When on Saturday afternoon the news broke that Pennsylvania would go to the Democrats and thus push Joe Biden over the 270 electoral college votes to take the presidency, I was en route to Sainsbury’s. The preceding four days had blurred into a thick haze of long hours refreshing live feeds and watching the votes from key states slowly trickle through. Then, all the impatience, all the speculation, and all the tension suddenly dissolved away with the arrival of one short breaking news bulletin. America had spoken and the verdict was decisive.

You need not be a US citizen to take an avid interest in presidential elections. Although the extended saga of the electoral college system is in itself a spectacle, this is also because there is simply so much at stake. NATO, the OAS, the IMF, the UN itself: a plethora of cryptic acronyms that denote political alliances, economic pacts, and decision-making mechanisms on a truly global scale are today dependent on Washington’s lead. Look no further than the creation and subsequent cancellation of the Iran Nuclear Deal in order to appreciate how support from the White House catalyses change, whereas opposition altogether undoes it.

For better or for worse, the West’s indebtedness to our counterparts across the Pond bestows upon any sitting president an unparalleled degree of influence and power. And as the maxim goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Joe Biden inherits from Donald Trump a US foreign policy bent firmly on “Making America Great Again”. I explored the inherent contradiction of this campaign slogan several months ago in a piece on the Central American migrant crisis, but my conclusions could just as easily apply to any other geopolitical context: America helps itself when it helps others. A failure to recognise this symbiotic relationship was perhaps the greatest policy shortcoming of the outgoing administration. In compelling close European allies to increase military spending, in provoking a trade war with China, in instructing officials to withdraw from the WHO and the Paris Climate Agreement, and in bullying Latin American countries to reduce emigrant flows, Trump demonstrated the mentality of the businessman blinded by profits. The short-term gain of superficially appearing to further US interests abroad through this ‘hard-line’ stance ultimately came at a trade-off with long-term bargaining power. 

Admittedly, the latter may not be measured in attention-grabbing statistics, however, the cost – as well as the negative implications for democracy, prosperity, and the rule of law around the globe – is a price too high to be worth paying. 

Populists are brilliant campaigners, yet terrible leaders. Now more than ever, both the West and the USA itself need a discourse of careful reason rather than more charged rhetoric. 

Joe Biden is no political revolution, yet his self-description as “a proud Democrat […] but an American president” is revealing. Being presidential is, in many regards, his greatest selling point. Even before taking ownership of the keys to the Oval Office, Mr. Biden’s intense desire for Washington to be restored to its role as mature leader of the Western world is refreshingly familiar. From Russia or China to Brexit’s consequences for the Northern Irish border, the president-elect has reflected extensively on his planned approach towards specific issues of foreign policy, whereas a broader ethos favouring multilateral cooperation through supranational bodies should be welcomed by all.

The people of the United States chose the Biden-Harris ticket to repair a society increasingly fragmented by confrontation and intolerance. And as the messages of congratulations rush in from world leaders near and far, the victory of a rules-based democracy over the chaotic opportunism of demagoguery is a victory for all.

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Ben Owen

A contributor to The Oxford Blue since its inception, Ben’s pieces explore topics as diverse as travel, literature, politics, and wine. His translation work has also helped foreign journalists share their ideas in the English language.