How 2020 election could affect US’ global standing
If this article was a cartoon, it would show the British Isles as the mythical figure Britannia to the right of our picture, peering fearfully through her fingers across to the map of the US on the left; a US full of cracks and divisions, shaped like a face in which anger is the predominant motif.
The UK follows US elections closely. The outcome is nothing to do with us; any free, democratic state is entitled to the government it chooses, which the UK will honor. The mood in the UK is currently one of apprehension, in which who wins is important, but it is not the whole story. We are used to competitive elections, fierce competition and no small amount of division. As a regular visitor to the Hill, I know that the divisions between Democratic and Republican have been growing sharper during my political lifetime: Shutdowns did not begin with President Donald Trump. But a political tradition in the free world of winning elections “in the middle” is beginning to fade, and the US is a prime example.
To repeat a previous victory, it seems now that you need to deliver to your base ruthlessly, and not waste time trying to attract new votes. This mindset suggests that there are people in the electorate who do not matter to you, whose opinions are worthless, whose votes are thus immaterial and, indeed, if not cast, who cares? By contrast, the process of trying to “win over” voters ensures that all voters matter and, even though people may not agree, the act of appealing to them essentially moderates a message.
This matters beyond boundaries. Such a mindset carries over into other spheres, not least international. If you are part of an international community, from NATO to climate change to the World Health Organization, the first mindset means you demand what you want and if you don’t get it you walk away, while the second suggests that you work with others to achieve a common objective. If you are engaged in the Middle East, in an admittedly difficult role, perhaps no longer of America’s choosing, how you approach the complex problems there matters and sends signals. So how the US fights this election is watched carefully for what it might tell us about the next four years in the international rules-based order.
This election is being watched carefully for what it might tell us about the next four years in the international rules-based order.
The UK learned a lot from 2016, and it will not make the mistake it made then of treating the Trump candidacy lightly and the result as a foregone conclusion. We did not appreciate how Hillary Clinton was seen by so many, while the outsider’s pitch seemed so extraordinary to us that it could not possibly succeed. We now know better and this time the question to ask is that, if you voted for Trump last time, what would persuade you not to vote for him this time? And what we think internationally just doesn’t matter. We know enough to know this question makes things look close.
The atmosphere in which the election is taking place is again, sadly, not new. Violence and “law and order” is not a new theme (just think of 1968), but the ferocity associated with events following the death of George Floyd feels different and it illustrates the new power of personal media and its focused messaging. These have two rather frightening potential consequences for US watchers. Firstly, the number of armed militias, with non-uniform uniforms, prepared to act as judge and jury according to an agenda they set themselves. We have always known that the US has the highest number of civilian guns per capita in the world — it needs a consensual social contract in place to ensure something doesn’t go wrong. And, secondly, the risk of an election result not being accepted by one party or another, claiming fraud and malpractice, leaching into the situation of arms and agendas, ending that social contract. An unresolved election is high on our list of worries at present.
Beyond the mechanics of the vote itself, the UK wonders what type of America will emerge to navigate a world full of problems and in which its influence is essential. Some immediate issues are clearly on hold, such as the next steps with Iran and the nuclear deal, or the Middle East peace process and the implications of the UAE-Israel agreement, in which the US played a significant role. Other long-term problems — a number of which pre-date the Trump administration — including nuclear weapons talks, involvement in the Middle East and North Africa, the assertiveness of Russia and China, and climate and environmental issues, will sit on the desk of Joe Biden or Trump regardless.
Whoever it is, the UK will welcome a US finding confidence in consistency, engagement and the valuing of allies, enabling us to take our hands away from our eyes in worry and look a friend straight in the face.
- Alistair Burt is a former UK MP who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as parliamentary undersecretary of state from 2010 to 2013, and as minister of state for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019. Twitter: @AlistairBurtUK