The authors of this collection consider the most pressing foreign policy challenges for the next US president, and examine how the outcome of the 2020 election will affect these. 

The president will determine how the US’s diplomatic, economic and military resources are invested, and what value the administration will attach to existing alliances and multilateral institutions. 

Whoever sits in the White House will shape the trajectory of the US–China relationship and the global economy after the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as international cooperation on climate action, international trade and technology policy, and health.

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01 Introduction: America constrained

For the next administration, leading America’s recovery from COVID-19 and addressing social and economic inequities at home will be necessary first steps in building international support to address the most important global challenges.

America is at an inflection point. The outcome of the 2020 presidential election will determine whether the coming four years see a further withdrawal from international engagement, a deepening of domestic divisions, and an ongoing assault on democratic norms, or whether the tide may yet be turned.

Some things are already certain, and, for these, the election may matter less. The US’s relationship with China will continue to dominate foreign policy, and there is broad agreement that the US should take a tougher line. Those who feel they have lost out as a result of globalization have been given a powerful voice in US domestic politics over the last four years. Therefore, the US is unlikely to push the reset button on China, on globalization, and especially on free trade, anytime soon.

But the last four years have confirmed that, even where geopolitical competition and globalization limit the range of available policy options, the choices that the US president makes are highly consequential for international affairs. These choices are increasingly unconstrained, as the power of the executive has continued to grow.1 The next president will shape the trajectory of the US–China relationship and the global economy, and the implications will be especially significant for America’s partners.

European policymakers are aware that the president has considerable influence over the US’s commitment to its transatlantic partners. It is conceivable that, in a second term, Donald Trump might attempt to withdraw the US from NATO. A Trump or a Biden presidency will also make very different choices about the optimal path for securing regional stability in the Middle East and Eurasia. US policy on climate change, arms control, global health and technology will all be shaped by the outcome of November’s election.

For the US, as for the rest of the world, dealing with the health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis means that the overwhelming immediate priority will be to ensure a domestic recovery. The next president will need to lead the US out of the worst public health crisis in a generation, which by mid-October had caused the deaths of more than 213,000 Americans, and to restore the health of the US economy. Pressures to tackle the deep-rooted racial and economic inequalities that have been thrown into sharp relief over the past months look set to continue.

In light of the Trump administration’s catastrophic response to the pandemic, at home, but also internationally, it is hardly surprising that the US’s global standing has been diminished. The assault on democratic norms over the last four years has also contributed to this. Whether the US can restore its global influence in the years ahead will depend crucially on the next president’s ability to reverse these failings and address the deep economic and social fractures at home.

Respect for scientific rigour and expertise will be critical. What happens in the election will have a profound impact on the connection between science, expertise, public discourse and policy formation in the US. And the effects of this will reverberate globally. The US has cultivated an environment for world-leading innovation and research in the post-war era, and this has both contributed directly to policymaking and been a central aspect of America’s soft power. The last four years, however, have seen a rejection of science even at the highest levels of US public authority, in favour of grandstanding and rhetorical attacks on experts and expertise.

President Trump’s America

Campaigning for the presidency in 2016, on a wave of growing populism, Donald Trump undertook to renegotiate the US’s international role. Americans, he told the electorate, had been taken for a ride, and it was time to reclaim the benefits of globalization for themselves. He promised to tear up multilateral commitments in favour of bilateral deals and tough bargaining that would deliver greater benefits to the nation at the expense of both rivals and long-term allies. Trump’s pledge to bring manufacturing jobs back home resonated in particular with white non-college-educated men, whose belief in his message that he would redistribute wealth to their advantage helped to assure his victory.

Four years later, Trump has overseen the consolidation of a political consensus that trade deals should be fair more than free, and that China is at the root of many of the most critical global imbalances.2 But his solutions have focused narrowly on tariff wars and failed to level the playing field with China or to identify a domestic strategy for inclusive growth that delivers tangible economic benefits, especially to working-class Americans. The Congressional Budget Office forecast in early 2020 that tariffs imposed by the Trump administration since 2018 would leave the average household almost $1,300 worse off over the year.3 Inequality in the US has also continued to grow;4 and Trump’s promise to invest in domestic infrastructure has not yet translated into practice.5

Under Trump’s presidency, the US has stepped away from its role as liberal leader. In doing so, the US has often antagonized its closest allies, especially in Europe, while giving strongmen in Russia, North Korea and the Philippines, among others, a free pass on human rights. The administration has delivered on Trump’s pre-election promise to reduce the US’s multilateral commitments, not least by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the UN Human Rights Council, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It has given formal notice of withdrawal from the Paris Agreement (due to take effect the day after the 2020 election); and, most recently, has initiated America’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization. Trump has also undercut the functioning of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) appellate body, and has at times wrecked efforts by the G7 to coordinate its members’ positions on key issues. And his administration has spurred a surge of protectionism globally.6

But Trump has failed to deliver many of his key foreign policy promises. China has not made adjustments to its model of state capitalism that would deliver on the president’s ambition to ‘level the playing field’. Instead the US–China relationship has deteriorated substantially. Trump’s summit diplomacy with Kim Jong-un has failed to deliver substantial progress towards the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. And the strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ against Tehran that followed the US’s withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018 has failed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.

Efforts in line with Trump’s pledge to reduce US troop commitments in the Middle East have had mixed success, and have been met with the stubborn reality of facts on the ground. In the autumn of 2019, Trump announced that he would remove US troops from northeast Syria, in effect abandoning the US’s Kurdish partners. This produced a backlash at home, even among some of his most loyal supporters, and also contributed to further instability in areas affected by the conflict. The US quickly reversed the decision, redeploying troops to guard oil facilities from ISIS. As the election approaches, the Trump administration has renewed its pledge to draw down troops from the region. It has brokered a normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, culminating in Trump’s hosting of the signing of the ‘Abraham Accords’ at the White House in September 2020. But the pursuit of the ‘deal of the century’ – in the form of the Middle East peace plan announced by Trump at the beginning of the year – has further sidelined the Palestinians, following the transfer of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, and done little to advance a two-state solution.

The collective impact of the Trump administration’s foreign policy has been to undermine US influence globally. Moreover, the president’s leadership style has compromised the administration’s ability to build international support for realistic innovations that might help advance common policy objectives.

The US’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic, and the prospects for suppressing the virus and securing a robust economic recovery remain uncertain.

For a period, all that was unsettling about Trump’s assertion of presidential authority played out in a context of robust job creation, low unemployment, and steady growth. This was built on the back of a strong economy inherited from the Obama administration, and by the president’s own sweeping corporate and individual tax cuts. All of this served as a buffer against the effects of the president’s erratic foreign policy and divisive politics, and deepening inequalities within the US.

This has now changed. The US’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic, and the prospects for suppressing the virus and securing a robust economic recovery remain uncertain. The US is home to just 4 per cent of the world’s population, but has suffered 22 per cent of all recorded COVID-19 fatalities.7 Unemployment soared to a record high of 14.7 per cent in April, from 3.5 per cent just two months earlier; by September the jobless rate had dipped just below 8 per cent.8 Despite a remarkable early success in agreeing a bipartisan fiscal stimulus, a return to partisan politics has continued to frustrate congressional efforts to agree further legislation to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.9

The clear failure of the Trump administration to contain the spread of the coronavirus matters far beyond America’s borders, and has had a stark effect on the US’s standing globally. Polling data released in September 2020 show that a median of just 15 per cent of respondents in the 13 countries polled believe the US has performed well in its response to the coronavirus.10

And in May, in the midst of the US outbreak, shocking footage of the police killing of an African American man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, spread rapidly online and unleashed a wave of protests against racial injustice across the world. Protests continued in the US throughout the summer on a mass scale, with deep-seated anger at institutional racism further fuelled, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, after an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The November election

The 2020 US presidential campaign season has been one like no other, and fraught, not least as coronavirus infections took hold within the White House itself in the final weeks of the election.

It is hardly surprising that the election looks set to be a referendum on President Trump, especially his handling of the coronavirus crisis and the economic crisis it has driven. By mid-October 2020, Joe Biden was ahead in the polls by an average of around 10 per cent,11 although this did not mean that the outcome was certain. Polls are always subject to a margin of error, and, crucially, it cannot be known ahead of election day how many voters will turn out to vote. Likely turnout is even less predictable in 2020 because of COVID-19. And in the US, the weighting of electoral college votes means that, as happened in 2016, a candidate who loses the popular vote can still take the White House.

The focus in the run-up to the election has been on the swing states – especially Florida, which has 29 electoral college votes, and Pennsylvania, which shaped the outcome of the 2016 election and has this time around been the site of ongoing disputes over mail-in ballots.12 An anticipated surge in mail-in ballots has led to battles in many states about the rules for recording and counting mail-in votes.13 This matters in an election in which a far greater proportion of voters who identify as Democrats have planned to vote by mail, compared with their Republican counterparts, especially in key swing states like Florida and Pennsylvania.14 Despite Biden’s clear lead in the polls, the uncertainty surrounding voter turnout, the battles over mail-in ballots, and the realities of the electoral college mean that the final outcome of the election may not be known on the night, if the count is close, and a contested election is possible.15 President Trump’s ongoing allegations of fraud surrounding mail-in ballots have added to the febrile atmosphere of the pre-election period. When asked, in September, to confirm whether he would abide by the most fundamental democratic norm, assuring a peaceful transition of power, should he lose the election, the president refrained from doing so.16

What the 2020 election means for the rest of the world

For the world’s leaders – and diplomats – who are currently watching the extraordinary progress of this US election campaign, there is a period of waiting to see whether America’s role in the world has changed permanently, or whether the last four years will in time come to be seen by historians as a more transient disruption to the prevailing international order.

The contributors to this collection of essays agree that the challenge from China is pervasive, and that the effects of the US–China confrontation will reverberate across the globe.

What is clear is that the next president will determine the trajectory of the US’s relationship with China. China now accounts for some 16 per cent of the world’s GDP, has unparalleled influence on global consumption patterns, and is a major influence in leading multilateral institutions.

The contributors to this collection of essays agree that the challenge from China is pervasive, and that – for either a Republican or a Democratic administration in Washington – the effects of the US–China confrontation will reverberate across the globe. For this reason, it is considered across most chapters in this collection, rather than treated as a standalone.

But the next US president – be this Trump or Biden – can determine whether to reassert America’s ambition to lead, and renew partnerships, in an increasingly multipolar world. The critical choice will be whether to reinvest in diplomacy, and to make liberal values central to US foreign policymaking.

About this paper

The task of the authors of this collection of essays is to consider what is at stake for the some of the most pressing international and regional challenges, and how the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election will affect these. In some cases, the contributors discern a clear distinction between the likely policy trajectory under a second Trump term and what might be expected, or possible, under a Biden presidency. In other cases, the fundamental drivers suggest differences of style rather than radical differences of policy. The US’s international engagement, and its standing in the world, was already changing before Trump entered the White House, but, in the view of most – if not all – the authors, the policy choices made by the next administration will continue to have critical impact globally.

In Chapter 2, Hans Kundnani argues that Europe will come under increasing pressure to align its policies towards China with the US, especially if Biden is elected in November. This will create difficult choices for Europe. The election may also shape who America’s favoured European partners are. A Biden administration would be likely try to work more closely with Germany, but the author contends that the UK is the more natural partner for the US on China. If Trump remains in office over the next four years, the EU will push for greater sovereignty. This will be difficult to achieve, in part because Poland and the US are likely to further their efforts to deepen a bilateral relationship. France, on the other hand, would press the EU to adopt a more coherent set of independent policies. Regardless of who sits in the White House, Kundnani is sceptical that greater European sovereignty will follow.

In Chapter 3, Heather Williams examines the security challenge posed by Russian adventurism – which for the last four years has gone largely unchecked – for the next US administration. In her assessment, the US will need to adopt a finely balanced ‘two-track’ approach that assures NATO allies of its commitment to mutual security and signals to Russia its resolve to deter future aggression, while also pursuing arms control and other risk reduction opportunities that promote transparency and predictability. She argues that the US should look to rebuild trust among its allies as an essential part of its national security strategy, emphasizing that Russian military modernization, together with the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, have once again made Europe a potential battleground. Williams sets out the priorities and likely policy choices of both a second Trump administration and an incoming administration under Biden. For either one, the most pressing task will be the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021.

In Chapter 4, Sanam Vakil argues that transatlantic divisions and conflicting objectives in critical areas of Middle East policy have brought greater instability to the region over the last four years. Focusing on the Persian Gulf region, she makes the case that the next administration will need to view Iran and the Arab Gulf states not as discrete policy areas, but instead as part of a holistic, long-term strategy. The Iran nuclear deal, regional interference by Tehran, its ballistic missile programme, and US support for the Arab Gulf states in Yemen and Libya are all interlinked, and should be treated as such. Regardless of who occupies the White House from next year, the administration will need to draw on the lessons of successive policy failures in the region, and understand the importance of building a broad consensus – domestic, regional and international – on policy coordination. As part of this, in order to stabilize the JCPOA following the US formal withdrawal in 2018, the US will need to recognize that the E3 – France, Germany and the UK – are critical actors whose support and liaison with Iran will be essential to achieving a meaningful shift in the current balance of tensions. The author examines the prospects for progress under both a Trump and a Biden administration.

In Chapter 5, Marianne Schneider-Petsinger anticipates significant continuity in US trade policy, whether under a Trump or a Biden administration. Global trade will continue to dominate US foreign economic policy, and the drive to level the playing field with China will be maintained. While a Biden administration would be expected to work more closely with European partners to develop a joint response to China, policy divergence between the US and the EU will continue under either administration – for instance over digital services taxes. The challenges for WTO reform will remain. Re-entry into the now Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership would be complex, and efforts to strengthen supply-chain resilience will focus on domestic production. Trade policy will continue to face hurdles in Congress, too, since significant divisions persist within the Democratic Party as well as between Republicans and Democrats.

The next two chapters focus on climate change and global health. In both these critical areas, President Trump has reversed US engagement in the most important multilateral forums. In Chapter 6, Sam Geall and Tim G. Benton focus on the setback to efforts on climate change mitigation arising from the signalled US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, as well as the attacks on climate science that have gained a public platform under Trump. They nonetheless identify the opportunity that exists for the next US administration to lead global coordination on a ‘cleaner’ recovery from the pandemic – to ‘build back better’. In the authors’ assessment, the success of any future climate regime will be crucially dependent on there being a cooperative relationship between the US and China. Even in the context of the wider strategic competition between the two powers, their common interest in climate security demands continued engagement, through technical exchange, the building of trust, and coordinated efforts.

In Chapter 7, Amy Pope contrasts the current administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic to the US’s long bipartisan history of engagement in multilateral cooperation against infectious diseases. She identifies that 9/11, and the anthrax attacks that followed soon after in 2001, led to urgent scrutiny of the US’s vulnerability to extreme shocks, including biological threats such as an infectious disease pandemic. Nonetheless, while investment in infectious disease response was accelerated under both the Bush and the Obama administrations, this cumulative effort was not yet sufficient to enable the US to manage an outbreak on the scale of the current pandemic. And now, the response of the Trump administration to COVID-19 is unprecedented in its politicization, in its marginalization of expertise, and in its antagonism towards China and WHO. Pope argues that it is vital for the next administration to significantly increase funding for, and political prioritization of, the US domestic and global health response to COVID-19. It should recommit, too, to investment in WHO and other key multilateral organizations, and help efforts at reform rather than, as Trump has tried to do, walk away. Within the US, there needs to be a rigorous investigation, as happened after 9/11, of the response to COVID-19, in an effort to ensure that lessons are learned and built on. It is through such a process that the US will better prepare for the next outbreak, and – critically – guard against future policy failure.

In Chapter 8, Christopher Sabatini takes as a starting point the devastation that COVID-19 has brought to the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, and argues that the next US administration might have an essential role to play in helping the countries of the region rebuild their economies. A critical step would be for the US to lead an international response to the looming public debt crisis. He makes the case that the next administration should make efforts to recover the tools of US soft power in the region: part of this demands restoring the US’s moral authority on matters of corruption, immigration, human rights and multilateral cooperation; and working on potential points of partnership such as security and climate change adaptation. China’s growing investment and influence in Latin America and the Caribbean will continue to be a cause of concern for the next administration, but the author contends that this need not be a zero-sum threat. Instead, there is scope for the US and China to find areas of cooperation, such as investment in infrastructure, climate change and trade.

In the final chapter, Leslie Vinjamuri makes the case that democracy and human rights concerns have moved up the agenda in the US–China relationship, and that US policy has taken an ideological turn. Despite President Trump’s aversion to leading with human rights, there has been growing pressure across his administration and in Congress to draw attention to, inter alia, China’s surveillance tactics, its repression of the Uighurs in Xinjiang and its restrictions of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong. The focus on values is likely to be maintained, but the next administration should develop a clear strategy for influencing behaviour and avoid a focus on identity or ideology. Ensuring greater consistency on human rights in its foreign policymaking will be an important aspect of this. The challenge will be in managing important partnerships not only with China, but also with countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and India whose record on democracy and human rights in recent years has been poor or regressing. Essential, too, will be the clear commitment of the next administration to upholding democratic norms at home. Without this, US influence will be further diminished.

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