The Foreign Policy Dimension of the
US Presidential Election
Since the United States occupies a central place in the global system, the 2020 presidential election could be considered an event that may transform the fate of the world. Internationally, it is a world-historical moment as America’s role in the world, and the organization of the global system, is also on the ballot. If Trump wins, the whole postwar liberal order continues to unravel, and democratic and other allies of the US, who are hedging and hoping that the US will return to playing a ‘system role’, will start making other plans. And, if Biden wins, he will have to act swiftly to restore US prestige by reversing Trump’s worst failures. In the words of Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University political scientist and a former diplomat, “For a President Biden and subsequent US leaders, it’s not going to be going back to the old foreign policy. We are entering an unforgiving period in history. The balance of power is changing.” So, whoever wins the November election, the structural constraints that affect US foreign policy behaviour will remain. China will remain a key rival, relations with which will be complex and contradictory. The disunity among the European allies cannot be neutralised by a new political tone from Washington. Ultimately, the new US administration will face an increasingly diverse and decentralised world in which rival powers vie for power and influence.
The US election campaign in 2020 has taken place amid a national crisis. Accusations of external interference in the internal affairs of the United States are heard on both sides. Democrats, backed by the FBI, accuse Russia of meddling. Allegedly, Russian hackers have posted the data of registered voters in a number of states online. In widely-used Democratic advertising banners that have attracted viral popularity online, voters are offered a choice: to either go vote, or learn Russian, implying that if Trump wins, Russian could become the state language in the United States. During one of his speeches, Biden, in response to the host’s question, said that Russia is an enemy for the United States, whereas China is only a competitor, albeit a serious one.
In response, Republicans and Donald Trump’s team have noted Chinese attempts to influence the US presidential election. However, Trump is trying to place a key focus of his campaign on foreign policy successes. A few weeks before the elections, a ceremony was held in the White House to sign protocols on the normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain. Trump has recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and is now encouraging his allies to move their embassies to that city. In the White House, a memorandum was signed to resolve some of the disagreements between Serbia and Kosovo. Trump is not shy about heralding a new political era in the Middle East. While this sounds like a significant exaggeration, he actually became the first American president in nearly 30 years not to start a new war in the region. At the same time, Trump is increasing pressure on China, which increasingly resembles a frontal confrontation. Through a series of provocations and assassination attempts on military and political leaders, he has increased pressure on Iran. The combination of military-political pressure and local missile strikes against targets in the Middle East, and dodging a campaign to invade the region, has been a hallmark of the Trump administration’s foreign policy.
In relations with Russia, not everything is rosy. America’s top politicians are lobbying to end the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. In response to successes in the Russian missile programme, the United States is intensifying its own developments in this area.
The Democrats’ foreign policy platform on the eve of the elections is not so obvious, especially on issues of relations with Russia. Calls are heard to extend the New START Treaty, but, at the same time, they talk about the need to restrain Russian influence in Europe. Biden is signalling a willingness to move away from an extremely tough line towards China and Iran, but his team is unlikely to seek to reverse Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA.
It’s most likely that if Biden declares victory, his team will seek to capitalise on Trump’s achievements and expect concessions from China and Iran in exchange for the lifting of the most severe sanctions.
What does the victory of each of the candidates mean for the interests of Russia?
In the event of a Trump victory, most likely we will see the preservation of the current constants. In the US National Security Strategy, adopted under President Trump, Russia is identified as one of the key rivals of the United States. Personal chemistry and good relations between the leaders of the two countries do not play a decisive role in this matter. The rest will depend on the persuasiveness of Trump’s victory. If it turns out to be half-hearted, as in 2016, the stalemate will continue. Democrats in Congress will torpedo any initiative launched by President Trump. In the event of a convincing Trump victory, his goal in relations with Russia will remain the same — to soften tensions in order to tear Russia away from China through tactical concessions, such as the extension of the New START and the lifting of some sanctions and trade restrictions. However, the main process that Trump will be engaged in is the revision of the treaties and obligations that are constraining the United States, while maintaining a privileged position with allies. The United States will not allow the EU, primarily France and Germany, to revise the constants of transatlantic relations, even while continuing to pressure them to increase defence spending. At the same time, the bureaucratic inertia of the United States to “spread democracy” and “contain Russia” in Eurasia, especially in Eastern Europe, will continue. The CIA’s inventive operations, in coordination with the State Department (headed by former CIA Director Mike Pompeo), will continue. Stories about “Russian mercenaries” in Belarus or the “poisoning” of Alexei Navalny are some of the latest examples of the ongoing “carnival of provocations”.
If Biden wins, there will be noticeable changes in this picture. The Washington bureaucracy will calm down and stop looking for enemies and traitors inside the country. Symptomatic in this regard is the appearance of an open letter from American experts, whose signers include many former officials of the US presidential administration. The letter’s authors call for a sober reassessment of American interests in Russia, above all, a better understanding of what the United States wants from Moscow. It follows from this letter that the Russian policy of the United States has been more driven by emotion than sober calculation. It can be concluded that if Biden wins, the Trump period will be perceived as a temporary failure of the American political system. This could probably return a calmer atmosphere to Russian-American relations, while preserving the competition.
Democrats will begin to repair the damage they believe Trump has inflicted on US-European allies. This may be accompanied by rhetorical pressure on Russia, but there are not many reserves for pressure, if one does not cross the line and does not lead matters to a final break in relations. The human rights and environmental agenda will receive a new impetus. The Biden administration will focus on the issue of Crimea and the Ukrainian conflict in general. At the same time, most likely, the Biden administration will decide to extend the New START Treaty, but will not rush to end the Trump administration’s sanctions legacy, which will be used as a resource for possible trade deals.
However, the structural constraints that affect US foreign policy behaviour will remain. The relative lack of resources will prevent the new administration from pursuing a vigorous expansionist campaign far from American borders. China will remain a key rival, relations with which will be complex and contradictory. The disunity among the European allies cannot be neutralised by a new political tone from Washington. Ultimately, the new US administration will face an increasingly diverse and decentralised world in which rival powers vie for power and influence.
The author is the Director of the Institute of International Studies at MGIMO University. He specializes in the US foreign policy in international conflicts, as well as in South Caucasus, Ukraine and the Middle East.