly to the world that the US is “back in charge” and is going to once again open to negotiate international treaties on climate change with the rest of the world, he is talking about distribution of the vaccine internationally beyond the borders of the world’s richest countries.
The leaders of the G7 countries even discussed the issues of regulating tax avoidance and evasion and have supported the international agreement of 15% on international corporate taxes agreed by finance ministers before the G7 in Cornwall this weekend. Given that it was the G7 which was responsible for most multinational (MNC) and transnational (TNC) corporations to avoid taxation by launching beggar they neighbour taxation policies, it makes one wonder what has changed. This policy change has been heralded by the British government as something Rishi Sunak (our Chancillor of the Exchequer) had championed and “delivered on.” Neoliberalism and Globalisation, the production of goods across countries to avoid taxation, the location of corporate headquarters in countries where they would not face taxation, the creation of free-trade zones across the global south to avoid taxation are long-term mantras and policies of the the G7, the EU, the IMF and World Bank.
Large numbers of British territories are tax havens, as are countries or principalities in Europe. Perhaps, they have finally realised that the only beneficiaries of these taxation policies are corporations of which these governments have little or no control over in terms of taxation policies as well as regulations? They have lost lots of revenue which would have been extremely useful for economic policies, but since privatisation of the public sector, the destruction of welfare states, the destruction of working class incomes, trade unions and working conditions and adherence to ensuring the profitability of MNCs and TNCs were the names of the game, it wasn’t necessary.
How much has the rise of the far-right brought home to them the crisis in liberalism? The economic crisis has stopped the continuation of neoliberalism and austerity because the crisis is so serious; will the resurrection of Keynesian policies last or is this just a temporary reprieve to get capitalist economies growing again? We shall see …
So, Biden is not a climate change denier which is a major plus compared to Trump; the problem is whether he is willing to do what is necessary to prevent climate change from permanently destroying the planet. However, US attempts to actually mitigate climate change and shift towards sustainable energy production along with a just transition to protect workers is hampered by historical US government treatment of economic planning and nationalisation as anathema. Moving away from private sector provision (even with indirect government financing and support) does not seem to be part of Biden’s green transformation. Whether the US will do enough to actually transform to sustainable energy production (rather than using fossil fuels), whether they will actually address carbon emissions sufficiently in the short time before the damage to the climate becomes irreversible and whether the economy is harnessed to allow a just transition for workers is questionable.
The US government’s dependence on the private sector to make changes through carbon capture and carbon cap and trade, rather than actually forcing these changes through the federal government is not enough; this means that essentially the US government is not in charge of the situation. Freeing up offshore land so that private corps can build wind farms is simply far too little given the existential threat to humanity being brought about by climate change. Annieli has written several brilliant pieces for the ACM discussing carbon cap and trade and the dependence on the private sector both to address climate change and sustainable energy.
So the biggest changes compared to Trump are Biden’s willingness to participate and support a global climate change policy which is desperately needed. The other change of course is Biden’s pushing for united action with leaders of the world’s richest countries: there are three obvious examples here, one relating to global distribution of Covid vaccines, the second relating to International Corporate Tax Policy for multinational corps and transnational corporation (and addressing tax evasion and avoidance) and the third is calling united action by “Western Democracies” against China and Russia. Unfortunately there is no change compared to Trump relating to China (besides not calling the Coronavirus the “China Virus”). Moreover, Biden has given credibility to the virus escaping from a Chinese lab and quite honestly, even if it did, that is irrelevant at this point; this is a waste of time and money and a hat tip to the US far right. Trump’s tariffs against China remain in place, they have not been eliminated. There is a difference between Biden and Trump with respect to Russia (Trump who viewed Putin as an ally; as the authoritarian ruler that he desperately wanted to be. Biden is now travelling to Brussels for a NATO summit as part of his “We’re Back” tour hoping to strengthen US alliances and has a meeting with Putin later this week.
This brings us back to the Coronavirus vaccine problem. Trump’s perspective that each country had to cover its own citizens first unfortunately became the dominant one, advanced capitalist countries that which had money to invest and purchase vaccines covered their own citizens, those countries that could afford to contribute and invest in the development of the vaccines not only were able to afford to purchase them, they also ensured that the vaccines are produced under conditions of profitability with profits earned going to Big Pharma.
