It isn't just Americans whose lives are shaped by US elections
Other than in times of war – think about Korea in 1952, Vietnam in 1968 or Iraq in 2004 and 2008 – foreign policy rarely plays much of a role in US presidential election campaigns and 2020 is no exception. Unsurprisingly, in the midst of a pandemic, widespread protests over race and injustice, an economic downturn and questions about the future of US democracy, the current candidates have spent little time discussing their plans for the world, let alone for the Middle East.
In the two presidential debates between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, foreign policy barely came up.
The overwhelming focus on domestic affairs is unfortunate, however, because the global challenges faced by the US are greater than they have been for generations. And the differences between the candidates over how to deal with those challenges could not be starker. The choice that Americans make on November 3 will not only significantly affect the lives of 330 million Americans, they will literally determine the fate of the world.
Take, for example, the issue of climate change. The 2010s were the hottest decade on record. The US is facing unprecedented forest fires and mega storms. And scientists assess that up to a third of the world could become uninhabitable in the next 50 years, costing trillions of dollars and creating millions of refugees. To avoid such a fate, Mr Biden proposes aggressive measures – including ambitious emissions limits (net zero emissions by 2050), rejoining the Paris climate accords and spending some $2 trillion on adaptation and new technologies.
Mr Trump, on the other hand, denies the very premise of human-caused climate change and rejects measures that he says could harm the US economy. The candidates’ respective plans on domestic issues like taxes or the Supreme Court might be important, but their climate policies will have a far greater long-term impact on Americans and people all around the world.
US policy choices on China – America’s only global “peer competitor” – could be just as consequential. After initially trying to work with his “very good friend” Chinese President Xi Jinping to get a new trade agreement, Mr Trump has pivoted to harshly denouncing China, blaming it for what he now calls the “China plague,” and distancing himself from 50 years of US engagement with China.
Regarding the Middle East, both Mr Trump and Mr Biden say they will put an end to “endless wars
Mr Biden also proposes to get tough on China, but denounces the results of Mr Trump’s unilateral tariffs, and says he would emphasise working with US allies to pressure China – not just on trade but on regional security issues, election interference, intellectual property theft and human rights. With the potential not just for trade wars but actual military conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea, the future of the US-China relationship will likely have as much of an affect on Americans and others as any of the domestic issues that are getting so much attention.
Also on the ballot is the degree to which the US is going to maintain the system of global alliances it has built up over the past 70 years. Mr Trump is the first president since the Second World War not to recognise a strong US interest in prosperity and stability among allies and seem to consider alliance more of a burden on the United States than a force-multiplier.
Under this “America First” platform, he has questioned Nato defence guarantees, berated and belittled European allies, unilaterally withdrawn US forces (from both the Middle East and Europe) without consulting allies and pulled out of numerous international agreements and organisations.
Mr Biden says his first priority will be to restore US global leadership. He has pledged that if elected he will immediately reach out to US allies, reiterate the US commitment to Nato, re-join the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the World Health Organisation. The two visions of world order and US global engagement could not be more different.
Regarding the Middle East, both Mr Trump and Mr Biden say they will put an end to “endless wars”, continue to support Israel and advance Gulf-Israel normalisation. But they also have major differences, in particular over Iran, where Mr Trump says he will continue with his “maximum pressure” campaign of unilateral US sanctions. In contrast, Mr Biden says he will rejoin the nuclear deal if Iran returns to compliance, as a prelude to future negotiations.
Mr Trump has also repeatedly questioned whether the US has an interest in the region – regularly complaining that his predecessors “wasted” trillions of dollars on intervention there – whereas Mr Biden and many of his top advisers have a long history of defending the US leadership role.
As against Mr Trump’s unconditional support for Saudi Arabia, Mr Biden has also said he would “reassess” that relationship, defend American values and end US support for the war in Yemen.
With millions of unemployed Americans, an ongoing pandemic, uncertainties about health care, the future of the Supreme Court at stake and US institutions being tested as never before, it is understandable that most Americans will vote next week based primarily on short-term, domestic concerns.
It is also clear, however, that the choices they make will have enormous consequences for American foreign policy, and the outcome will affect them – and the rest of the world – far more than the so far paltry foreign policy debate would suggest.
Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, author of the Losing the Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East and was an assistant secretary of state and White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration
Updated: October 27, 2020 04:03 PM