The guitarist in the striped shirt in the background completes the picture. A video is go around it shows that Donald Trump approaches post-presidential life with less than, say, Jimmy Carter-ish equanimity. The clip shows him on a hotel kiosk, alleging dirty tricks in a six-month-old election, dressed as if a summons to resume his duties at the White House was not just possible but imminent.
Palm Beach’s Norma Desmond has at least two consolations. One, unlike the stranded fantasy in Sunset Boulevard, a return is possible. Betting exchanges promote it as a Republican candidate for the White House in 2024.
Second, while awaiting this restoration, he can see a gratifying number of his foreign policies still at work under a new president.
Trump had offered to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan by last Saturday. Joe Biden’s reform consisted of pushing back the date every four months. Trump has refused to scold Saudi Arabia for its role in the murder of an American resident journalist and in a cruel war in Yemen. Under Biden, the kingdom has nothing to do with the “pariah” he had promised to do so. Trump pulled the United States out of the Iranian nuclear pact. Biden’s rebirth has been slower and more conditional than most had expected.
In all three cases, the Trump line was seen as an unreasonable dereliction: proof that the United States is the absent owner of the world. In all three, Biden kept more than he threw aside. Continuity involves a mixture of bad judgment in the new president and underrated wisdom in old politics.
The examples don’t end there either. Biden hasn’t been over a bit of vaccine nationalism. It was only after criticism from his own side that he raised Trump’s ceiling. refugee admissions. Any connection with Cuba remains essentially theoretical. In Washington, a city that gave its name to a pro-trade consensus, Trump’s taste for self-sufficiency was briefly subversive. Biden is now in a position to offer a Buy american general removal purchasing scheme. The same bad argument for economic protection, a much nicer argument: Liberals need to find solace where they find it.
And none of this touches on the bilateral relationship of the century. By Biden posture vis-à-vis China is more true for Trump than for Barack Obama, and by a margin which must render the awkwardness in the catch-up sessions of the former boss and his deputy. The prices are still there. The two marines still do shadow boxing.
Biden’s grievances with China have a moral, or at least a philosophical dimension: Trump, at his most anti-Beijing, didn’t care about his authoritarianism. But it involves more, not less, roads to a military confrontation under Biden. In his speech to Congress Last week, he compared the American presence in the “Indo-Pacific” to what “we are doing at NATO in Europe”. Allusions to the Cold War have shifted from the columnist’s trope to how the incumbent president views the other superpower. Hopes for a post-Trump detente now rest on – what? – Biden’s vague openness to cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
Trump’s grip on his successor’s worldview is not complete. Biden is likely to never do something deeper than virtually His first: re-sign the Paris climate agreement. It is catering assistance to the Palestinians (but not to the Israeli Embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv). His tonal warmth towards his familiar allies, Nato and the very idea of internationalism is welcome, insofar as everything that is tonic matters.
It was natural, however, to expect more starting points. Foreign affairs is where a president is truly as powerful as the outward greatness of the post suggests. Congress is a complication, not a Bermuda Triangle for the best plans. If Biden wanted a clean break with the nationalism of the previous four years, he could be much further along with this project. No doubt its slowness owes something to the often disastrous fear of Democrats of being perceived as soft. (Remember which part started and escalated the Vietnam War.) But the rest is genuine hardening of views to the center-left in recent years. For a single-term president, Trump has changed the way the United States thinks about the world in astonishing ways. It is up to this world to live with the effects.
This is another reason to retain the idea that we are witnessing a Presidency of Mount Rushmore. Really important American leaders have tended to transform foreign policy. Judged by his early work, Biden simply longs to adjust it. In the snatches the world now sees of him, his predecessor radiates a tragicomic lack of relevance. In the highest affairs of the state, he remains unmistakable.