Finance for the coronavirus vaccines was paid for by the richest countries of the world (e.g., 97% of the costs of the AstraZeneca vaccine was publicly funded by British taxpayers, other European taxpayers and the US government; the US government subsidised not only the AstaZeneca’s vaccine, but covered the costs for Moderna’s vaccine, Germany contributed to the Pfizer’s vaccine). Moreover, it was various governments of advanced capitalist countries that also helped fund the development of earlier precursors that enabled the rapid discovery of the C19 vaccines. Yet Big Pharma is reaping the profits from the vaccines and insufficient amounts of vaccines are not available to inoculate people in the global south.
“From the outset, the major powers allied themselves with the major pharmaceutical corporations in order to conveniently manage the discovery of a solution that would allow them to emerge with an advantage from the health and economic crisis ravaging the world.
Governments provided at least $8.6 billion for vaccine development, according to analyst firm Airfinity. The US, EU and UK invested billions in AstraZeneca’s vaccine, developed by Oxford University. Germany invested $445 million in the vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech. Moderna’s vaccine was fully funded and co-produced by the U.S. government.
While philanthropic organizations contributed $1.9 billion. Individual personalities such as Bill Gates, Alibaba founder Jack Ma and country music star Dolly Parton made contributions.
Only $3.4 billion has come from the pharma companies’ own investment, part of which has also come from external funding (Randy Alonso Falcón and Edilberto Carmona Tamayo).”
This public finance reduced risks for Big-Pharma corporations, guaranteed buyers, and unfortunately meant that contrary to the demands of the UN and WHO, the vaccines produced in 2021 were bought up by the advanced capitalist world, leaving everyone else unable to buy them or even get them as the amount of vaccines that has been produced is held by advanced capitalist countries and very limited amount are being passed onto the global south. Rather than eliminate patents which secured an extended revenue stream of profits to Big Pharma (who didn’t even bear the costs and risks of developing these vaccines), struggles over patents and licensing arrangements for the rest of the world (as most of these countries do not have the finance to purchase vaccines and only a few countries can produce them like India, possibly South Africa) and now vaccines are the centre of an imperialist struggle over who gets credit for getting vaccines to the global south while at the same time too few are available and by the time they do get them (“2022” ... if they are lucky), it will be a case of too little too late once again.
At the G7 meeting it was agreed by participants that they would donate vaccines to the global south; in fact, it was agreed that 1 billion vaccines would be made available. The problem is that that is nowhere enough to cover the global south and even worse it didn’t even take into account the need to support distribution efforts in these countries. Moreover, these donations of vaccines included previous pledges that already had been made by G7 countries, so there actually are not 1 billion news vaccines pledged either as some of the pledges had already been promised earlier.
Randy Alonso Falcón and Edilberto Carmona Tamayo discuss the situation concerning the distribution of the Coronavirus vaccines:
“Given this reality, the inequity and injustice of today’s world are once again evident: the richest countries have purchased most of the vaccines that will be produced in 2021 (even for stockpiling), while poor nations will not have doses to administer even to their most vulnerable segments of the population. More than 100 nations are waiting for the first bulb to arrive.
It is estimated that 90% of the inhabitants of the nearly 70 lowest-income countries will not have the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this year.
The most powerful nations took advantage of their purchasing power and investments in vaccine development to secure supplies of the coveted antidote.
So far, about 12.7 billion doses of various coronavirus vaccines have been pre-purchased, enough to vaccinate approximately 6.6 billion people (except for Johnson & Johnson’s, all vaccine approved so far require two doses).
More than half of those doses, 4.2 billion insured, with the option to buy another 2.5 billion, have been purchased by wealthy countries that are home to only 1.2 billion people.
Canada has bought enough doses to inoculate every Canadian five times, while the U.S., U.K., EU, EU, Australia, New Zealand and Chile have bought enough to vaccinate their citizens at least twice, although some of the vaccines have not yet been approved.”
