FP: What Another Trump-Biden Showdown Means for the World

FP: What Another Trump-Biden Showdown Means for the World

Shafaq News/ Parochial politics will drive the outcomes in elections across the world this year—including in the United States.

Washington’s partners and allies are alarmed by the possibility that Donald Trump could return to the White House, and they are ill-prepared to confront the prospect of a world unmoored from U.S. power and leadership.

But if elections are driven primarily by problems at home, this raises the question of whether they really make a difference for foreign policy.

Some commentators argue that the choice between today’s leading candidates is insignificant when it comes to foreign policy. After all, so the argument goes, U.S. President Joe Biden has continued Trump’s policies of being tough on China, and his protectionist agenda has been described as an updated version of Trump’s “America First” worldview. According to this perspective, U.S. policy reflects a bipartisan consensus: that Washington needs to set clear priorities that reflect today’s geopolitical realities. There is also broad consensus on the need to adapt U.S. global economic engagement for a more competitive world and to accommodate those Americans who have been left behind. On these critical dimensions of U.S. policy, so the argument goes, Biden, Trump, or indeed any other candidate would do much of the same.

But there is reason to be wary of such claims. Those who claim that Biden’s policies toward China are simply a continuation of Trump’s are vastly oversimplifying. Trump’s style was and would continue to be bombastic, chaotic, and disruptive. Biden, by contrast, has pursued carefully choreographed and sequenced high-level diplomacy designed to manage tensions and prevent accidents or misunderstandings from inadvertently leading to conflict.

Trump’s strategy for taming China’s economic influence narrowed in almost exclusively on tariffs. A return of Trump, though, could see the former president and his team attempt to implement a wholesale decoupling of the two most powerful economies.

Biden seeks to de-risk but not decouple the U.S. economy from China’s. And his administration is doing this through a strategy that combines export controls on sensitive technologies, restrictions on investments, and also tariffs. Domestic economic measures designed to increase U.S. technological competitiveness while also creating jobs are an essential component of this broader strategy. On Taiwan, also, the two diverge. Trump has intimated that he would not defend the self-ruled island. Biden has made multiple statements that suggest his commitment to defending Taiwan is far stronger.

Were Trump to return to office, the consequences for U.S.-China relations would be severe. America’s Indo-Pacific partners and Europe would feel the effects and be forced to make an uncomfortable choice between a bombastic and disruptive United States and China.

The risk is even greater at a time when the executive authority of the president over matters of foreign policy has continued to increase. Congressional oversight has diminished, especially during periods of unified government. This means that the scope for a president with strong convictions to alter the course of U.S. foreign policy is considerable. In 2018, James Goldgeier and Elizabeth N. Saunders wrote in Foreign Affairs on what they called the “unconstrained presidency” and cited Trump’s ability to pull the United States out of multiple major multilateral organizations with surprisingly little pushback from Congress.

History also suggests reasons for pause. The 2000 presidential election was fraught, but the Supreme Court eventually delivered the White House to George W. Bush in what may have been one of the most consequential court decisions, ever, for future U.S. foreign policy. The 9/11 attacks created a window of opportunity for the U.S. president to make bold policy choices. The decision to invade Afghanistan was not surprising, but it is hard to imagine that Al Gore would have also gone to war in Iraq had he been elected.

The 2024 election may foreshadow a similarly stark fork in the road for U.S. foreign policy. The most consequential difference for the world may be one of diplomatic practice and style. In the world of foreign policy, this matters a lot. And it is likely to impact Europe the most.

Biden is the most Atlanticist president the United States has seen since the Cold War. Trump, by contrast, has continually accused Europe of free-riding on the back of U.S. largesse. In a second term, he has threatened to bring an abrupt halt to U.S. support for Ukraine and to pull the United States out of NATO. Even if he did not, the daily threat of a U.S. exit would create a level of instability and disruption that would sharply reduce the benefits to its members that the organization provides.

The two men also differ radically when it comes to climate change and on Taiwan, where the prospect of a dramatic policy change would loom large. Most worryingly, under a second Trump administration, the U.S. commitment to multilateralism would come under direct attack, in principle and in practice.

For more than seven decades, the United States has provided the backbone for a multilateral order. The ambition that underpinned this order has been for more peace, more stability, and more prosperity. Washington believes that the chances of success are greater if it works collectively with partners rather than alone. And imperfect as a U.S.-backed multilateral order has been, it has embedded a set of principles and rules that have helped provide greater predictability, transparency, and trust.

