The country that has benefited most from these two changes, the diminishing of American democracy and the reality of American withdrawal, is of course China. It is true that, after a long flirtation with Xi, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ratcheted up their anti-China rhetoric, in part to distract Americans from their own failure to fight the coronavirus. But Beijing must at least feel ambivalent about the end of their administration. A second Trump term would have consolidated Chinese influence inside the United Nations system, reduced the power of human-rights advocacy, and undermined the alliance of Western and Asian democracies even further. During a week that Trump spent tweeting election conspiracy theories, 15 Asia-Pacific countries signed on to a regional trade deal spearheaded by China. Not so very long ago, the Obama administration proposed the creation of a U.S.-led transpacific trade partnership that would have bound the region to a different vision. When Trump trashed that agreement, the door was left open for Beijing.
None of these changes can be easily reversed by the Biden administration, especially by old veterans who imagine that their task now is one of restoration. On the contrary, whoever joins the next administration, whether as secretary of state or chargé d’affaires in Luxembourg, now faces a much different task. The recitation of human rights as a mantra will not by itself make human rights important again. America’s return to UN institutions that Trump has left or said he would leave—most notably the World Health Organization and the UN Human Rights Council—will not rid them of Chinese influence or make them more functional. The task is to come up with absolutely new ways of conducting diplomacy, of expanding U.S. influence, of reinforcing respect for human rights, and, above all, of leveraging alliances. In a prescient commentary published last month, the Lowy Institute fellow Thomas Wright observed that the real question is not whether Biden will be different from Trump. “That much is obvious,” noted Wright (who is also an Atlantic contributing writer). Instead, the question is whether Biden will differ from Obama. And that is not yet obvious at all.