After Trump: Is American diplomacy back? Or is there no going back?

What, if anything, changes under a Biden Administration?

Good morning! Our first edition netted us 217 freshly-squeezed subscribers! Thank you to those who've told us: “eh, you're not as funny as you think you are” or “trying hard to be cute”. We agree.

We're also trying to change the way international affairs are reported. To do that, we've decided our mission statement will be: Build in Public. That means creating something people love while pulling back the curtain on the process.

It is with hearty chuckles therefore, that we admit to calling Belarus 'Bulgaria' last week. In the title. In our first newsletter, in the headline, we mixed up two different countries (in our defence, they're both... European?). Strong start.

We say "we" made a mistake. The Harvard one of us didn't make that mistake (though nor did she spot it), the other one did. You know the phrase 'write drunk, edit sober'? Hemingway, right? Turns out if you switch the word 'sober' with 'drunk', it has a profound and opposite effect on the finished product. A big thank you to the kind soul who messaged us along the lines of 'ummm Bulgaria ain't Belarus'.

It's almost as embarrassing as hosting a press conference between a dildo shop and a crematorium... actually, no, it’s nowhere near as embarrassing as that. #MakeAmericaRakeAgain 🍂

Right, on to this week. As promised, it’s a US-focused edition.

Check in at the end of the newsletter for some information about when and how often we’re going to post. And if you’re not subscribed yet… here’s an easy fix:

1. Captain America’s Comeback? US Foreign Policy Under Biden 🦸🏻‍♀️

By Helen

The season finale of “America 2020” had us glued to screens for Four. Days. Straight. After a hernia-inducing close start and trust in “polesters” again at record lows, President-elect Biden eventually pulled through, flipping battleground states such as Nevada (#VivaLasVegas) and Republican stronghold, Georgia.

Despite Secretary of State Pompeo's promises for a "smooth transition" to a second Trump Administration (lol!), Biden-Harris 2020 is official. So, what will American foreign policy generally look like under a Biden Administration, and who are the winners and losers? Here’s a snapshot:

Recapping the Era of Foreign Policy by Tweet

The last four years of US foreign policy can be summarised as a series of Tweets – some coherent, mostly covfefe. Though Trump had some wins (e.g. tough on Jyna), his ham-fisted ‘America First’ approach eroded global institutions and alienated friends (recall when Trudeau et al were filmed mocking the Donald? Et tu, Boris?!). Trump turned the US into a transactional, unpredictable, and disruptive power - a far cry from its golden days under President Jed Bartlet 😍.

Biden Be Building Back Better

World leaders have so far celebrated Biden’s victory like it’s the panacea for 2020. Awkwardly, more world leaders have congratulated Biden than Republican politicians. But Biden don't care, he plans to return America to the spotlight through:

  1. “Renewing Democracy”: He'll tackle rising authoritarianism globally and restore transparency to governments, starting with a ‘Democracy Summit’ to rehabilitate democracies in 2021.

  2. “A Foreign Policy for the Middle Class”: He'll improve infrastructure and innovation to turbo-charge middle America for global competition (cue impending US-China AI race), an effort that could win back voters who sided with Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy.

  3. “Returning to the Head of the Table”: He'll return American leadership to global cooperation and multilateral deals. First move: re-joining Paris Climate Agreement, which Trump left.

Our Take: A Tough Road Ahead

While ambitious, Biden won’t immediately be able to rescue Captain America from under Trump’s rubble. After all, rebuilding the trust of allies whose eyes Trump poked takes time. Biden also faces domestic woes: how will he concurrently tackle COVID-19, systemic racism, economic recession, and a polarised US - where 70 million Americans voted to “Make America Great Again”, again? All that plus a Republican Senate (probably), which will resist his brand of foreign policy.

At the very least, Veep Harris can *finally* return some swag to Team America.

Read more here:

2. Are We The New Cold War Kids? 🥶

By John

To know the present you must understand the past, but reading history is tiring. Accordingly, please find a pretty picture of how the US and China have largely managed to play nice for the last 40+ years.

We need to talk about the last 4 years...

because they've been wild. Trump:

➡ pulled the US out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (a trade deal that China thought excluded them on purpose 😭)

➡ buddied up to Kim Jong Un in North Korea which had China terrified they’d lose control over their northern friends. All via Dennis Rodman ‘cos game recognise game.

expelled diplomats and journalists, then banned TikTok

➡ kicked off a ‘trade war', to which China retaliated by using bats to..... nevermind.

To sum up: Trump was like a frog in a sock, a lot of unpredictable sound and fury without actually going anywhere.

A relationship worth binge-watching 🍿

It would be nice if the two biggest, most intertwined economies in history played nice, for our collective anxiety levels. Also, they have quite a lot of nukes.

But here's the real reason to tune in: the Taiwan Semi-Conductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC). Sexy right? TSMC controls 52% of global semiconductor manufacturing. More importantly, it makes the best quality ones along with the other huge player, Samsung. That's important for complex computing, military equipment… well they’re in everything you love except your dog... for now.

(The background of TSMC is fascinating. Check out this superb piece about the founder Morris Chang.)

Sometimes, these things are as simple as geography - a.k.a very close missile range:

China simply doesn't have the technical capability to produce high-quality chips. The nightmare for the US is if China bombs or even repatriates Taiwan. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always considered Taiwan part of China, but wasn't able to capture it during or after the civil war. But they did try and it’s a great story.

If you don't trust us, trust superstar tech strategy blogger Ben Thompson:

…the lesson in 2020 should be that technology is inseparable from geopolitics. It is chips that gave Silicon Valley its name, and everything is [about] geopolitics, not economics.

What next?

The best case for the future of the US China relationship is intense but fair competition. At worst, a new cold war. Famous historian Niall Ferguson certainly thinks it will be the latter. Trump has been remarkably effective at convincing Washington that China is not a benign cuddly 🐼. He’s doubling down:

Our best prediction is that we move into an era of fewer popcorn worthy press conferences, and probably a general détente. The US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand (known as the Five Eyes) will likely do more "behind the scenes", as the lingo goes. But if paranoia is the delusion that one’s enemies are organised then, given the ample evidence to the contrary, China need not worry so much about others cooperating against them.

And the Taiwanese? They're worried that Biden will be less supportive, but we think that's pretty unlikely. We'll leave you with a snippet from a recent Economist article reflecting on a conversation with a senior CCP official:

Amid such distrust, any Chinese rapprochement with America should be understood for what it is: a bid to buy time while China races to become stronger.

Strap in folks, 2020 is just the beginning.

Our ‘Follow to Not Follow’ 💊

Last week our recommendation of Naval caused some interesting reactions, including: “🤮🤮🤮”. Let’s see if we can provoke more strong feelings with James Clear. He’s the author of Atomic Habits and a newsletter focused around the psychology of productivity and habit building. Useful in these wfh times.

Thanks for reading!

We've decided this will be a weekly newsletter. We'll send it out on Tuesday night (London time) so it’s ready for your Wednesday morning coffee or vodka, as the case may be. We'll try really hard to stick to that.

We’ve also set a goal of 1000 subscribers before the end of 2020. Help us salvage something from this dumpster 🔥 of a year by getting the R rate of this newsletter above 1.0 (too soon?). So please share widely, forward it to your friends, and make your work minions sign up for 'professional development purposes'. We are really excited to write this each week and would love to keep doing it. We’d love to have you on board.

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