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2 November 2020

What the US election means for the rest of the world

Two different visions are on the ballot paper: four more years of Trump’s unilateralism versus Biden’s multilateralist agenda.

By Jeremy Cliffe

On 3 January a US drone strike near Baghdad airport killed Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s top general, on the orders of Donald Trump. In the aftermath, the administration seemed to struggle to explain its reasoning. Had Soleimani been planning an attack on US citizens? Or embassies, or military bases? Or was he just a “bad guy” advancing Iran’s interests in the region? And hadn’t Trump pledged to get America out of the Middle East? Here, he seemed to be risking dragging it into a new conflagration.

The incident summed up a sense that, on America’s role in the world, there is no such thing as a “Trump doctrine”. His has been a presidential foreign policy driven by ego, prejudice and whim. Three factors add up to, if not a doctrine, then at least a streak of consistency: unilaterlaism.

Whether he is withdrawing (abandoning the Kurds in northern Syria) or intervening (killing Soleimani), belligerent (hectoring Germany) or pandering (declaring “love” for Kim Jong-un), or simply eccentric (mooting buying Greenland) or incoherent (veering between praise and opprobrium for China), the thread that runs through everything is the notion that America need not be bound by regard to others. His most strikingly warm relations have been with fellow unilateralists and his coldest with alliance partners; witness, for example, the rise of so-called “Westlessness”. Most of his most consequential acts have all been to undermine forms of multilateralism: pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organisation (WHO). The great beneficiary of those acts has been Xi Jinping’s China, which has often moved into the vacuum left by the US.

[See also: US-China economic integration shaped today’s world, but now it’s going into reverse]

The Biden Doctrine – and it is easier to discern one worthy of the term than it is a Trump Doctrine – is very different. The Democratic candidate’s early priorities in office would include undoing Trump’s acts of unilateralism; re-joining Paris, the Iran nuclear deal and the WHO. There would be “resets” of America’s relationships with alliance partners and of its role in international institutions. The US would once more be a credible presence in international efforts on big multilateral issues including climate change (on which, as I discussed in my column last week, Biden’s plans are encouragingly bold), the Covid-19 pandemic and global development. Contenders to be his secretary of state include Susan Rice, formerly Barack Obama’s ambassador to the UN, and Antony Blinken, one of the architects of the Iran nuclear deal.

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This return to multilateralism would have an organising principle under Biden: democracy. Where Trump seems entirely to disregard whether countries are democratic in his dealings with them – his cosy relations with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman comes to mind – the Democratic candidate has pledged to reprioritise relations with democratic powers. The D10, the democratic states of the G7 plus Australia, India and South Korea, would be an important format. In his January essay in Foreign Affairs, Biden spoke of hosting a Summit of Democracies to “bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda”.

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Two very different prospectuses for America’s role in the world are on the ballot this Tuesday: four more years of Trump’s unilateralism versus a pivot to Biden’s multilateralist agenda. The next presidential term will run until January 2025. That time will see the world battle and (hopefully) contain Covid-19, it will see if humanity’s chance of limiting global heating is used or squandered, it will see China continue to rise and flex its geopolitical muscles. It would be churlish to characterise the difference between a Trump and a Biden win next week as anything less than fundamental to those three big topics, the three big topics, of global affairs in our time.

[See also: The best reason to root for Joe Biden and celebrate if he wins? Climate change]

Still, there are two caveats. The first is that a second Trump term might involve more of a shift than the term “four more years” implies. Yes, we can be sure that a re-elected Trump would cleave to the same underlying unilateralist instincts as before. But as I wrote in July, international precedent suggests that second terms for illiberal leaders are different and more dangerous than first ones, as they feel a sense of impunity and endorsement and can reap the rewards of structural and normative shifts begun in a first term. Might he pull out of Nato or the World Trade Organisation or even the UN? Or withdraw US troops from Europe or South Korea? Meanwhile US partners that were willing to sit out four years of Trump might balk at eight and make lasting shifts in their international postures. For example, I understand that France’s Emmanuel Macron is planning to turbocharge his moves towards European “strategic autonomy” in the event of a Trump win next week.

Where a Trump II might involve less continuity than is expected, a Biden I might involve somewhat more of it. Notwithstanding the above points, elements of US foreign policy under Trump that have been written up as products of his lurid character and instincts may turn out to be deeper and more structural.

Trump has urged Europeans to take more responsibility for their own security and that of their neighbourhood; so would Biden. Trump has sought (albeit with limited success) to pull the US out of the Middle East; Biden too would pursue that end. Trump has presided over growing tensions with and economic decoupling from China; Biden too sees the country as a strategic rival. Trump’s administration has cultivated relationships with China-sceptic powers in the Indo-Pacific; Biden’s would do so even more. That Biden would do all of these things in a more principled, multilateral, diplomatic way does not detract from the ongoing notes of continuity. The election next week matters. It matters a lot. But it is not everything.

[See also: US presidential election 2020 – map the result]