Political transition in the US – a tidal change for the Future of Globalisation? A collection of experts’ opinions

Photo: The White House in Washington

Globalisation in the sense of increasing global connectedness has seen difficult times over the last years. The global financial crisis showed the vulnerability of our economic systems and middle classes. Multilateralism was challenged by “my country first” movements, not least so from the US, one of the godmother nations to the post-WWII world order. The other godmother, the UK, turned its back to the EU’s integration project. Furthermore, trade wars increased trade barriers and changed the setting for global production chains. And certainly in 2020, a global pandemic was (and is) most effectively curbed by the limitation of individual movements, often reducing cross-border linkages.

Challenges we can only tackle jointly did not receive the attention they’d require. The threat of climate change and a dramatic loss of biodiversity – in brief: managing limited resources on the common planet – saw interim respite, not least because of the aversion of the outgoing Trump administration against international cooperation in key fora such as the UNFCCC and the G20. These are, however, some of the root causes of the pandemic itself, with increasing occurrence of zoonosis in a human-shaped environment. The pandemic-related curbs on movement of people did reduced CO2 emissions to some extent and illustrated that clearer skies and waters are possible if governments and societies are willing to act. Yet, many societies are slipping back on years of social progress in a model that did not withstand the pressures of a pandemic.

With the inauguration of the Biden/Harris Administration, we might see a political tidal change in one of the key nations in the Northern world. Will the US return to the path of a promoter of international cooperation or will domestic issues hog the new Administration? Rebuilding the republic’s consensus will be an enormous challenge in the first place. How should other nations react to changes in the US? Where could, where should we see change in approaches to global challenges? We have asked leading experts from the US, China, South Africa, Argentina and Germany to assess the (changed) situation in key policy fields.

Sven Grimm and Axel Berger, editors of the Future of Globalisation Blog

Global engagement for development

Apart from wartime presidencies, a new US administration has rarely faced a more adverse set of domestic and global challenges on day one. An uncontrolled pandemic is killing thousands every day, the associated recession is leading to sustained job losses and declines in household income, a large share of the population believes falsehoods about the legitimacy of American democracy, and relations with the international community and other major powers like China and Europe are at a historic low. In the international development sphere, the Trump administration was by turns absent or belligerent, seeking repeatedly to cut budgets, scale back multilateral engagement – particularly with the World Health Organization, and – within USAID – appoint political activists to divide aid between enemies and friends, and to patrol against reproductive health measures they didn’t like. There is much to repair.

The Biden administration now enters with a decisive electoral victory, a mandate for policy change, and a science-based plan to battle COVID-19. Low borrowing costs and deficit reduction on the backburner mean that this could be an Administration with the wherewithal to deliver a rapid recovery if vaccine delivery scales up quickly and domestic political wars calm. There are the quick, positive actions announced for day one – rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris Climate Accords, contributing to the global effort to immunize in low-income countries, nominating Ambassador Samantha Powers to head USAID and sit on the National Security Council.

Yet whether these moves will be accompanied by policy coherence and significant financial support to the UN system, the MDB, and low- and middle-income country governments depends on the speed of recovery at home and the bandwidth of a new set of policymakers dealing with the mess left behind. Few Americans are in the mood to share surplus vaccine when less than 1% are vaccinated to date. Likewise, the urgent multilateral development bank and UN replenishment requests have thus far gone unremarked by the transition team and will require a look across the asks to establish priorities and viable requests to Congressional budget appropriators. No clear direction has been set with regards to the Trump-nominated leadership of the World Bank and the IDB. At USAID, even with new elevated leadership, old problems and ambiguities are likely to persist. USAID’s Congressional budget earmarks saved spending levels on global health, humanitarian aid and economic assistance during the Trump administration, but their persistence also means that the space to innovate, change strategy or invest more in multilaterals and the UN is limited in the absence of increasing the overall envelope. Newer agencies like the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the US Development Finance Corporation continue to operate in parallel to USAID and their fit into the overall development strategy remains unclear. Global challenges like global health security and climate change demand action and funding that cut across multiple departments and sectors – and the US has not yet defined how these operate as part of development and aid, and how they operate vis a vis domestic policies and agencies. And so much of the US conversation on aid and development, and the UN system, has been dominated by anti-Chinese sentiment ahead of any other justification. And who will lead and decide on these matters?

While much remains to be seen, at least hope is on the horizon.

Amanda Glassman, Executive Vice-President, CEO of CGD Europe, and Senior Fellow, Center for Global Development (CGD)

‘Alternative Facts’ – Parallel Universes and the Presidency of Joe Biden

Questions such as what constitutes a ‘fact’, how ‘realities’ come into being and what ‘truth’ can legitimately be regarded as such, stand at the centre of phenomenology, philosophy and the sociology of knowledge. And yet, no sociologist of knowledge has fuelled the debate as controversially as Donald Trump, the 45th US-President. His national and foreign policy, from the moment of his inauguration, was accompanied and guided by ‘alternative facts’ – about the size of the crowd attending the ceremony, racial injustice in US-society, the nature of global climate change, to the scope of COVID19 as threat to citizens’ lives. ‘Alternative facts’ thus created space for, and contributed to the shaping of, ‘alternative realities’, tainted narrations of reality that divide rather than unify, that discriminate rather than respect diversity.

