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7 September, 2020  ▪  Марк Войджер

The alternative futures

How the most anticipated presidential election can affect American foreign policy and the free world

The Democratic National Convention and Biden’s Long-awaited Nomination

On Tuesday, 18 August 2020, during the second night of the Democratic National Convention, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was finally nominated as the official candidate of the Democratic Party after receiving 2,374 delegate votes in the online voting in a culmination of his campaign’s efforts that lasted for over two years. Biden was touted by key leaders in the Democratic Party as “a steady experienced public servant who can lead us out of this crisis just like he’s done before”, who stated that “America needs Joe Biden”, and according to former First Lady Michelle Obama, “people should vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it”. While the upcoming presidential vote in November 2020 is fraught with the countless expectations of US domestic voters, there has rarely been a vote so anticipated by the international audiences, and so closely watched by America’s friends and foes alike. Domestically, the upcoming elections are perceived by the supporters of both candidates as the “make or break moment” that would either continue Trump’s highly divisive social and economic policies, should he stay in office, or end the inflammatory hateful rhetoric originating from the American President’s office in an attempt by Biden, if elected, to unite the country behind a more centrist discourse, albeit with prominent progressive influences. In that sense, 3rd November 2020 is viewed by many in America as the day that would seal the fate of America’s democracy for the coming decade with a continued sliding down into Trump’s authoritarian tendencies, or a return to the classical liberal approach that has defined America’s democracy over the past two and a half centuries. 


The Future of America and the Future of the Free World

While the American voter still remains divided in its preferences for Trump or Biden, the world at large seems to have made its choice a long time ago, after having been bombarded, shocked, antagonized and even repulsed over the course of four endless years by the isolationist, inconsiderate and highly confrontational and offensive statements and policies that have become Trump’s sad and unfortunate “trademark” and have tarnished the image of America as “the Land of the Free”, “The Shining City on the Hill”, and “Humanity’s Best Hope”. The democratic world is definitely longing for a return to normalcy, away from Trump and Trumpism, back to a more predictable US foreign policy that it may not have always agreed with, but that was at least adopted and promoted by a leader who was at the very least perceived as a respectable and responsible person, even if not always universally liked as an individual. Unfortunately for America and the world, Trump is nothing like his predecessors, and by putting himself into the laughing stock disliked by the other leaders of the Free World, he has inflicted incalculable losses to America’s international reputation and standing. Instead, Trump has become the daring primarily of authoritarian leaders whom he openly admires and seeks to emulate. All those disturbing trends have led many even among America’s staunchest friends and allies to conclude that four more years of this open confrontation between Trump and his colleagues in Europe and elsewhere, combined with his refusal to stand up to dictators and illiberal leaders across Eurasia, will weaken even more liberal democracy worldwide and will inflict so much damage on the trans-Atlantic relationship that maybe beyond repair this time around. Quite logically, the potential win of Vice President Biden in November is perceived as setting things right within the family of democratic nations, of fixing the weakened trans-Atlantic bonds, and of a return to a US foreign policy that is respectful and considerate of allies and speaks up against injustices in the world and their perpetrators in high places. In that regard, the future of the Free World is perceived as directly linked to the future course of America’s foreign policy that, in its turn, is a function of the upcoming presidential elections. Understandably, one of the countries in Europe where the outcome of these elections is being watched with tremendous hope and anticipation is Ukraine, given that its ability to assert its independence against Putin’s Russia in the long run is vitally dependent on a US policy that is committed to a stronger NATO, and that takes the deterrence of Russia in Eastern Europe seriously. 


The Diverging Foreign and Defense Policy Views of the 2020 Presidential Candidates

The positions of the two candidates on global issue before the November elections are diametrically opposed in almost every aspect, most notably when it comes to their attitudes on foreign policy and defense in general, and on Russia and Ukraine, in particular, as identified by their multiple statements over the course of several issue, as well as based on more specialized publications by the Council on Foreign Relations and other think tanks. 

When it comes to defense, the primary divergent issue has always been the role of the US military, given its constantly increasing costs (standing at over 700 billion USD dollars currently), and its ever expanding overseas role and commitments across multiple world regions, not only as a defensive force and an offensive weapon, but also as a nation-building tool. Democratic candidates have been more critical of increased military spending and extended foreign occupations. They have been particularly sensitive to the accumulation of control over the use of military force by US presidents in the 21stcentury, beginning with President George W. Bush, and have called for Congress to reassert its constitutional war powers. At the other end of the spectrum stand the advocates of a larger military force who maintain that this helps keep deter adversaries and ensure US preponderance on the world arena. President Trump has actually displayed a mixture of both positions, by calling for ending America’s “Long Wars” in the Middle east and Afghanistan and brining US troops at home, while at the same time promoting increased military spending, pushing for expanded missile defense, the creation of a Space Force, and the development of new nuclear weapons to respond to Russia’s violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. While claiming that the US military’s focus should be on fending off other great power rivals, such as China, he has alienated America’s Western European allies within NATO and consistently proven that he is skeptical of America’s traditional alliances, which are otherwise indispensable in defending Europe against threats from the East, such as a potential Russian aggression.