While the pledges for vaccines to the global south have been made at the G7, there are several important issues still to be resolved. The insufficiency of the numbers of vaccines pledged is an obvious problem and the fact that most of these vaccines will not be available until 2022.
So what is pledged is a start, but not enough. Moreover, the issue of patents on the vaccine is an additional problem as that increases the costs for purchase of the vaccines; even the issue of licensing while is of no help to others as not many countries outside of the advanced capitalist countries can actually produce the vaccines. Licensing moreover leaves control over the patents and long term production in the hands of Big Pharma. The obvious question is why something that has been predominately financed through governments and taxpayer money reaping profits for Big Pharma? They have made a mint on these vaccines, incurred no risk and the costs of research and development have been picked up by governments. Why not simply break the patent?
At a news conference in Paris, Macron said:
“We should commit at the World Health Organization and at the World Trade Organization to guaranteeing that intellectual property will never be an obstacle to accessing vaccines," Macron told a news conference in Paris.
He said the African Union sought to vaccinate 60% of the continent's population by March 2022, and that this was a target G7 leaders should commit to making happen.”
But this seems to be an exercise in denial of reality as he also talked about the importance of preserving intellectual property rights. This is yet another time where having your cake while eating it too, just doesn’t work ...
Another important issue that was raised by Macron but remains unresolved is aid to help the global south cope with the impact of the pandemic. Reuters has reported that the G7 countries are split about the reallocation of $100 billion of their Special Drawing Rights from the IMF in addition to $650 billion drawing rights promised by the IMF in April. This was not resolved in the final communique from the G7. What needs to be understood if these will be given in the form of grants from the G& countries and the IMF rather than loans that cannot be repaid.
So with all the pronouncements and promises on helping the global south with vaccines (and with insufficient numbers of pledges to actually do inoculations for everyone, there is no way that they will be covered in 2021 and as such the coronavirus remains an existential threat to humanity. Vaccine distribution to the global south is minimal and many of those countries do not have sufficient levels of health care to get through the pandemic with minimal loss of life.
Some Final Thoughts
One of the biggest problems facing Biden domestically in the US and internationally is the revival and normalisation of the far-right which has occurred (it preceded Trump, but he certainly strengthened and legitimised the far-right simply by his election). The revival of the far-right in the US and internationally and the rejection of western liberalism, multiculturalism and democracy are not minor threats.
Moreover, the impact of neoliberalism and austerity on the working class internationally has played a strong role in this shift linked as they are to World Bank policies, government economic policies and the destruction of wage incomes and working conditions leading to the impoverishment of so many people and the extension of combined and uneven economic development. Additionally, the oppressions of racism (including xenophobia, Islamophobia and Antisemitism), disablism, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny have been attenuated; they are rising in a climate of a strong far-right as these are often a component part of far-right ideology. These are not only tools used by the ruling class to divide us; they actually form the basis of far-right ideologies that have been absorbed deeply into the consciousness of many people in the US, Europe and other parts of the world. There has been a crisis in liberalism and this crisis has succoured the rise of the far right.
Biden’s election has not put those who peddle these poisons out of commission; these poisons are deeply rooted in many countries and in the US. The fact that one of the so-called mainstream parties in the US is openly peddling hate, is actually working to undermine democratic structures like voting rights, criminal injustice and police violence and abuse, the Republican party is fighting to maintain and extend structural and systemic racism and other oppressions in states that they control. These laws have consequences in the real world, as does racism, misogyny, disablism, homophobia and transphobia and these attacks on democracy fall mostly on the oppressed.
So while Biden walks around talking about western democracies, where does the US fit into this equation? Apartheid existed in the US way before the term was invented in South Africa; Jim Crow laws are apartheid. With Republican controlled legislatures and Republican governors actually reintroducing Jim Crow legislation, how can the US claim to be among the countries called “western democracies”? How can a country which deliberately prevents a specific group of people from voting be called a democracy in this day and age? We are not living in the 19th and 20th centuries where everyone pretended the US was a great democracy, that project itself is failing. So the US may be back, the question that many governments in the advanced capitalist countries are asking is for how long?