America is back? It’s more like a return to ‘America first’, as Biden takes a leaf from Trump’s protectionist playbook

October 2, 2022 GMT

US President Joe Biden’s primary appeal during the 2020 election cycle was not being Donald Trump. However, Biden has adopted various policies from his predecessor, albeit wrapped in friendly, promising rhetoric. The coming midterm elections are playing a pivotal role, but nonetheless, multiple decisions during Biden’s presidency have harked back to Trump’s “America first”, rather than “America is back”.

It’s only been a month since Biden managed to push the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) through Congress, a billion-dollar bill of laws aimed at saving America’s ailing economy, according to the president.

When looked at closely, however, it becomes apparent that the act is a de facto continuation of Trumpian protectionism and nationalism.

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The legislation provides, among other things, nearly US$370 billion to promote green technology in an effort to mitigate climate change, including a US$7,500 tax credit on purchases of specific electric vehicles and a variable tax credit for battery cells.

However, consumers only receive a tax credit if the cars are manufactured in the US, Canada or Mexico. This means that 70 per cent of models on the US market are ineligible, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation estimates.

By 2023, at least half of the battery components for these electric vehicles must also have been manufactured or assembled in North America. By 2028, the components have to be 100 per cent American.

This “Buy American” policy is a savvy political move by Biden when looking ahead to the midterms. The economy is the top issue for voters. And Biden hopes the IRA will help deliver the votes required to ensure the Democrats retain the House and Senate.

If the Republicans were to take control of even one chamber, Biden would find it almost impossible to pass anything of note in the next two years. With a lame-duck president and an economy in crisis, the way would be paved for a populist Trump 2.0. Therefore, Biden must show that his own people play first fiddle.

However, it is not the first time Biden has taken pages out of the Trump playbook. On immigration and the pandemic, he has maintained Trump-era policies for some time.

For example, in 2021, the Biden administration announced it would maintain Trump’s 15,000 cap on refugee admissions. Only after a backlash from within his own party and human rights groups did Biden reverse course. Meanwhile, Biden only ended the Trump-era “stay in Mexico” policy last month.

And, during the pandemic, Washington was initially unwilling to distribute surplus vaccines to poorer nations, including the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, which had not been licensed in the US at the time.

With that said, there are various deviations from Trump’s motivations ” especially when it comes to US membership in international organisations and agreements, decorum, or upholding the rule of law or the oath of office in general. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that the Biden administration is further along the “America first” path than most would have anticipated.

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The parallels are particularly striking when it comes to trade. The best example is undoubtedly Trump’s tariffs on China, which have been maintained under Biden and are still officially “under review”.

However, the Inflation Reduction Act has broader implications that have caused disagreements on the other side of the Atlantic. In fact, in Brussels, the EU is currently assessing whether the act might violate World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.

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EU Trade Commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis recently told Bloomberg that the European Union had “concerns about a number of discriminatory elements in this Inflation Reduction Act which puts requirement for local content, for local production”.

Biden’s protectionism casts doubt on the usefulness of the Transatlantic Trade Council that the US and EU established only a year ago. After the tumultuous Trump years, both sides promised to play nice. Trade disputes over aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus, tariffs on steel should be a thing of the past. The status quo tells a different story, however.

Support for Brussels has come from South Korea, which is affected because Kia is one of the car manufacturers losing funding. It has already said it is seeking to pursue a lawsuit against the US at the WTO.

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South Korean Minister of Trade, Industry and Energy Lee Chang-yang said, “it is highly likely to be violating those rules, and we will bring a complaint at the WTO if necessary”.

However, experience has shown that these lawsuits can be a marathon, not a sprint. Moreover, and conveniently for Washington, the WTO is hamstrung by a lack of judges on its Appellate Body, with the US blocking the appointment of new judges, citing concerns that the court’s judgments have violated American interests.

It would be unrealistic to expect US policies to primarily function for the well-being of the world. After all, Biden was elected by the people of the United States. Putting his voters’ interests first is not only understandable but vital, given the coming midterm elections.

However, Biden has a responsibility ” particularly after announcing that “America is back” ” to rectify the damage done by Trump, who single-handedly shattered international norms and led the US back into a period of semi-isolation during his tenure.

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Biden’s set of guiding principles should have ensured he said goodbye to “America first” policies, and quickly moved to a new era of reconciliation and cooperation with allies and old friends. Indeed, we should have seen more than just a headline to say the person in the Oval Office was no longer Trump.

Yet, with Biden walking a tightrope, those outside North America remain the weakest link. In many ways, that’s just like it was under Trump ” albeit without the preposterous tweets.

Thomas O. Falk is an independent journalist and political analyst

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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