On his turn, Biden’s record over the years has shown support for some U.S. military interventions abroad and opposition to others. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, he has often advocated for setting narrower objectives when using military force, and he has been skeptical of the ability of the United States to reshape foreign societies and cultures in pursuance of its foreign policy goals. The latter is a common reaction among many US politicians caused by the tremendous difficulties experienced by the US on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last two decades. Biden is also wary of unilateral U.S. efforts, as he prefers to emphasize the importance of using diplomatic tools and working to promote America’s interests through the building alliances and strengthening the existing global institutions.

It is precisely in the field of diplomacy that the views of Trump and Biden diverge the most. The current resident has displayed disregard for the established institutions that America had led, or helped build after WWII. He has unilaterally withdrawn the United States from international agreements that are draining U.S. resources according to him, he has started petty but consequential feuds with America’s long-standing allies on issues from defense to trade, and has criticized global institutions for forcing the US to “surrender its sovereignty”.

In contrast, Biden has always emphasized that the United States cannot successfully deal with the new global challenges without maintaining and building close relationships with its allies and friends, and without cooperating with international institutions. According to him, Trump’s withdrawal from important international treaties and his weakening of traditional alliances has “bankrupted America’s word in the world.” In a 2018 Foreign Affairs article on how to deter Russia co-written with Dr. Michael Carpenter, the Managing Director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, D.C., Biden offers scathing criticism of Trump’s disregard for NATO by stating that “the alliance transcends dollars and cents; the United States’ commitment is sacred, not transactional. NATO is at the very heart of the United States’ national security, and it is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal—an alliance of values …”


“From Russia with Love” or “Standing Up to the Kremlin”?

Nowhere are the two candidates’ views on Great Power politics opposed more than on Russia, as this fundamental issue will only prove to be more contentious as the elections approach and with Russia bound to increase, without the shadow of a doubt, its meddling attempts to boost Trump’s election numbers. These anticipated hostile actions comes on top of the strong views held by many in the Democratic party, as well as prominent members of the Republican foreign and defense establishment, that Russia’s foreign policy has become highly aggressive and excessively assertive since 2014, ranging from covert military aggressions and overt interventions in Ukraine and Syria to direct and brazen interference in Western elections, together with multiple serious violations of the nuclear treaties with the US. Biden has promised to give a firm response to those unabashed perpetrations by Moscow, if elected. He has consistently been warning that Russia under President Vladimir Putin is “assaulting the foundations of Western democracy”, by attempting to weaken NATO, by sowing discord within the European Union, and by discrediting the very notion of democracy based on free and fair elections. He is also strongly critical of Russia’s continuing ability to exploit the Western financial system to launder billions of dollars, and thus – to weaponize corruption, by means of which then it infiltrates and undermines the Western political institutions.

On the pro-Russian end of the spectrum, Trump has consistently been trying to build friendly relations with Putin, and has been dismissing vehemently any reports that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election on his behalf. While trying to advocate for establishing closer cooperation with Russia, he has also been forced to yield to the pressure from Congress to increase the sanctions on Moscow, to expand the military aid to Ukraine, and to withdraw from the INF Treaty. To many of his critics, this otherwise inexplicable attitude is the direct result of his dangerous (and shameful) dependence on Russia through compromising personal and financial information in Putin’s possession, based on Trump’s irresponsible dealings with Moscow in the past.


The Future Importance of the US Vice President for Ukraine

In the weeks preceding his official nomination last week Vice President Joe Biden chose Kamala Harris as his running mate. Senator Harris is the first Black woman chosen for a presidential ticket by a major party. She has served as a U.S. senator from California since 2017, sitting on the Senate Judiciary, Intelligence, Homeland Security, and Budget Committees.

Joe Biden’s views on foreign policy, in general, and Russia, in particular, are aligned in many ways with that of his personally chosen running mate Senator Kamala Harris. According to her foreign policy priorities identified by the Council on Foreign Relations, she is highly critical of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and Georgia, because of its use of military force to seize territory and undermine democratically elected governments. According to her, Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, Russia’s support for combat operations in eastern Ukraine, the thousands of people killed in that conflict, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, and Russia’s constant cyber-attacks represent severe violations of international law and established international norms. In her own words, Senator Harris “would continue to support Ukraine and ensure the U.S. is unequivocal in affirming Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”, together with “working with the government of Ukraine to build out its military, strengthen its civil society, and combat corruption, while working closely with our European partners on a diplomatic solution” She espouses a firm stand on dealing with Putin by “consistently standing up to Putin in defense of democratic values, human rights, and the international rule of law.” While setting the nation’s foreign policy course is the purview of the American President, Senator Harris’s views are extremely important in two respects – firstly, she may have to deal more closely with the US foreign policy on Ukraine following the fashion of the Obama Presidency when Vice President Biden himself was put in charge of it; and second, if she were to become President herself in the future, following a potential successful Biden term or two.

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