Dan Rather writes, facts and truths are the bedrock of democracy. The democratic fight is not possible if it is built on lies, deception and ‘fake news’. The Biden administration nevertheless inherits a machinery of ‘truth production’ that has to remind itself of how to decipher different readings of reality, and violations of the same. Bringing science back to Washington”, as explicitly stated by Joe Biden, is a much needed necessity. Insights from natural to social and human sciences yet, in addition, require careful consideration based on democratic values, human rights and the political will of building a socially just future, within the limits of our planet.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, choose your advisors well! The world expects from you reason rather than vanity, foresight rather than ostracism and integrity rather than shame.

Anna-Katharina Hornidge, Director of the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE) and Professor for Global Sustainable Development, University of Bonn

Zero carbon emissions – An opportunity for the Biden Administration take the lead and demonstrate carbon neutrality

Carbon emitted from fossil fuel combustion is not a necessity good for human society.  On the contrary, it is a common bad. But the reduction of carbon emissions has been painfully slow since the start of negotiation under the UN Convention on Climate Change. The challenges come from, among others, climate equity concern, cost to the economy, technological barriers to zero carbon energy transformation, and the like. Some are real such as transitional cost from high carbon to zero carbon energy systems as it is a long process and we cannot get there in one step. Others might have been true in the past but not anymore. What we need is development, not the emission of carbon. Rapid technological progress has made zero carbon energy service more competitive than fossil fuels in many cases. Therefore, carbon equity should be translated into carbon opportunity. In China for example, the cost of one kilowatt solar PV electricity can be as low as one US cent.

It is good for the Unites States to be back to the Paris Agreement process. Under the Trump Administration, the US federal government was negative to climate actions but the market did not seem to follow. As a matter of fact, the statistics show that carbon emissions in the US has been decreasing both in aggregate and in per capita terms. The Ex-President said that coal is clean but the market responded that over 10 GW capacity of coal fired thermal power retired each year on average.  Zero carbon energy and zero carbon products like purely electric vehicles and batteries are highly advanced in the US. US leadership in global climate regime building is key to the success of reaching Paris goals. Cooperation among the developed countries and between the developing and developed countries will help the transformation of the global development into sustainability, which will in turn benefits all the nations, including the US.

Pan Jiahua, Member of the Academic Board, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, and Director, Institute of Eco-civilization Studies, Beijing University of Technology

US’s relations with Africa

Joe Biden’s election was welcomed in many (although not all) parts of the world. It signalled a return to a more ‘normal’ and predictable diplomatic engagement. Yet, Africa is under no illusions that relations will be smooth.

Biden’s campaign commitments have emphasised democracy, governance and anti-corruption as key pillars in his foreign policy, as well as protecting the US’s economic future. These present opportunities but also areas of friction, not least among African elites, who have been instrumental in shrinking the democratic space in many countries. African civil society movements can expect support, although US resources may be limited. Biden has also signalled that he will lead efforts against illicit tax havens. This is a potential area of cooperation with African states, and one which South Africa and the AU have championed both at the G20 and the UN.

Africa has an interest in the reinvigoration of global governance institutions such as the World Trade Organisation, and its dispute settlement mechanism, as well as the resolution of the impasse surrounding the appointment of the new director general, former Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

The AU and African countries will be looking carefully at how the Biden administration engages with the numerous conflicts on the continent and how they cooperate with the AU processes and in the UN. The appointment of a former assistant secretary of state for Africa as UN ambassador, bodes well for a potentially constructive relationship.

Lastly, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage, the WHO and support of health institutions such as the African CDC with its important role in the continental response to COVID, and which the US helped establish, are likely to feature high on the Biden agenda and as opportunities for cooperation.

Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, Chief Executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA)

The Biden Administration and Trade

When President Joe Biden takes office, he will have the wreckage of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to deal with. All three core functions of the WTO – negotiation, dispute settlement, and transparency – are in varying degrees of disrepair. This sorry state of trade multilateralism derives partly from the actions of the Trump administration (e.g. unilaterally launched trade wars, blocking of the appointment/re-appointment of members of the WTO’s Appellate Body). Given Biden’s commitment to multilateral cooperation, expectations are high that the new administration will help restore the workings and credibility of the WTO. But a swift back-to-normal approach would be counter-productive. The problems of trade multilateralism have deep roots, and kneejerk reversals of Trumpian policy will not help solve them.

The Biden team has consistently and rightly signaled that it takes the issue of increasing inequality within its own society seriously, and also the geoeconomic threat posed by China. This makes it likely that the administration will, while pushing for multilateral cooperation, also seek a fundamental update of the rules of trade (in terms of both domestic and security implications). This will not be an easy task. Avid free traders will balk at a reform of the system in this direction. The European Union, by agreeing in principle to the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, has signaled its disregard for Biden’s declared offer to work jointly on China; in so doing, it has already made the new administration’s task much harder. Biden himself will have to resist domestic and international pressures to find quick fixes through bilateral deals with China and other players. But if team Biden plays its cards right, working closely in cooperation with like-minded allies, this could be a tremendous opportunity to reboot the WTO and make trade multilateralism meaningful again.

