BIPP: International perspectives on the 2020 U.S. presidential election

Christian Ruf, BIPP Guest Writer

The United States is undoubtedly the world’s most powerful nation, with a large, dynamic economy and a strong military to support and protect its interests at home and abroad. U.S. power is not limited to its domestic borders, and it can employ its policies to influence the direction of global policymaking, as well as bi- and multi-lateral engagements to which the U.S. is not even a party. In short, U.S. hegemony means that U.S. policy is international policy. Currently, the country is in the midst of the 2020 presidential election between U.S. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden; whichever of these candidates wins the election will determine the broad policy goals of the nation, the effects of which will be felt around the globe. Today, the international community finds itself at a crossroads vis-à-vis globalization and how best — or if at all — to engage beyond individual domestic borders. These issues are particularly relevant concerning many developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, who have been mostly excluded from the processes inherent to globalization. The struggle of globalization affects nations around the world, large and small, across the spectrum of development. The polar views that surround globalization have led to a rupture in beliefs in developing countries, with supporters of less foreign intervention in their countries supporting Trump, while those who dislike Trump’s policies and rhetoric support Biden. 

With a nuanced process, globalization offers both opportunities and challenges. Accordingly, reactions to globalization vary greatly, some supportive and others categorically opposed. Trump falls in the latter camp, taking a firm stand against globalization which became the backbone of his 2016 election campaign. As an illustration of his commitment to rolling back the globalist tides of previous presidential administrations, Trump declared at the 2016 RNC that “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo!” The response to Trump’s position in places like Africa varied. Some believed, if elected, his policies would be detrimental to the Subsaharan region and that his relatively isolationist foreign policy would encourage African leaders to tighten their grip on power. However, Trump’s policies have in reality resulted in the opposite effect for some African nations. 

For decades, countries like the United States have provided Sub-Saharan Africa with various forms of aid, most notably food. While the intention has been to help Africa develop, some native Africans argue that aid has held parts of the continent back from developing its own domestic institutions, markets and industries. Every year, for instance, the United States government subsidizes the work of its domestic farmers to grow staple crops (such as rice), which is then procured by the government and exported to Sub-Saharan Africa; this agricultural aid has harmed some local African suppliers, who cannot compete with the high-quality, largely subsidized food from America. This created a vicious cycle, whereby depressed demand for food leads African farmers that grew these crops to be laid off or suffer revenue decline, in turn causing further reduction in domestic spending and thwarting Africans’ ability to build strong, resilient domestic markets. These actions, ironically, had left the African people and the economy dependent on foreign countries for assistance. African leaders thus seek to limit the extent of foreign intervention in their countries through international aid programs, preferring to spur internal production and develop domestic supply chains. Hence, Trump’s pursuit of anti-globalist policies actually created the possibility for these countries to gain a greater sense of independence with limited foreign intervention. 

While Biden supports some similar policies to those of Trump, such as continued trade protectionism with beneficiaries of globalization such as China, he also takes a more distinctly pro-globalization stance than his Republican opponent. The former vice president, for instance, promotes the United States as a leader in the fight against climate change, namely one who will work with international partners to achieve these sustainability goals. One overarching theme of Biden’s foreign policy – similar to that of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s – is to have the United States play a prominent role in the development and functioning of supranational institutions. Biden is likely to continue many such policies, which are far more favorable to globalization and international openness. For instance, Biden’s policy implies that rulings by institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) – an international institution that assists countries in holding leaders accountable for their actions and enforces international law – would be assented to by the United States, moves which could help the U.S. maintain its role as a world leader. Africa being the continent with the largest number of participating countries in the ICC, such countries may perceive some worrying consequences for such a policy posture. While the ICC has indeed brought corrupt and hostile leaders to justice, it has also come under fire for its perceived discrimination towards Africa; some have accused the institution of acting paternalistically towards these nations and not providing sufficient autonomy for them to resolve such issues domestically. The 2010 election in the Ivory Coast, between Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, provides an ideal example of such chauvinism. The 2010 vote, which nominally came down in favor of Gbagbo, was contested by the Ouattara campaign and various international actors. Soon, the United Nations was brought in to serve as a mediator and maintain the peace. Instead of allowing for the Ivorians to determine who won the election, however, the United States — along with France — chose Ouattara to be president owing to his pro-globalist and pro-Western sentiments, and allowed the ICC to place Gbagbo in prison.

U.S. power stretches well beyond its borders, and the outcome of November’s presidential election will determine how the United States represents itself going forward on the world stage. However, responsibility is not easily defined. For some, the responsibility of the United States is to establish global policies and use its power as a world leader to uphold these policies, despite the fact that doing so may infringe upon the sovereignty of foreign nations. For others, the responsibility of the United States is to look after the interests of its own citizens — which is the primary job of a president — but in doing so, the United States will retreat from its role as a world leader. Regardless of who prevails in the 2020 presidential election, how the winner defines the United States’ responsibilities will certainly have a significant impact on foreign policy for years to come.

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