Skip to main content
opinion

Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

What’s at stake in the U.S. election: The Globe and Mail has asked a group of writers to offer their opinions. Scroll to the bottom for links to the full series.

In his 2010 book The Frugal Superpower, Michael Mandelbaum wrote that “one thing worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak.” Or one with an unpredictable, chaotic foreign policy, and a President uninterested in the details of diplomacy who applies an unorthodox approach to leadership both at home and on the world stage.

Until early 2020, Donald Trump’s antics on the world stage drew outrage, eye rolls and even laughs from fellow world leaders. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shown what the absence of an American-led global response to a world crisis such as a pandemic looks like: unco-ordinated, haphazard, wreaking havoc across the world, including inside the United States.

No one can know for sure how 2020 would have unfolded had someone else been president. Comparisons to how the Obama administration dealt with the Ebola virus in 2014 are imperfect because the viruses are so different. But the result could not have been worse. Regardless of what one thinks of American power, it is (was?) still the only country capable of mobilizing the world and international institutions to lead a co-ordinated response. It can deploy resources no other country has. Rarely has there been so much at stake for the rest of the world in a U.S. election: the continued response to the pandemic, the global economic recovery, access to a new vaccine. (Not to mention other pressing global issues such as climate change.)

According to a September Pew poll, America’s standing in the world has plummeted to a record low under Mr. Trump. (Only 26 per cent have a favourable view in Germany.) Mr. Trump’s own approval ratings are abysmal, the highest score he gets is 25 per cent in Japan. (The survey only includes America’s key allies and partners.) But it’s on the response to the pandemic that the damage is most obvious: only 15 per cent of those surveyed believe that the U.S. has done a good job dealing with the pandemic, while the World Health Organization gets 64 per cent and China 37 per cent. In terms of general confidence in his handling of world affairs, Mr. Trump scores as badly as George W. Bush did in Western Europe at the end of his second term.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, much of the world breathed a sigh of relief. The phone ran off the hook from the minute Hillary Clinton arrived at the State Department and foreign ministers fell over each to be the first to visit. With his invasion of Iraq and global war on terror, president George W. Bush had irked allies, run roughshod over the United Nations and generated unprecedented levels of hatred against the U.S. around the world. Combined with the financial crisis of 2008, America’s global standing was at rock bottom. Mr. Bush had his fans around the world, especially in Africa where he had high approval ratings. In Kosovo, a street was named after him. But crucially, Mr. Bush did not withdraw from international organizations, cancel treaties or cozy up to America’s foes. The system was still in place.

Mr. Trump has pulled out of the Paris accord, is moving to pull out of the WHO, has sanctioned staff of the International Criminal Court, attacked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and may well withdraw from the alliance in a second term. It’s this seemingly systematic attack on and dismantling of international institutions and America’s role within them that could prove hard to repair under a Biden presidency.

Joe Biden will not find the world as Mr. Obama left it: Turkey, China and Russia have moved into every corner that America has vacated. A Biden presidency will also be consumed by the domestic fight against the coronavirus and the economic recovery. But his team is planning to use its pandemic strategy to link the U.S. with the global response. He will need a Hillary Clinton-type secretary of state who can instantly travel the world and reconnect with allies.

To be fair to Mr. Trump, he did deliver on some of his campaign promises: He didn’t start new wars, he’s drawing down troops, he’s forcing allies to rethink their own security without relying on America. And he delivered for several partners: Israel has new friends in the region and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman got a blank cheque. Gulf countries will miss Mr. Trump as will autocrats, whether friends such as Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi or foes such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. Predictions of doomsday scenarios in reaction to some of Mr. Trump’s decisions, like moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem or killing Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, did not pan out – showing that some accepted truths about diplomacy and the world order no longer stand.

But if Mr. Trump gets re-elected, it will be the end of the U.S.-led global order as we know it. If Mr. Biden is elected, we will find out fairly quickly how much of it has survived this onslaught and how much the world still wants American leadership.

Kim Ghattas is a non-resident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Forty Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion and Collective Memory in the Middle East and The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power.

More from the series



Report an error

Editorial code of conduct