The common wisdom is that allies, including Australia, will feel much more comfortable if Joe Biden wins the election.
Donald Trump’s important legacy is that countering China is now a bipartisan mindset in Washington, but Biden is promising to more closely work and consult with other nations to that end – hence the assumed sense of relief amongst allies/partners.
However, the situation is far more nuanced and complicated than that.
From my time serving in government, and from observations before and after from the outside, it seems that the greater obstacle to strategic ambition, courage and resourcefulness on the part of allies such as Australia is less about the decline of US power or the flaws in its policies, and more about the doubting of American resolve and decisiveness.
Australia welcomed Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia and would certainly embrace Biden’s promise of achieving a favourable ‘competitive coexistence’ vis-a-vis China.
But doubts about Obama’s determination and willingness to get down and dirty to compete and confront China sapped the courage of allies.
There are similar doubts about Biden’s softer temperament which might pose a problem for Canberra given Australia (with Japan) is the most forward leaning in the region when it comes to countering the worst aspects of Chinese behaviour.
The Turnbull and Morrison governments would not have taken tough and long-sighted strategic decisions if the Trump administration were the hopeless and flailing superpower or else missing in action as is frequently the accusation.
Indeed, the paradox is that Trump’s unorthodox and disconcerting leadership style has worked to the Australian government’s advantage when it comes to attaining meaningful access to the White House relative to other allied and friendly governments.
We have been much better than others at focusing on the positive aspects of Trump’s preparedness to disrupt and take risks and manage the negative aspects of these same presidential characteristics.
If Trump wins again, he will double-down on his economic offensive against China.
We need to ensure the intended outcome is not just a better deal for America but Australia and the region.
It is clear Biden will have an excellent and experienced team around him and should learn quickly.
The ideal is that Biden will accept that American leadership in a contested world is not just about being liked or admired.
It includes some arm twisting of allies/partners to take risks and do their part, and preparedness to alter the behaviour of rivals by making things as difficult as possible for them. Australia ought to remind the former vice president that if countering China is as urgent and important as we are told – and it is – then cobbling together the broadest possible coalition, which Biden promises to do, is going to be less effective than forging ahead with coalitions of the willing.
There is one crucial area where Biden will undoubtedly be far superior to Trump.
The latter’s poor understanding of the role of institutions in preserving and enhancing American power and influence and the importance of institutional solutions to lock in gains (and defray risks or losses) is a serious shortcoming.
Smaller nations like Australia need institutional solutions and outcomes to commit resources and take risks – whether these regimes are diplomatic, economic, or strategic.
Trump’s failings have also opened doors for rivals. Power abhors any vacuum and countries such as China have filled some of it.
Under Biden, there will be a high appetite for quickly crafting together a plan to revive American presence and influence in key regional and global institutions.
If Biden wins, Canberra is well placed to shape the former’s approach to not just engaging with existing and new institutions but competing through these.