18 10 2020

Should we care about the outcome of the US election?

Saudi air raids on Sana, the capital of Yemen Saudi air raids on Sana, the capital of Yemen By fahd sadi, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60535551
Why should we care about whom the US elects as president? It is an internal US affair, and the American electorate is free to choose whoever they want. There is however a cacth. As the US possesses an enormous world-wide military power and dominates the international financial system, it affects all us non-Americans how they are going to use their power. In this sense, both candidates are absolutely unappetizing. Even so, for some countries it may matter who wins: Cuba, Iran, Yemen and Russia. For these four countries Biden may be the better outcome. And for some global issues also: first of all nuclear arms control and climate change.

The Democrats have selected an incredibly weak presidential candidate. One thing is that he looks frail and often appears incoherent, but to that end I presume they have their vice-presidential candidate. What is worse is that he is a morally dubious character (take at look at this video where he jokes of being willing to do whatever for money, or this one where he is bragging over how he got the Ukrainian State Prosecutor Viktor Shokin fired), and has – just as Trump - difficulty in distinguishing his and his family’s own interests from the country’s (looking benevolently at his son, Hunter, being hired as a board member of a corrupt Ukrainian private gas company, Burisma, a 50,000 USD per month job for which he had absolutely no qualifications, except for having a father in charge of the US policy towards Ukraine). But even so, it looks as if Joe Biden might win the upcoming Presidential election, probably because many people will vote ‘anyone-but-Trump’. And rightly so.

To many outside the US, the most important issue is that Biden has promised to take the US back to the Paris agreement on Climate Change. That is good. But don’t expect big changes. No, he has not promised to stop fracking, the dirtiest fossil fuel business on earth after coal and the Canadian oil sands, but he has promised to promote renewable energy.

Biden has promised a ‘smarter’ Iran policy, whatever that means, and return to diplomacy. But whether he will revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (JPOA) that Trump pulled the US out of, is absolutely not clear. We still remember Hillary’s pledge to ‘totally obliterate’ Iran if it attacked Israel, and to bomb Syria even it that meant downing Russian jets. There are plenty of foreign policy neocons in Biden’s team. But there is no doubt that Iran’s ‘moderates’ hope that Biden will win.

Biden has said that he would return to Obama-era policies of engagement with Cuba and reverse the Trump administration's sanctions. It has to be remembered that Obama’s Cuba policy, even if it implied an opening, kept the basic sanctions regime on Cuba in place. But Trump’s ever-increasing sanctions have made life even more difficult for the Cubans. So for the Cubans any relief is welcome. The Cubans have no illusions regarding a fundamental change in US policy, but they still prefer Biden to win. Most of the rest of Latin America will also prefer Biden to win, mostly because they expect a more liberal migration policy. They will probably be deceived. Biden has tried to be more radical than Trump on Venezuela, so expect that failed policy to continue with an enormous humanitarian cost for the Venezuelans. No wonder the Venezuelans care little about who wins.

Yemen can hope to gain from Biden winning the presidency as Biden has promised to end US support for the Saudi war against the country. The Saudis are already losing the war, and if Biden follows through on his words with action (a big if), without US support, which started under Obama and was continued by Trump, the Saudis will have a strong incentive to find a way to pull out. But with the rogue and erratic leadership of the Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman it is difficult to predict the outcome.

But why should Russia want Biden to win? Aren’t the democrats ferociously anti-Russian and are they not insisting that Trump is ‘a Russian asset’? Yes, but some leading democrats are sane enough not to believe the outlandish Russia conspiracy theories, and there is one important point which Russia considers more vital than almost anything else: nuclear arms control. Trump (and Bush before him) has pulled out of most of the nuclear arms control treaties, and now Trump has made it clear that he will let the last arms control treaty still in force, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), expire in February 2021. Biden has said he will extend it – the Russians have noted that. That matters more to Russia than the Democrats’ ‘Putin is Hitlerrhetoric. But apart from that they expect no big changes in US policy and for that reason tend not to care about the election (Biden has e.g., promised to continue Trump’s policy to obstruct the Russian-German North Stream 2 gas pipeline). They say that they will work with whoever is elected, if the US is interested in a dialogue.

China doesn’t expect major changes in the US China policy either, whoever wins. As expected, the election campaign has been a competition in China bashing, and as China is a serious challenge for the US hegemonic role, there is a bi-partisan consensus that China has to be contained, doing whatever it takes, perhaps short of nuclear war. And China will not let the US contain them. A new cold war is therefore difficult to avoid, independently of the outcome of the election.

And here we are at one of the main points. As the US relative economic importance is declining, the US political and military hegemony is declining with it. How the US handles this decline of its world empire can easily be a question of life or death for human civilisation. If the US decides to do ‘whatever-it-takes’ to stop the decline, the result can be nefarious. Decline of empires is always an agonizing process. Historically, they cry, kick and spark, start unnecessary wars, bomb defenceless countries. But now, in a nuclear age, the stakes are much higher. Perhaps – just perhaps - the Biden neocons are a bit more prudent than the Trump neocons and a less violent transition to a multi-polar world is possible.

If Biden wins, that is, of course.



1. The most important nuclear arms control treaties:

* The Anti-ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, signed by Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in 1972, George W. Bush pulls the US out in 2002.

* Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachov in 1987. Donal Trump pulls the US out in 2019.

* The open skies treaty permitting participating countries aerial reconnaissance flights over each other's territory, came into force in 2002 with 27 signatories (among them the US and Russia). The treaty was designed to enhance mutual understanding, build confidence, and promote openness and transparency of military forces and activities. Donald Trump announced in May 2020 that the US will pull out within six months.

* The Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), signed by more than 160 countries - not including the US and China. Even so, the US have not conducted nuclear tests since 1992. However, Trump is reportedly pondering a restart of the nuclear tests.

* The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which limits the number of nuclear weapons the two parties can have, was signed in 1991 by George H. W. Bush and Mihail Gorbachov, and expired in 2009. START 2 (also called New START) was signed in 2010 by Obama and Dmitry Medvedev and expires on February 5, 2021. All indications are that Donald Trump will let the treaty expire and die. The Russians have suggested a one-year unconditional extension to give time to negotiate. This has been squarely rejected by the US negotiator Marshall Billingslea.




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Thorbjorn Waagstein

Thorbjørn Waagstein, Economist, PhD, since 1999 working as international Development Consultant in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

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