Today’s world is beset by problems that cannot be handled by any single country, no matter how powerful. Russia’s war in Ukraine has demonstrated the power and the necessity of Western unity. Climate change is wreaking havoc on many states that are not a primary source of its causes. The range of available solutions nearly all require international cooperation.

The COVID-19 pandemic proved that diseases will always be more global than the responses designed to defeat them. Vaccine nationalism did little to help advance a global recovery. Instead, it alienated states in the global south and in doing so reduced the ability of the West to achieve its geopolitical goals. The perils of unmanaged migration, whether on the U.S. southern border or via the Mediterranean, threaten to create not only a humanitarian problem but also a political crisis in Europe and the United States. The need for a new multilateral effort to manage these critical social and economic problems is increasingly urgent.

But just as there has been a surge in the need for multi-lateral organizations to provide solutions, they have struggled to deliver. Consequently, the basic worldview undergirding this approach to foreign policy has come under attack.

In 2016, Trump gave a powerful voice to those critical of multilateralism, linking it to China’s rise and the ensuing negative impacts of globalization on working-class Americans—especially the loss of manufacturing jobs. He blamed the World Trade Organization (WTO) and free trade agreements such as NAFTA.

Once in power, he acted on these criticisms. Under Trump’s leadership, the predictability of Washington’s multilateral commitments eroded almost overnight with the decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords. It continued, as Trump repeatedly threatened to end U.S. participation in the WTO and the World Health Organization (WHO). He withdrew the United States from the U.N. Human Rights Council; G-7 meetings became a scene of chaos rather than cooperation. And throughout his presidency, he delivered a series of attacks on NATO, the bedrock of trans-Atlantic security, while threatening a tariff war with Europe. His abrupt decision to pull the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal injected a new degree of instability into America’s relationship with Europe that continues to this day.

Since Trump left office in 2021, multiple factors have combined to accelerate, deepen, and intensify poorer countries’ resentment of the United States. The West’s vaccine nationalism and its failure to deliver an adequate material response to help countries in the global south cope with the impacts of inflation and debt distress were exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that followed.

With two major wars raging, in Ukraine and the Middle East, the demand for U.S. leadership and multilateral solutions is great. The global south, especially, is suffering.

Today, political constraints at home mean that global public goods are harder to deliver and market access is increasingly restricted. Debt relief and financial assistance are in short supply, especially where they are most needed: to help developing countries adapt to climate change.

The demand for U.S. leadership is matched only by the escalating charge of U.S. hypocrisy. Many people across the developing world criticize Washington for espousing a set of international norms that it itself hasn’t adhered to, such as respect for state sovereignty and the protection of civilians.

Critics accuse Washington of promoting these norms selectively and unequally. The latest war between Israel and Hamas has turbocharged that sentiment. Staunch U.S. support for Israel with little evidence of restraint, and the escalating Palestinian death toll, exacerbated anti-American sentiment and stoked further charges of hypocrisy. For many people in the global south, this serves as a powerful reminder that U.S. policy is biased. First Afghans and now Palestinians have been abandoned by the United States, while Ukraine still garners considerable support.

But the United States has also come under fire for what many people perceive to be its outsized role in the leading international institutions and, especially, its failure to fix the problem of uneven standards for permanent membership on the U.N. Security Council. The disproportionate influence that the United States exercises at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, due in part to the now-skewed distribution of voting rights, has further ignited the charge of hypocrisy.

As the 2024 election approaches, many people fear that U.S. power lacks staying power—and that Washington could take irreversible steps toward isolationism if Trump returns.

The decline of multilateralism is far from inevitable, even if few U.S. voters go to the polls in 2024 with foreign policy, let alone multilateralism, in mind.

The leading contenders to be the next U.S. president present a choice between two radically different visions for the future world order. One, advanced by Biden, places partners and partnerships at the front and center of U.S. strategy. It seeks to reform the multilateral framework where possible, and work around it where necessary, but to do so in partnership with others.

The second, espoused by Trump, sees the existing order as antithetical to U.S. interests. Rather than try to reform the existing framework of multilateral institutions or to build smaller, more agile, and more flexible institutional structures, it embraces transactional policies and a with-us-or-against-us system that seeks to disrupt the international order. Its suspicion of multilateralism is as ideological as it is empirical.

