The last presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, as many have observed, took place in a universe other than the first.
With less shouting and more substance, there is finally room to look at the very different futures that both candidates offer for the United States and the world.
While doubtful the debate will sway a large number of truly hesitant American voters, there is a lot to watch out for around the world.
The future form of Biden’s government, in particular, is becoming clearer. Given that polls (for what it’s worth) show Biden’s win is much more likely at this stage, it’s an revealing 90 minutes.
Revealing moments for a global audience
President Trump has an unmatched ability to control the news agenda. His tweets, nagging and tantrums dominate daily coverage and Biden is mostly happy to play small targets and let this election contest play out as a referendum on Trump.
In the Nashville debate, however, the President clearly took the advice of stepping back from ridicule and interruption and leaving some scrutiny of Biden’s plans. This has sometimes created awkward moments for the former Vice President as he admits previous policy mistakes here and there and defends his son’s business dealings.
However, Biden is largely making use of the newfound breathing space of this debate to articulate a radically different approach for Trump in everything from managing the pandemic, to the economy and immigration.
However, for an international audience, the most revealing moments relate to the huge global challenges of climate change and China’s rise.
We have a pretty good idea of what Trump’s four more years mean in both areas: a little action on climate change and growing hostility with Beijing.
The Biden positions may not necessarily be new, but when articulated on the big stage ahead of the election they carry extra weight. This is a statement to a large global audience, who will be held to account if he does win.
Moral obligations and existential threats
Biden described the climate change challenge as an “existential threat”. He echoed former prime minister Kevin Rudd in describing humanity’s “moral obligation” to handle it.
The former Vice President maintains a continued reliance on “fracking” (gas) as a transitional fuel, but is on his way to ambitious goals. Indeed, he suggested the policy was “to eventually achieve total zero emissions by 2025”.
This sounds like an even more ambitious target than the Greens. But most likely it stumbled. Biden’s policy is actually a “net-zero by 2050” target, with a “milestone target” set no later than 2025.
After all, Biden promises far greater ambition on climate change than Trump, or even the Morrison Government in Australia.
Biden wants to “lead the way for every major country to increase the ambition of their domestic climate targets” and pledges to “fully integrate climate change into our foreign policy and national security strategy, as well as our trade approach”. That signals potential trade sanctions for climate abatement.
Just as climate change is causing tensions in the relationship between Tony Abbott and Barack Obama (who used the G20 visit to Australia to highlight the damage to the Great Barrier Reef), it could create awkwardness between Scott Morrison and Joe Biden, if he wins.
The US government fully recommits itself to the Paris Agreement and using its influence to pressure others to stop their game will change the dynamics of the climate debate once again in Australia.
In China, it seems that the animosity between the world’s two great powers will continue to grow regardless of who wins the White House. Far from suggesting a more conciliatory approach than Trump, Biden likens China’s Xi Jinping to the leaders of North Korea and Russia as “thugs”.
He wants to apply more pressure on China and mark a collective effort to rally American “friends” to ensure Beijing plays by international trade rules or “pays the price”.
This suggests continued increased trade and strategic tensions between the US and China and more pressure on Australia to follow US lines. It will not make life easier for the Morrison Government in balancing Australian trade and security interests between these two great powers.
Both Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison have shown a willingness to strengthen Australia’s position on Chinese interference and influence, but they have not gone as far as the Trump administration wants in making Beijing worse.
Whoever wins the White House, Australia will continue to set its own course in managing China’s increasingly difficult relations.
There are many things at stake in this election. Fortunately, the debate in Nashville sheds more light on what that means for our part of the world.
David Speers is the host of the Insiders show, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sundays or on iview.
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