Prashant Jha (NEW DELHI, 3 November 2020) – Rarely has so much hinged on the outcome of a single election as it does on the United States (US) presidential election on November 3.
To be sure, each US election has thrown up a victor who has, in his — and it has always been a his — own way, shaped global events. George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also to the deepening of strategic ties with India; it also led to the growing erosion of multilateralism and sanction of methods such as torture, throwing the world back to a more anarchic order. Barack Obama helped the US recover its moral standing and economic heft after the 2008 recession, pushed through a historic climate accord in Paris, pivoted to Asia in anticipation of the Chinese threat, and both with his decision to act — for instance in Libya — and not to act — for instance in Syria — had an impact on the world’s most troubled region, West Asia.
And so, one can argue that an election to the White House — which determines who will control the world’s most powerful intelligence-technological-military-industrial apparatus ever — inevitably has an impact on the world.
But 2020 is different. Whether Donald Trump returns to power or Joe Biden displaces him will determine the future of ideological norms and nature of political systems in the rest of the world; it will shape the future of global geopolitics in the face of a rising China and an unprecedented climate crisis and a pandemic; and it will affect the political, economic, social, institutional architecture in US itself.
The soul of America
Take the US first. It is clear that the contest between Trump and Biden is not just of personalities; both represent contrasting visions of how the US is to be governed.
Trump believes in the unrestrained use of executive power. This has involved attacking every institution of accountability from the legislature to the media. He is comfortable stoking majoritarian identity politics and engaging in hate speech, even though it risks the lives and liberty of millions of racial and religious minorities. He is unconstrained by any ethical boundaries, as witnessed in the rampant nepotism and cronyism that surrounds his White House; he has a staggering record of incompetence, as witnessed during the pandemic; and appears to be an aspiring authoritarian leader.
Biden, on the other hand, comes from a moderate or centrist Democratic tradition, which has internalised the system of checks and balances. He has served for decades on the Hill, and knows the importance of the Congress in checking the impulses of the presidency. He has been a Vice President, who knows the rigorous standards that must be applied during any decision-making process. He has, over his career, engaged with his critics, including in the press, and recognises the need for political accountability. He has spoken out for minorities, women, and immigrants. And he has promised a progressive platform which takes steps to address inequality.
This is not an endorsement of one candidate over another, but a clear articulation of where both stand on questions central to the health of US politics. A victory for Trump will mean the drastic erosion of liberal democratic principles, while a Biden win will see the beginning of attempts to restore the institutional check and balance at the heart of the constitutional contract in the US.
The larger ideological imprint
These contrasting visions have a profound bearing on the rest of the world. The most significant impact is actually in the realm of ideas.
At least since the end of the Second World War, the US has represented a certain pole in terms of principles — it claimed it was a democracy and that it believed in freedom and individual liberty. Washington’s own track record on this has been filled with dark spots — from its interventions to oust popular, democratic leaders to its support for the most authoritarian and regressive regimes in the world when it suited its interests. But at the core, there was a certain normative template of liberal democracy. This helped create norms of behaviour between states and within states. The combination of hard and soft power lent democratic values legitimacy in times of the Cold War.
But the emergence of extremist, right-wing regimes — which use the tools of democracy to win power but don’t necessarily believe in the other values of democracy — has now become a key component in international politics. Trump’s very presence reinforces this trend. Ask State Department officials and US diplomats posted abroad and in moments of candour, they would freely admit that the US position in international capitals — where it ostensibly promotes good governance, inclusion, human rights, and corruption-free administrative systems — stands deeply depleted.
Trump’s return will, thus, weaken liberal values not just in the US, but will weaken the normative sanction that these values have across the world. The trend of rising authoritarianism will continue. On the other hand, while Biden will not go to the other extreme and wage wars for democracy promotion, as the neoconservatives did, he and his administration will work to restore the moral authority that the US today lacks, in backing values of liberty and inclusion. To reiterate, the US application of these principles is often selective and this is not a justification for US interventionism of any kind — but it is to suggest that the lobbies and constituencies that are backing Biden, and Biden’s worldview, will converge into a political position in favour of human rights globally.
What it means for the world
This combination of what the election winner will do within the US and how the outcome will shape global values and ideas and debates will determine the future of the international order.
The most serious challenge to the existing international order is the rise, and the belligerence, of China. For all his inconsistencies, including on geopolitics, Trump’s single biggest achievement was introducing a degree of clarity on the threat from China. For too long, too many wise Americans, who should have know otherwise, believed that a more prosperous China would become a more responsible and democratic China. That did not happen. And Trump’s willingness to take on Beijing in international organisations, in its geopolitical ambitions, in its predatory economic practices, and in its militarily aggressive posture and tactics in Asia (including in India), is based on a correct reading of China’s intentions and capabilities.
Biden, too, recognises the China threat clearly. While there is a debate on whether Democrats will end up becoming “softer” towards China — and tactical adjustments cannot be ruled out — it is clear that strategic imperatives and the trajectory of great power politics suggest that this relationship will be fundamentally adversarial. If this is the case, the debate is not about whether China has to be contained, but how it has to be contained. And in this task, Biden is likely to adopt an approach somewhat distinct from that of Trump. He will reinvest in traditional alliances with partners; he will seek to leverage international law and institutions to corner China; and he will strengthen trading arrangements in a way which poses a counter to the Chinese model.
But the international order has other threats too, particularly those which don’t recognise borders, from the climate crisis (Biden will help bring the US back on board in international negotiations on the issue and the Paris Accord while Trump will stay away) to the post pandemic revival (Biden will be more scientific and adopt a more collaborative approach than Trump’s insular approach, and this is exactly what public health systems need).
Given the bipartisan nature of support for India in Washington — which is derived from the common concern over China, overlap of democratic values, influence of the Indian-American community, opposition to terrorism and the size of the Indian market — New Delhi will be able to sustain its ties with Washington irrespective of who is in power. But the leader who is better for the US internally, for values of liberal democracy externally, and who takes on China but also other transnational threats, is good for India too. The world, and India, will watch as America decides on Tuesday.
This article first appeared in Hindustan Times.