How the US vote will affect the World

01.10.20 Publication:

The American election always matters to the outside world, for whatever anyone may claim
about the decline of US power or the demise of US hegemony, the United States remains
the world’s top military power, its biggest economy and financial power, the most
influential country culturally, and by far the world’s leading scientific and technological
power. That is why we all know and care much more about America’s elections than
Americans know or care about ours. But what is different in the 2020 election is that the
two candidates have much more divergent attitudes on foreign affairs than has been true in
any US election during my lifetime.

Joe Biden and Donald Trump are not very far apart in their attitudes to countries
that America considers its enemies: China, Russia, Iran and North Korea would be at the top
of both their lists, even if they may differ in their preferred tactics. On China in particular
there is now a bipartisan view that Chinese theft of technology and military pressure on
Taiwan need to be confronted. Views on how China would be confronted do vary, but the
basic attitude is shared. European governments can choose to agree with that view or to
diverge from it, but they cannot expect to change it, in any significant way.

Yet where the Democrat and Republican candidates differ remarkably is in their
attitudes not to enemies but to allies. All of America’s post-war allies – the United Kingdom,
France, Germany, Italy, all the other members of NATO and of the European Union, Japan,
South Korea, Australia, and even its neighbour Canada – will in private be making very
different plans and preparations in anticipation of a President Biden or a re-elected
President Trump.

In public European governments will claim to be neutral between the two outcomes.
In private, they are looking at two utterly different futures. What has shocked allies to the
core about President Trump has been his continual hostility towards them, over trade, over
military alliances, over geopolitics and always over the role of international institutions and
the United Nations.

Allied governments have long been used to American presidents treating rivals and
enemies in ways they may feel uncomfortable about. Everyone can recall vividly the division
over the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, with Britain and Italy siding with President George W.
Bush and France and Germany opposing him. But never since 1945 have they felt that
America might actually attack them, if not militarily then commercially and politically. But
that is what President Trump has done.

In making their preparations for the outcome of the November election, they cannot
be sure how hostile a re-elected President Trump would be to NATO in military affairs or to
the EU on trade. Perhaps, they might wonder, he could be more benign during his second
term since he no longer will need to think about re-election. But they won’t want to rely on
that possibility. Prepare for the worst while hoping for the best: that will be their mantra.

They will do so in three main ways. The first is by preparing plans for retaliatory
measures in case Trump decides to start a trade war. The second is by investing more public
money, every year, in building sufficient military capabilities and capacity to be able to
operate more independently of America and NATO, partly as individual countries but mainly                     in co-operation with one another. The third is by working together with other democracies
around the world to agree common positions and to defend the international institutions
that Trump loves to attack.

Under a Biden administration, allies would still follow the second of these strategies.
All America’s key military allies are overly dependent on the American defence umbrella and
so all face a long-term task of building up their own resilience and independence. Trump has
proven that American support cannot be relied upon forever. Despite pressure on budgets
from Covid-19, all the allies will want to press forward with this defence and security

However other plans for a Biden administration would be quite different. The main
reason is that central to the Biden administration’s own strategy will be an effort to work
more closely with allies and to rebuild US influence over international institutions. Instead
of being bystanders in a US confrontation with China, for example, allies would be
encouraged to take part in it.

Out of all the allies mentioned in this article, one country might be thought to be
somewhat more favourable to a Trump re-election: that is my own United Kingdom,
because our prime minister Boris Johnson is an admirer of Trump’s populism and his tactics.
But despite that personal connection, the ruling Conservative Party in the UK are not fools.
They know that any warmth between Trump and Johnson is purely superficial. Britain too
will be making its own plans to work with a Biden administration and with a Democrat-
controlled Congress.