Arun Sudhaman 24 Nov 2020 // 3:15AM GMT
Of all the American carnage that Donald Trump has wrought since taking power in 2016, it is perhaps the country's international reputation that has taken the biggest hit. By undermining American commitment to longstanding international diplomatic and trade alliances, Trump has rapidly redrawn the country's profile in his own image, diminishing the USA's fabled soft power and ability to lead the multinational business environment.
Whether the Biden-Harris administration will dramatically reverse that tide remains to be seen. But public relations experts are relatively united in the belief that a revival in American soft power can only be helpful in Europe and Asia.
"[Biden's] calm, considered, and facts based communications style is what America (and the world) has desperately needed for the past four years," says Ketchum London CEO Jo-ann Robertson. "More than ever we need the leadership of the US to unite the world in response to the pandemic, the climate crisis, and on economic recovery. Whilst the US political system might make it difficult for Biden to achieve radical domestic policy progress, his influence on the world stage could be the positive tipping point we need to tackle the big challenges of the 21st century."
Of course, specific challenges await. China's rise is no longer a spectre, but an unavoidable reality, and has perhaps been amplified by the Trump administration's sustained efforts to turn up the temperature. The trade war between the US and China, abetted by the flashpoint that is Hong Kong, has impacted Chinese technology companies in particular, many of which will be hoping that Biden's leadership will bring a measure of calm to an unpredictable, often intense environment.
"Chinese firms are happy with the election of Biden," said one PR advisor to Chinese tech companies, on the condition of anonymity. "They feel that current export trade restrictions will ease somewhat next year. More flexible arrangements that are mutually beneficial to both countries will likely result."
However, few believe that a major change in US policy towards China is on the cards. "While Biden has committed to ‘make America respected around the world again’, this should not be read as a softening of the US’s current stance on China, particularly in the areas of technology and human rights," explains FleishmanHillard Greater China president Rachel Catanach.
"However, Biden is likely to usher in a more orderly approach — less ‘Twitter-happy’ and more policy driven — to what is at heart a battle of ideologies," adds Catanach. "Soft power will become more important. Biden is likely to seek support from European allies to shore up his China position, and they are likely to be receptive to his overtures."
Neither should it be forgotten that it takes two to tango. As tensions have risen, China has hardly been blameless, prompting Catanach to note that areas of mutual interest must be sought.
"China will also need to exercise soft power to build its own phalanx of allies – and this can’t be just through platforms like Belt and Road, which is seen by some as a debt trap for developing markets," continues Catanach. "The one potential bright spot is climate change. If both China and the US can find some common ground and work together to cut emissions that would be a significant step in building back better post-Covid. The time is certainly right for greater cooperation in this area and the reputation of both economic powers would benefit if they did."
Meanwhile, adds Lansons CEO Tony Langham, Biden's ability to help his country resume something akin to 'business as usual' cannot be overstated. "Returning the USA to being a functioning democracy is an important check on China’s growing influence and makes it harder for them to undermine democracy as a system," he notes.
The Biden administration will, no doubt, prioritise multilateral cooperation in its efforts to deal with China and other global challenges. That will come as good news to European allies, including public affairs practitioners in that region, particularly if it helps in terms of post-Brexit trade deals.
“Biden’s election means, we believe, a swift return by the US to the rules-based system that has prevented major conflict in Europe and globally since the end of World War II," says Brunswick partner Marshall Manson. "That means greater predictability for businesses and a better climate for investment. We also expect Biden to recommit to the Paris accords, resume involvement in global efforts to fight Covid-19, and renew traditional alliances."
Biden's leadership style, and its visible contrast to Trump's, is likely to be received positively too. "Personal style can have a huge impact on reputation when it comes to leadership of a team, a country or even business," explains Manara Global founding partner Teri O'Donnell.
While Langham expects the mood in the Western world to lift as a result of Biden's leadership, he cautions against too much optimism. "Some things, of course, won’t change. The USA is a pro-business empire as much as it is the leader of the free world and empires do what empires do. Biden will fight for US commercial interests — and tip the playing field towards American companies whenever he can — just as Obama and Trump did."
"In most markets and sectors, the big have continued to get bigger, and this has favoured America," continues Langham. "While there is a battle between the EU and the US tech giants, and this will continue, Biden will probably behave much as his predecessors, intervening if American interests are seriously threatened."
Even so, the domestic challenges awaiting Biden mean that he may well make greater headway in terms of foreign policy and trade. "From a business perspective, it is fair to assume that a Biden administration would be less inclined to instigate tariffs and a trade war against old allies," says Ketchum Brussels policy lead Thomas Gelin.
"This change of leadership in the US could reignite the prospects of an ambitious transatlantic trade deal with sustainability at its core. This could not only propel economy growth in Europe but also serve as a powerful blueprint to reshape globalization in a more uncertain and unstable environment."
Additional reporting by Maja Pawinska Sims