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A presidential election in the United States is an international event. For decades, the question of who occupies the White House has had a direct bearing on the shape of the global economy, on the turbulent politics of democracies nearby, and the conflicts roiling societies thousands of miles away. As the United States approaches what may be its most consequential vote in decades,
In some places, the prospect of President Trump returning to power is unwelcome. His wrecking-ball approach to diplomacy — including tweeted threats and trashed treaties — disturbed traditional U.S. alliances. Trump’s embrace of far-right politics at home and his launch of trade wars abroad left many to question the future of the liberal world order. Putative adversaries, especially in China and Russia, see in a Trump second term the further fraying of 20th-century alliances and the possible acceleration of American decline on the world stage.
Though Trump’s challenger, former vice president Joe Biden, has promised a kind of restoration, most governments aren’t holding their breath. A Biden presidency may boost collective action on international challenges such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. But it won’t magically return the United States to an era of unquestioned American primacy, one that already seemed to be waning when Biden was last in office. Many people around the world watch the U.S. election more out of curiosity and sympathy for a troubled friend than concern about the fate of their own countries.
Here is what the upcoming election means for some key countries around the globe.
For a half-decade, the spectral presence of Russia has haunted U.S. politics. Moscow’s influence operations played a disputed role in Trump’s 2016 election victory. Once in power, Trump was plunged almost immediately into legal battles over his campaign’s contacts with Kremlin operatives, charges that Trump constantly waved away as a “hoax” but which saw a number of his former colleagues criminally indicted.
What Moscow has gained from its efforts to sow chaos in the American domestic scene is more an open question. Russia is in a weaker place in 2020 than it was in 2016, its economy hobbled by a crash in oil prices and its public growing more and more frustrated with the long-serving Putin. Now, as Biden’s chances of victory in the election rise, according to polls, the Russian ruble is slumping over fears that a change in administration may lead to more sanctions and an even deeper freeze in U.S.-Russia relations.
Under Trump, a new “Cold War” is underway, at least according to hawks in Washington. Almost four years of Trump lobbying tariffs and tweeting threats at Beijing hardened geopolitical fault lines and set the stage for a great power position that may define the decades to come. On a host of global issues, China is the White House’s preferred villain — its trade tactics were seen as unfair and duplicitous, its opaque government cast as the incubator of a hideous pandemic, its tech companies Trojan horses, and its oppression of ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong the emblems of the 21st century’s authoritarian behemoth.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson staked his career on betting against the European Union and won. It might seem obvious which candidate he would be likely to support in the U.S. election: Trump is the self-proclaimed “Mr. Brexit” who compares his own unexpected path to victory in 2016 to the British wave that eventually washed Johnson into 10 Downing Street.
Then there’s Biden. The former vice president is no Mr. Brexit. His old boss, former President Barack Obama, criticized the Brexit vote. In response, Johnson wrote a column claiming Obama’s “ancestral dislike of the British” was the result of his “part-Kenyan” heritage. Last month, adding to Westminster’s worries, Biden broke a lengthy period of silence on Brexit to offer support for Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.
That hardly means most in the British government would welcome a Trump win. Current and former officials in Washington and London caution that private negotiations are more complex than the public Trump-and-Johnson bromance would suggest. But a Biden presidency may not be a perfect match, either.
Europeans do not approve of Trump — by huge margins in recent surveys. So dim is the view of the U.S. leader that many survey respondents place less hope in his doing the “right thing regarding global affairs” than Chinese president Xi, substantial majorities across the continent said they would prefer a Biden victory.
On one level, this reflects a genuine yearning for a Biden presidency after four years of Trumpian volatility. But on a deeper level, Europe’s view of the United States is also changing. “European attitudes to Americans are shifting from envy to compassion,” wrote one Analyst, going on to add that “there’s more chance of becoming a billionaire, if that’s your thing, in Scandinavia than in the U.S.,” pointing to widening inequality in the United States and the withering romantic notions of the “American Dream.”
For ordinary people living in the Middle East’s many crisis spots, it won’t matter much whether Trump or his Democratic challenger wins the White House. Both the Trump administration and that in which Biden served saw the region’s tangled conflicts and yearned for an escape. Neither managed to do it. Instead, U.S. air campaigns intensified, and U.S. troops remained deployed across numerous countries. For all its stated desire to detangle itself from the Middle East, Washington has a hard time letting go.
But Biden and Trump represent two markedly different futures for some of the region’s political elites, especially the leadership in Israel and a clutch of oil-rich Arab monarchies. They cheered Trump on as he went about upturning his predecessor’s major accomplishment in the region — ceasing American participation in the Iran nuclear deal by reimposing sanctions and invoking a “maximum pressure” campaign on the regime in Tehran. And Trump pursued a new approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that entirely favored the interests of the Israeli right. Though those efforts were met with outrage from Palestinians, they faced mostly muted protests from Arab leaders elsewhere.
On both those fronts, a Democratic victory in November could signal a dramatic reversal.
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