President Joe Biden delivered the annual ‘State of the Union’ address to the United States Congress on February 7. This is one of the most followed speeches of an American President not only by America watchers but diplomats and International Relations experts all over the world. This is because it is an authoritative expression of the current and coming priorities of country’s administration. Naturally, these impact the American public more than other people or country but as America is the world’s most important country its reach is felt everywhere. Hence, an American administration’s objectives and policies impact the world in some—and often in large—measure.
Biden is midway through his Presidential term. His Democratic party lost control of the House of Representatives in the election held last November but did better than expected. In the 100 member Senate the Democratic Party has now 48 members to the Republicans 49 but with 3 independent members aligned with the former party, it retains control of the country’s Upper House. With the Congress not within his complete control Biden has the difficult task of taking the Republicans along on important domestic as well as foreign policy issues.
Biden’s speech underlined his outreach to the Republicans so that his administration’s domestic and foreign policy agendas are not completely blocked through this year and the next. He said “Yes, we disagreed plenty. And, yes, there were times when Democrats went alone. But time and again Democrats and Republicans came together. Came together to defend a stronger and safer Europe. You came together to pass once-in-a-generation infrastructure law, building bridges connecting our nation and our people”. The foreign policy reference was to the united American response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which began on February 24 last year. That America’s physical infrastructure needs to be upgraded to keep up with that of China and some of European countries is also true. In view of the complexities of the American constitutional system much of the work on physical infrastructure has to be undertaken at the state and county level but the impetus given by Congress is important.
One element of Biden’s speech reflects the deeply held belief that America is unique. Biden said “…the story of America is a story of progress and resilience. Of always moving forward. Of never, ever giving up. It’s a story unique (emphasis added) among all nations. We’re the only country that has emerged from every crisis we’ve ever entered stronger than we got into it”. (Surely, that’s a stretch when it comes to Afghanistan!) To an extent every people feel that they are exceptional in some way. Some believe it silently while others wear their sentiments of uniqueness on their sleeve. For instance the Jews have always asserted that they are the “chosen” people of God and that the land of Israel has been by God given to them. The Americans assert their uniqueness often. However, the fact remains that all humans are essentially the same and differences in them are products of space and circumstance. If these change, so do they. This is borne out by Indian history itself; the British for their own interests propagated the notion of martial races and included the British Indian army after 1857 from these so-called martial races. But in the army of independent India are officers and soldiers from outside this group of martial races any less valorous or committed? Nations create and perpetuate myths and are always sensitive about maintaining them.
Biden’s speech was focussed on the American economy and how it has recovered from the ravages of Covid-19 and the dislocation of the Ukraine war. It was significant, but not unexpected, that he emphasised a determination to make America a great manufacturing country again. This is a process which his predecessor Donald Trump stressed and it is clear that America is no longer going to be satisfied with only owning intellectual property of manufacturing that takes place elsewhere. The example that Biden gave of electronic chip manufacturing is noteworthy for it will impact many countries that are in the process of setting up their chip manufacturing industries. India also cannot ignore America’s plans to become a great manufacturing power again. It is, of course, ironic because more than any other country it is America that is responsible for making China the factory of the world and inadvertently also assisted it to become a science power.
Biden also courted the American middle class. He pointed out the enormous profits being made by the pharmaceutical and oil industries and that the wealthiest corporates and individuals get away by using the loopholes in the taxation law and do not pay taxes to the extent the middle classes do. This is true and if Biden succeeds in closing the loopholes than he will give a shot in the arm to the electoral prospects of his party in the elections to be held in 2024. Biden also did well to emphasise that the climate crisis posed an existential problem to the world though that would not be a popular position with many wealthy corporations.
On America’s greatest foreign policy challenge—China—Biden was measured. He repeated the position he has taken earlier—that America wanted competition but not confrontation. However, China under President Xi Jinping is not satisfied with competition. It wants to change World Order to suit its interests and is consequently challenging American pre-eminence. Clearly, neither country nor nuclear weapon states can afford open and kinetic confrontation with all its escalatory connotations. The real challenge lies in managing the stresses that the international system is facing with the rise of national ambitions in the swiftly changing digital age.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.