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.
The last time the United States faced an election with such profound stakes for national security was 1980. The parallels to today are something to behold. Then as now, the U.S. appeared to be a nation in decline – divided and demoralized at home, and disrespected abroad. It faced economic tensions with a large nation in East Asia whose unfair trade practices cost American manufacturing jobs and disadvantaged American companies. It confronted a great power competition and military threat from a communist adversary. Moscow sponsored a disinformation campaign to foment division in the U.S. political process. Other NATO countries openly doubted America’s commitment to the alliance.
Iran destabilized the Middle East, while Israel sought to improve its own precarious security by opening diplomatic relations with a former Arab rival. Afghanistan was consumed with conflict. South Korea resented the incumbent American president’s efforts to withdraw troops and undermine the U.S.-Korea alliance. In Nicaragua, a Sandinista leader named Daniel Ortega repressed political opponents while moving his nation closer to Cuba and away from the U.S. In Canada, a Prime Minister named Trudeau quietly hoped that the Democratic candidate would win the U.S. election.
Of course some of the particulars separating those 40 years are different. China has replaced Japan as the Asian economic powerhouse; China has also replaced the Soviet Union as the main communist military adversary. Israel normalized relations with Egypt in 1978; this year it did so with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Of the American candidates, Donald Trump is no Jimmy Carter, and Joe Biden is no Ronald Reagan.
But the fundamental issues are similar. In the present moment, questions besetting the U.S. include: Will America continue its retreat from international leadership begun by president Barack Obama and accelerated under Mr. Trump? Will its alliances with partners in Europe, Asia – and yes, Canada – continue to fray? Will it double down on its dalliance with protectionism, or return to its historic commitment to an open trading system? Will it rediscover its support for democracy and human rights in repressive nations? Will its demoralized national security institutions – including the intelligence community, diplomats and military officers – find trust restored with their elected political leadership?
The answers to these foundational questions will shape how the U.S. confronts the specific challenges that await the next president, whether Mr. Biden or a second Trump term. Of challenges there are many. China remains determined to eject the U.S. from the western Pacific while expanding its own influence across Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa. It is likely that the next four years will determine the next four decades of the U.S.-China relationship, specifically whether a new Cold War (or worse) emerges, or whether some sort of entente can be forged that accommodates China’s rise while curtailing its destabilizing behaviour.
While China is the biggest challenge, it is not the only one. Vladimir Putin aims to restore Russia’s imperial pretensions – in countries such as in Ukraine, Syria, Belarus and the Baltics – while fomenting cracks in European cohesion and fissures in transatlantic solidarity. In the Middle East, the Islamic State is resurgent, while Iran resumes expanding its nuclear program. North Korea continues to expand its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile capabilities, now likely able to reach North America. The Taliban is poised to conclude a favourable peace deal in Afghanistan that will jeopardize the Afghan government and potentially invite the return of al-Qaeda.
And these are just some of the known threats. Every presidential term is almost sure to confront what former secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld called the “unknown unknowns”: strategic surprises such as outbreaks of war or revolution, political instability, or humanitarian catastrophes. Just think back to 12 months ago: Who could have foreseen that the coming year would bring the eruption of COVID-19 as a global pandemic on a once-in-a-century scale?
Whichever president raises his hand to take the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2021, will confront a grim international landscape. Yet the 1980 comparison also offers some historical hope. Though few saw it coming at the time, a combination of favourable structural factors in the international system (such as revolutions in technology and communications, the decaying Soviet economy and growing awareness of human rights), as well as president Ronald Reagan’s leadership, contributed to America’s renewal along with two decades of global economic growth, the flowering of new democracies and the peaceful end of the Cold War. The U.S. president for the next four years will hold a difficult hand of cards, but can still achieve some geopolitical good if he plays them right.
William Inboden is executive director of the Clements Center for National Security and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served at the National Security Council and State Department in the George W. Bush administration.