Amrita Narlikar, President, German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA)

International finance

The pandemic upsurge was brutal, but economic policy avoided a credit crunch as well as a banking crisis. Finance was an early stabilizer, indeed. Credit creation will help a rapid real recovery (and save emerging markets). Extraordinary fiscal and monetary support must stay until the war on Covid-19 is won. However, finance might not be on a sustainable track as debt accumulation defies the law of gravity, helped by very low or negative interest rates. Ultra-low rates are due to the world´s ample spectrum of fragilities but underpin excesses in risk-taking and financial assets valuations. Meanwhile, digital money and finance have arrived, both a threat and an opportunity, while climate change knocks at the door. Expect vast transformation in the years to come.

The Biden/Harris Administration arrives with sensible policy promises: strong urgent fiscal stimulus and vaccination plans, an experienced and trustful economic team led by Janet Yellen, within a moderate Cabinet, a multilateralist approach with a firm though not adversarial international agenda, the re-joining of the Paris Accord, among others. Will the US go back to (pre-Trump) normal? Rebuilding trust abroad (and at home) might not be so easy. The world has learned its lesson and changed, too. International finance will welcome guidance from the new Administration on issues that are outside its exclusive turf. Clear definitions on controversial topics like trade, digital regulation and taxation, investment transfer, security, clean energy, and, especially, relations with China will be extremely informative for action.

José Siaba Serrate, Counsellor and Member of the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI)

Multilateral cooperation

Joe Biden faces high expectations abroad for an end to “America First” – a contempt for multilateralism that translated into the undermining of the United Nations (UN), confrontations with geopolitical rivals, disdain for allies, a refusal to help tackle pressing global problems, but also wide scale, and often wild, unpredictability. To repair some of the damage at the UN, Biden already pledged to re-join the Paris climate change agreement and preserve American membership in, and financing to, the World Health Organisation (WHO). He vowed to restore funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Biden also indicated he would sign up to the “30 X 30” pledge to protect 30% of land and ocean by 2030, a key element of the upcoming UN Summit to reverse biodiversity loss. Running for re-election in the UN Human Rights Council as pledged will signal not only renewed global American commitment to human rights at a time of domestic racial unrest. It also means American re-engagement with one of the UN’s most necessary, yet imperfect, institutions given the extraordinary deterioration in respect for human rights in so many places around the globe.

The ongoing pandemic response and recovery work at the UN awaits full US support, be it in the Security Council to take up the security implications of COVID-19 and its multifaceted consequences or through the UN development system which has been providing valuable assistance to many countries’ socio-economic responses. As the Biden Administration puts its highest domestic priority on battling the pandemic in part through accelerated roll-out of vaccines, it will also be critical that it joins the COVAX Facility – the global coalition to make accessible a COVID-19 vaccine for those in greatest need. It remains unclear to date whether there will again be US financial support for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), how the new Administration will deal with its extensive accumulated arrears or whether the US will re-join the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Re-engaging with the UN, however, will require more heavy lifting than many had first predicted. Given the fragile social and democratic fabric in the US, it is not unlikely that the domestic support necessary for a more robust internationalism will prove difficult to achieve, even with a slim majority in Congress.

[the contribution by Weinlich and Hendra is an abridged version of a Current Column, click here for the full version]

Silke Weinlich, Senior Researcher at the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)

John Hendra, former UN Assistant Secretary-General and Associate Researcher with the German Development Institute / Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik (DIE)


  1. Stella Urunboyeva - Antworten

    A change in the country’s president will necessarily lead to major political changes. And what these changes will be, what will they lead to, whether the voters will live up to the voters‘ hopes, we will find out in time … In any case, the United States is a strategic player in the world.

  2. Inge Kaul - Antworten

    I am intrigued by the fact that most of the comments I read just speculate about what policy initiatives the new US Administration might choose to adopt. It seems that the US is still being viewed as one of a few –or, perhaps even, the — global policy-setter. In my view, it is time to gently remind the US of the global powershifts that have happened and that, if interational cooperation is to be effective, it would now need to be a partnership of equals and based on joint agency in shaping global policy , willingness to move beyond the aid paradigm, act like serious investors and public policy entrepreneurs when it comes to resolving global challenges, and accept that cooperation bargains –just like market transactions — will happen, when the deal is fair.
    Why aim only at going back to pre-Trump times? Why not aim at a suggesting to the new Administration (and the EU and the German Government and others) to enter into a new era of multi-polar cooperation? Why only think of relations between the EU and the US? Why not also of the relations between the US and the AU or ASEAN — cooperation between relatively big countries and relatively big regions?
    Now is too bad a moment (due to Corona) and too good a moment (due to the new Administration) to let go waste. Let’s be realists and recognize that innovation in global governance is long overdue and have another round of comments on concrete needed reforms.

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