What if we don’t want the old America back?

A return to the “Washington Consensus” that prevailed until 2016 would be foolish and dangerous.

By: and /
16 December, 2020
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden attends the announcement of the members of his health team on December 08, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden appeared to channel a younger and more boastful version of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last month when announcing his cabinet picks. “America,” he tweeted, “is back.”

The message seemed intent on sending a reassuring message to American citizens, traditional allies such as Canada as well as the rest of the world that these past nearly four years of Trump were an aberration and that the United States will resume its purportedly natural position as leader of the so-called liberal international order. However, any attempt by the United States to return to the policies and approaches that dominated the post-Cold War era would be foolish and dangerous: there should be no going back to the “Washington Consensus” that prevailed through 2016.

It is worth pausing to credit the over 80 million Americans who voted for Joe Biden with saving the United States from sliding further into illiberalism during a Trump second term. Joe Biden received more votes in this past presidential election than any candidate in the previous 244 years of the republic. Voter turnout exceeded 66 per cent, the highest since 1900, and shattered the previous total vote record set in 2008 during Barack Obama’s candidacy. There has been little to no evidence of electoral fraud in any of the 50 states, and the much-hyped potential for street violence did not materialize. Biden even turned blue such traditionally red states as Georgia and Arizona, evidence of important demographic and population shifts that likely portend a further shakeup to solid red sunbelt states that have been friendly to Republican candidates for many election cycles.

Moreover, a Biden presidency will likely push America to re-engage collaboratively with the world on a host of issues that require genuine multilateral cooperation: tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and working to assure universal access to a vaccine; fighting climate change; reversing the drift towards nuclear proliferation and rearmament; and challenging the populist, anti-immigrant xenophobia that has taken root in so many countries. Indeed, the incoming Biden administration is signaling a renewed commitment to democracy, human rights and multilateralism.

But the world is different today than it was in 2016, and it’s very different than how observers might have predicted when looking toward the future from 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, America stood dominant and liberalism and democracy seemed ascendant. That perspective shaped much of America’s domestic and foreign policies in the 25 years that separated the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the election of Donald Trump. It would be foolish to imagine that the world — or American voters — would welcome an American return to many of the policies that helped Trump reach the White House. 

“It would be foolish to imagine that the world — or American voters — would welcome an American return to many of the policies that helped Trump reach the White House.”

Take the global economy, for example. Despite Canada’s insistence on including “Progressive” in the name of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership, the agreement is anything but. Modeled on other post-Cold War pacts, it emphasizes investment liberalization over trade, provides dispute settlement provisions that allow corporations to challenge public sector regulations and gives scant attention to labour rights or the environment, not to mention gender or Indigenous rights. 

It was all too easy to frame opponents of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and the subsequent North American Free Trade Agreement as backward nationalists, but over the past 25 years inequality has surged, workers’ rights have been undermined and unionization rates have declined. These forces helped to shape a politics of resentment that produced Brexit, shaped Trump’s ascendency with rural white voters and provided fuel for the xenophobic and anti-immigrant backlash that has swept countries around the world. An America returning “back” to champion the neoliberal Washington consensus is the last thing Americans and others need at a moment of extraordinary economic precarity and health insecurity and ongoing environmental degradation. 

And what about the liberal international order? It is true that the security alliances, multilateral economic institutions and liberal norms buttressed by American hegemony injected a degree of stability and predictability into the latter part of a 20th century marked by violence, war and economic depression. But did the liberal international order really end with the election of Donald Trump, or has his administration been given far too much credit? 

There is, in fact, a long list of factors that have shaken global liberalism and democracy since the end of the Cold War. These include Russia’s resurgence and its annexation of Crimea; China’s unwillingness to abide by liberal economic norms; and an explosion of transnational problems, from environmental degradation to the mass displacement of peoples, terrorism, recession and American overstretch in seemingly endless wars. These all pre-date the election of the four-time bankrupted reality television host in 2016.

Finally, there is an enormous credibility gap undermining any insistence by the Biden administration that America is “back” and ready to collaborate for the long haul in addressing multilaterally the many challenges facing the international system. America’s image has taken a beating during the histrionics of the Trump era, with the catastrophically incompetent U.S. national response to the COVID-19 pandemic only furthering fracturing the narrative of American exceptionalism. Why should American allies trust a Biden administration’s insistence that America is recommitting to multilateral cooperation and problem-solving, when the institutional gridlock, political dysfunction and partisan division likely to continue during the Biden presidency may very well create the conditions for another populist Republican president embracing a return to an “America First” posture as early as 2024?

The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau undoubtedly is heartily relieved that the incoming Biden administration is returning to more familiar narratives and is willing to chip in to repair or recommit to the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, the Paris Accord and other international institutions and agreements. But Canada should not be complacent about how far nostalgia can take either Americans or Canadians. Collaborative and genuinely multilateral responses to this new world disorder will not come from America returning to the policies that contributed to and exacerbated many of its underlying problems in the first place.

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