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Can McCarthyism Make a Comeback Under Joe Biden’s Presidency?

American society has never been as polarized and as divided as it is today. What is the impact of that US split on the rest of the world?

By Krisantus Tobias


After taking over from Donald Trump, Joe Biden is slowly but surely trying to restore the global image of the United States (US). Uncle Sam’s country is traditionally known as a major global power – it can even be considered a world leader. 

This global leadership status was abandoned by Trump during his time in power because the political line of Melania Trump’s husband is indeed focused on US domestic nationalism, which for some time has been the direction of his political policy and strategy. After Trump’s defeat, many observers and scholars think that the US will return to being a leader and a major player in global politics to balance the rise of new economic powers, especially China.

However, the political strategy used by Biden is quite interesting to observe. He conveyed that strategy at the Munich Security Conference forum which was held by the G7 countries virtually in mid-February 2021.

On this occasion, Biden boldly described the importance of democratic countries to work together and jointly face the autocratic regimes of China and Russia. Biden seemed to re-emphasize the position of the US as part of the multilateral team player in front of the countries that mostly come from Europe.

This attitude is different from Donald Trump, who on several occasions tended to cause “anger” from his own allied countries through the line of foreign policy, which tends to be transactional, or promoting only the national interests of his own country. 

However, Biden’s political move did not bring praise and was also criticized by several parties. Biden’s political strategy, which revived “hostility” to China and Russia, is considered by some to be old school and old-fashioned.

Not without reason, this seems to restore the political memory of the United States in the Cold War era – it can even be said long before the 1940s when McCarthyism became the main color of politics in the US. 

For those who don’t know, McCarthyism is a school of thought that happened in the US in the 1940-1950s when many people were accused of being subversive and considered betraying the country when it came to communism. 

If so, did indeed Biden evoke the memory on the opposition’s past, and what will the impact be for other countries such as Indonesia? What is the viewpoint of Singaporean academic and former diplomat, Kishore Mahbubani on this issue?

Biden’s Ancient Strategy

One of Biden’s ancient strategies was mentioned by a lecturer at The International Institute Lorenzo de ‘Medici Florence, Italy, Fabio Massimo Parenti. In his article for the Global Times – a medium linked to the Chinese Communist Party – Parenti said that Biden’s strategy of world division was a political step that tended to be outdated. 

Despite Global Times’ affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party, Parenti’s analysis is interesting. In the past, there was a competition between capitalism and communism, now Biden has reformulated the collision in the headline democracy vs autocracy. Interestingly, some parties considered Biden’s political strategy to be more “dangerous” than Trump’s “America First” strategy. 

This is because the US wants to restore its position as a global leader like what happened after World War II, even though this position has faded with the formation of the organization of the G-20 countries since 1999. This “dangerous” strategy – in the context of giving birth to global confrontation again – is considered unlikely to be successful because of the current world conditions that have changed a lot.

This is seen for example in the case of several trade bloc agreements. Due to its self-focused politics in the Trump era, the US finally had to “miss” when two major trade blocs were formed with China in it, namely the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which involved ASEAN and countries in the Asia Pacific and Australia, and the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment between the European Union and China in December 2020.

As an additional note, RCEP is the largest trading bloc in the world ever recorded in history because it controls 30 percent of global GDP and 30 percent of the world’s population.

This is why when Biden came up with his McCarthyism-style strategy, some writers considered this political path no longer in line with global conditions that had changed a lot. 

McCarthyism itself, which is taken from the name of US senator from the Republican Party, Joseph McCarthy, is an understanding that tends to be colored by “fear”, especially after the Great Depression occurred in the US in the 1930s. 

The choice to divide communism at that time arose from the fear that society would shift to support this understanding after the decline experienced by economic capitalism, which had a significant impact on the economy of society as a whole. McCarthyism lasted into the 1950s before the US entered the Cold War era. 

This Biden-style political approach is indeed a question in itself. The reason is, many people say that the Biden era should be much better than the Trump era. For example, this was conveyed by Kishore Mahbubani in his interview with PinterPolitik. 

He said that the Biden era as a whole was much better than the Trump era – it even provided a huge difference in the context of its global political approach. However, Mahbubani also warned to be careful about assessing the US at this time because, in reality, the country was still acting unilaterally or unilaterally in many cases. This is related to conflicts and various other interests pursued by the country. 

Also, in his book Has China Won, Mahbubani also mentioned how the US still often uses old strategies or approaches in solving various contemporary problems. This is also clearly reflected in the handling of Covid-19, for example, where other countries such as China appear to be very alert to prioritizing the safety of their people, but the US appears to be doubtful about policies between the economy and health. As a result, the country is one of the worst affected by this one virus. 

The fact is that the end of Trump’s rule does not guarantee that the US will be a good country or get out of all the existing problems, whether in the economic and political fields. For the record, the US is now the only major player in international politics where the income of 50 percent of the people from the lowest class has decreased in the last 40 years. 

So, there is indeed another big phenomenon that the country has to deal with in its domestic context. However, it is said that this condition will not be fully resolved if the US still uses the old-school political approach. 

Jokowi’s consideration

If the US is right to return to McCarthyism, then how should Indonesia respond to this situation under President Jokowi’s administration? Well, if under Trump, who doesn’t put the US position as a global leader too much, now Indonesia needs to be aware of the US’s return to Joe Biden.

The reason is, McCarthyism arguably tends to lead to a global political cleavage – in this case, democracy vs autocracy as Biden has spoken against Russia and China. If this is the case, then the return of two global political camps could happen again like in the Cold War era.

The problem is that this could backfire for Indonesia’s political approach, which has been known to be free and active, which since the Jokowi era has tended to be closer to China with all kinds of cooperation in the economic sector. Indonesia will certainly be faced with difficult choices, especially if the political tension in the South China Sea increases.

Indeed, Biden’s statement still needs to be analyzed more deeply, whether this is the country’s full political stance or a political dramaturgy that has two branches of approach – as noted by sociologist Erving Goffman – namely on the front stage in front of allies and the media, as well as on the backstage when it comes to practical political interests.

What is clear, if this is McCarthyism or a US-style past strategy, then Jokowi needs to think about ways to rebalance Indonesia’s foreign policy. If you are too close to China, this may be dangerous for the country and its leadership.

After all, the US is still a traditional ruler who must be aware of its political behavior. It is interesting to wait for the sequel. 


Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of PinterPolitik.


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