One day short of completing one hundred days of his administration US President Joe Biden delivered his first address to the United States Congress on April 28 on his administration’s policies and programmes. It was an authoritative account of his administration’s current and future orientation deserving close analysis within the US and in the rest of the world. The latter because of US’s global pre-eminence; its policies and actions impact all countries in large or small measure.
Biden dwelt on the country’s and his administration’s pressing concerns. These relate to the steps that are being taken to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health of the US people and the state of the economy which has been battered through last year. In addition, Biden also dwelt on other domestic issues—race relations, gun control and significantly on the need to upgrade efforts in education and in the areas of scientific and technological research. The major part of Biden’s address was devoted to domestic concerns and in respect of foreign policy he gave his almost exclusive attention to US ties with China and Russia though he did not neglect to speak on his decision to finally withdraw US forces from Afghanistan to end the “forever war”.
Biden asserted “our progress these past 100 days against one of the worst pandemics in history is one of the greatest logistical achievements our country has ever seen”. He claimed credit for “providing 220 million Covid shots” since he assumed office on January 20 even though the target was 100 million vaccinations over the same period. This is no doubt a considerable achievement and it completely contrasts with former President Donald Trump’s bizarre attitude towards the dangers of the pandemic when it broke out last year. Biden indirectly called vaccine shots as a “dose of hope”. While hinting that the US was succeeding against the virus Biden added a note of caution when he said “There’s still more work to do to beat this virus. We can’t let our guard down now”. These words apply to all countries.
It is noteworthy that Biden focused on US’s economic competition with China in straightforward terms. He said “We are in competition with China and other countries”. While he mentioned other countries the fact that he named China shows who Biden considers it as his country’s main competitor. This is not surprising as the Chinese economy is strongly moving ahead. The US-China competition is now not only in manufacturing but also in science and technology as well as in infrastructure. Biden referred to all three areas and said that the US must do better. Sticking to the basic philosophy of his Democrat Party Biden emphasised the role of the state in all these areas. “These are the investments we make together, as one country, and that only government can make”. Particular attention needs to be paid by all, especially countries like India, to Biden’s prediction that there will be more technological change in the next ten years than has been seen in the last fifty. The Indian state has to take the lead in preparing the country to take advantage of these changes. The alternative is to be left behind.
And again, sticking to his party’s principles he said that the very rich must pay more by way of taxes. In this context he noted “20 million Americans lost their jobs in the pandemic working-and-middle-class Americans. At the same time, the roughly 650 Billionaires in America saw their net worth increase by US$ 1 trillion”. Their net worth is now US$ 4 trillion. These mind-boggling figures show how the pandemic has differently impacted on different segments of the population. It has reduced the poor to terrible conditions while the rich have prospered because of it. This experience is not confined to the US but has been an almost universal experience.
In the area of US’s external relations and its place in the world Biden turned his attention to the country challenging the US position, China. He asserted that he had demanded during his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping that “every nation plays by the same rules in the global economy, including China”. He also told Xi Jinping that the US will continue to maintain a strong presence in the Indo-Pacific region and in Europe and that “America will not back away from our commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms”. Taken all together Biden’s message to his people was clear: China is now an economic and strategic competitor, if not a threat, to the US. In this respect Biden’s position is clearly no different from that of Donald Trump though his specific way of dealing with China will be different. It now remains to be seen how Biden will concretise his objective of keeping China in check especially as he will need its cooperation on addressing the most critical issue of our times—climate change. Biden gave climate change priority and said it had to be tackled through global cooperation.
Biden conveyed that he had made it clear to Russia that its interference in US domestic affairs will have consequences but that he wanted cooperation between the two countries. He also said that Iran and North Korean nuclear programmes posed threats and had to be addressed through “diplomacy and stern deterrence”. Again, these are fine statements of intent. What remains to be seen is how they will be implemented. Biden’s rationale for US withdrawal from Afghanistan covered known ground.
As India grapples with the Covid second wave Biden’s giving primacy to his own people and then helping the world are particularly relevant. It seems that is now the Indian policy too.