Even in normal times, it is difficult to predict the result of the US presidential election. But with Donald Trump and Joe Biden – two men in their 70s – fighting a brutal battle for the right to be inaugurated in January 2021, the uncertainty has intensified. Mike Pence and Kamala Harris are receiving plenty more scrutiny from the American voters than past vice-presidential candidates – especially because it is possible that either or both could become president one day. It is no surprise, therefore, that their debate last week was watched by more people than the ones held in the previous two election cycles.
If Mr Trump wins a second term, his “America First” doctrine for how the US would operate in the world is unlikely to change a great deal. If he becomes president in four years’ time, Mr Pence would more than likely continue the policies of his boss. It is less clear what Mr Biden’s approach would be, given that the world is different place from what it was when he was vice president under Barack Obama from 2009-2017.
Most of the world is awaiting the outcome of this unusual election, including policymakers anxious about the implications of the uncertainty and the difficulty in anticipating future US policies. There is also the question of what impact the result will have on ongoing conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, and how it will affect the behaviour of various countries, notably Iran.
It is, however, also true that America must get used to operating in a world that is increasingly multi-polar and chaotic. China continues to rise, but Russia is a power that is flexing its muscles around the world these days. Meanwhile, regional powers such as Turkey and Iran are playing by their own rules, thereby creating a less stable Middle East.
The trick, then, for the next US president would be to continue working with existing allies while building new partnerships. But he must also accept the reality that, in an increasingly multi-polar world, most countries will work with one another in varying capacities.
During my recent conversation with Reem Al Hashimy, the Minister of State for International Co-operation made an interesting point when she stressed that the UAE does not view other countries through an ideological prism, nor does it base its relations with them on the nature of relations between them. Rather, she said, the UAE builds its foreign policy on a spirit of dialogue and co-operation.
“We have tough conversations with everybody because we also are very keen on ensuring that our own national and strategic interests are met in a win-win set-up and win-win situation,” Ms Al Hashimy said. “You have different partners for different causes, and your ability to speak through debate and dialogue is actually a strength of your foreign policy.”
Her point is well taken, particularly when one looks at the possibility of a new cold war emerging between the US and China, and in the context of the recently strained relations between China and India. All three countries maintain excellent relations with the UAE.
China-India relations cannot be viewed in isolation either. They have lived next door to one another for eternity, but the world is changing and both countries wield considerably more economic and military might than in the past. China has also watched with interest the warming of the US-India equation, which may be contributing to the already existing border tensions. If China is right to be wary of America’s growing influence in South Asia, India is justified to look out for itself.
Shivshankar Menon, India’s former national security adviser, told me that his country has China to thank for improved ties with America – an important development from Delhi's perspective. “There's much more congruence here in terms of, for instance, simple things like maritime security throughout the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “We can't transform India without the US, which is an essential partner.”
However, just like Ms Al Hashimy said, it is important for countries to reach out to one another and foster positive relations. Could countries band together to form “coalitions of the willing”, as Mr Menon characterises them, and once again work in tandem for the greater good of the world?
Mr Trump's mostly unilateral approach to foreign policy has been described by many thinkers as inappropriate for a world that is facing common challenges: climate change, infectious diseases, weapons proliferation and terrorism. One such expert is Richard Haass, president of the American think tank Council on Foreign Relations, who recently told me that we live in an era where no country on its own can protect its own interests better than it can by working with others. He argued that sovereignty does not give anyone the right to carry out genocide against its people, destroy rainforests, or threaten other countries. Whether one agrees with him or not, Mr Haass seems to believe that America still has a role to play across the globe: that of the world's policeman.
“The Obama administration made a mistake with the so-called ‘red line’ and Syrian chemicals,” he said, in reference to Mr Obama’s inaction even as the Assad regime was alleged to have used chemical weapons against its own people in 2013. “The Trump administration, I would argue, made a major mistake in abandoning the Kurds [by letting Turkish-backed forces drive them out of northern Syria and occupy parts of the territory]. They were the best partner the United States had in Syria, in dealing with the challenges there.”
A return to multilateralism, then, will depend on whether Mr Biden wins, or if Trump 2.0 sheds some of Trump 1.0's "America First" policy.
Does one need to underline how important the November 3 election is?
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute