Sir Peter Westmacott GCMG, LVO Senior Adviser, US and the Americas Programme, Chatham House; former British Ambassador to Turkey, France and the US
There probably hasn’t been a US presidential election of such significance for the future of the country, its values and its alliances as this year’s contest since, well, the last one.
The choices facing America’s voters are stark. A president who accepts constitutional checks and balances, or one who seeks to bend everything to his will – police, judiciary, intelligence agencies, the media, even the US Postal Service? Working with allies, or going it alone? Supporting or undermining international institutions and arms control agreements? Acting on climate change, or doubling down on oil, gas and coal? Tax reform, or just more breaks for those least in need of them? Standing up for democracy, truth and basic freedoms, or undermining them at home while accommodating dictators and strongmen abroad?
The experience of the last four years, and Donald Trump’s reluctance so far to provide a coherent explanation of why he wants to be re-elected, suggest that a second term for the incumbent would be much like the first, and just as subject to the president’s mood swings, personal likes and dislikes – at home and abroad – and egregious Twitter style.
Of course, whoever wins on 3 November will find his freedom of manoeuvre severely constrained by how successful the US, and the world, is at countering COVID-19. A Biden administration would nevertheless be very different. He may not have won a single primary in two previous runs at the White House, but many of the policies we can expect Biden to follow, and the people he is likely to appoint, have been fully road-tested during the Clinton and Obama years. ‘No need for training wheels’, as veteran Democratic strategist John Podesta puts it.
An early priority is likely to be the formulation of a new national security strategy. How to show foes and friends alike that ‘America is back’? What to do about China? How to manage Putin? Should the US re-engage in the Middle East and South Asia? If so, how?
There have been suggestions that, among other resets, a Biden presidency would be more inclined to look to Germany as its principal European ally than keep ‘the special relationship’ with the UK in pride of place.
Perhaps. Germany and France are undoubtedly the dominant players in the EU. But Merkel will be leaving the stage soon. As for the UK, the government’s handling of Brexit and COVID-19 has done serious damage: politically, economically, socially, and to its international standing. Even so, it remains a – if not the – go-to partner for the US when it comes to intelligence, defence, cybersecurity, international development and counterterrorism; and it could even regain its position as foreign policy partner of choice if it can recover its flair for diplomacy.
But this will need work. It will not be lost on Biden that the last two British prime ministers have gone out of their way to humour Donald Trump, and he believes Brexit was an avoidable act of harm, pushed by political opportunists, to both the UK and its close allies. As a proud Irish-American, Biden has already warned that he will take a dim view of any UK moves around the completion of Brexit at the end of this year that risk undermining the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Some things will not change, whoever wins. Donald Trump is as much symptom as cause of the different kind of America the world is now witnessing. The US will be robust towards China. There will be differing views on the value of tariff wars, but trade deals won’t be any easier to conclude under Biden than under Trump. The fossil fuel industry will continue its well-funded lobbying. So long as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard continues its destructive interference across the wider Middle East, and its government continues to disregard human rights, any fresh nuclear agreement with Tehran will be hard to achieve.
So big challenges and choices lie ahead. But first, the world needs to see that the leader of the free world is still capable of organizing free and fair elections, despite Trump’s efforts to delegitimize his opponents and convince his supporters that the election will have been fraudulent if he loses.