(Interestingly, the Republican candidate shaping up to be Trump’s most serious challenger, Nikki Haley, offers a contrasting internationalist agenda that could see the bold use of U.S. power in ways that even Biden has been reluctant to pursue.)

These two worldviews are not merely theoretical constructs. Their practical effects have been visible throughout the current presidency and the one that preceded it. In his first year in office, Biden moved rapidly to restore U.S. participation in WHO, the Paris accords, and the Human Rights Council. He also sought to reassure America’s NATO partners of the ongoing U.S. commitment to the alliance.

There is one issue where there may not appear to be a significant foreign-policy difference between Trump and Biden. As working-class Americans have suffered the effects of unfettered globalization and its impacts on manufacturing, and as income inequality has continued to grow, protectionism has overshadowed trade, which was once the beating heart of U.S. internationalism.

Still, it is one thing to pause progress and quite another to abandon aspiration altogether. Were Trump to return to the White House, the prospect of the United States giving up entirely on the WTO would become a real one. And the turn toward protectionism would take a new step if he were to follow through with his declared intention of adopting a 10 percent tariff on all imported goods.

Indeed, the return of Trump to the White House would mark the death knell for the U.S. commitment to multilateralism. Whereas Biden has sought to advance U.S. interests through partnerships, Trump, by instinct, rejects and would set out to sabotage multilateralism. A second Trump term would mean that the official U.S. commitment to address the most existential long-term problem of our time—climate change—would likely collapse overnight. Likewise, careful diplomacy pursued by the Biden administration in its policy toward China would be replaced by a combustible unilateralism.

Of all the regions in the world, Europe has benefited the most from more than seven decades of U.S. investment in an international order that embraces multilateralism. A second Trump term could change this very quickly. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine yielded a surge in trans-Atlantic unity and confirmed the U.S. commitment to NATO and to trans-Atlantic security. Trump would likely abandon both and seek once again to make Germany a pariah and Russian President Vladimir Putin a friend. A U.S. retreat from Europe could see a sharp reversal in Ukraine’s fortunes, leaving Europe vulnerable and with the burdensome task of helping to first defend and then rebuild Ukraine.

Not every country in the world is wary of a second Trump term. Those resentful of U.S. influence and of the Western-led multilateral order may relish the fracturing of this order into two blocs—one for the West and another for the rest. China is at the top of this list, but Russia is not far behind.

Those resentful of U.S. influence and of the Western-led multilateral order may relish the fracturing of this order into two blocs.

Others might value a wider scope for greater autonomy in a world free of the vicissitudes of U.S. power or pressure to take sides. India has staked out its own leadership role and used its presidency of the G-20 to advance its power on the international stage. It continues to press for an expansion of permanent membership of the Security Council. But New Delhi also continues to turn up to meetings of the BRICS group and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, if only to ensure it has a role in restraining the ambition of those multilateral platforms that give China a foothold in shaping the international order.

U.S. efforts to counter China’s influence in the global south are still nascent. In June 2021, the G-7 met in Cornwall, England. The announcement of a collective commitment to the Build Back Better World initiative (later relaunched as the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment) demonstrated that Biden sought to bring the leading Western economies together to support a values-based development alternative. This effort has been slow to get going but could stall in the event of a disruptive transition at the White House.

The outcome of the U.S. presidential election will reverberate around the globe, and—given the significance—much of the rest of the world feels as if it, too, should have a vote. In the absence of a ballot, the alternative is not to stand by idly and watch.

Now is the time to think strategically but also tactically about how to harness U.S. power. Europe must think about how it can be an essential partner to the United States and not become singularly focused on the reverse equation. Beyond Ukraine, the G-7 countries should move quickly to deliver on their ambitions in the global south. Admonishing African, Asian, and South American leaders for their poor human rights records—or for persistent corruption—has little resonance in the absence of a sound democracy at home and a robust commitment to providing material support to lessen the impacts of rising debt, climate-related disasters, a $40 trillion infrastructure gap, and food shortages. Above all, Europe must not allow itself to become irrelevant in the war between Israel and Hamas but should work to provide humanitarian relief and facilitate progress toward a realistic and sustainable political solution.

The rest of the world may not have a vote, but it must prepare for a U.S. government that could be erratic, unpredictable, and unruly—but with global ambitions.

(The Foreign Policy)

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