America is this week set to know its fate after one of the most divisive presidential elections in decades, pitting incumbent Republican Donald Trump against Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The outcome will be one of the most consequential in US history, with a striking difference between what each may mean for America and the world.
No wonder the atmosphere is electrifying. Nearly 100 million Americans voted early. Tuesday, ballot day, the turnout was as huge as expected. Coronavirus is the main issue in this election, but issues such as race relations, justice and economic fairness are also pressing.
Biden told voters in Pennsylvania that the very fabric of the nation was at stake and offered his own election as the firmest rebuke possible to a president who he said had spent “four years dividing us at every turn”. “Tomorrow’s the beginning of a new day. Tomorrow we can put an end to a president that’s left hardworking Americans out in the cold. If you elect me as president, I’m gonna act to heal this country,” Biden said.
Trump argued, at a stop in Wisconsin, that Biden was “not what our country needs”. Later he tweeted, after suffering a legal setback in Pennsylvania when the Supreme Court declared that the state can count votes three days after the election, that there could be “violence in the streets”. “Something must be done,” he added, without explanation.
In a sign of heightened tensions, the White House and tens of thousands of retailers in Washington and other big cities were boarded up to prepare for possible violence.
Because of the unprecedented high turnout, the result — especially in swing states — may take some time to be declared. In the case of a close contest, the victor is unlikely to be announced on election night, given that the crucial industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are not expected to complete their ballot counts in time. The final result could then be delayed by days if not weeks as Democrats fight expected legal efforts by Republicans to prevent some mail-in votes from being counted.
But once America and the world know who the next US president is, he must hit the ground running. There are lots of challenges he must face in his first 100 days.
The first of these challenges is the coronavirus pandemic, as infection rates have increased, reaching record levels in many states.
Also, calming racial tensions in America. The country is angry and deeply polarised. Whoever wins needs to act quickly to ease tensions as the losing side will be gravely disappointed and violence might erupt without the right tone and language from the elected president.
The economy will also be an enormous challenge. Because of coronavirus, there is an urgent need for a financial rescue package for the US economy. In the final weeks before the elections, the White House and Congress failed to reach a rescue deal. But the next president and the new Congress do not have much time.
On the international stage, the challenges are just as serious. If Trump were to be re-elected it would be bad news for Europe. The transatlantic rift that widened during the Trump administration would be very difficult to bridge in his second term. Some European officials even warn of the end of the special relationships between America and Europe.
If Biden wins, he will have to reassure America’s European allies that America’s commitment to European security remains unchanged. But even Biden will demand that the Europeans increase their contributions to NATO’s budget. On the other hand, Biden can extend an olive branch to the US’s European allies by rejoining the Iran nuclear deal. During his election campaign, this was the most notable foreign policy change Biden promised to make.
According to Bruce Riedel, a prominent American expert on US security who served four presidents on Middle East issues in the White House National Security Council, restoring the Iran deal would be a priority for the Biden administration. Riedel told Al-Ahram Weekly: “A Biden administration will substantially change American policy in the Middle East, stepping away from the total embrace of Gulf states and Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel to a more balanced approach. Relations with the Palestinian Authority will be resumed, as will aid to UNRWA.”
However, this agenda might not be easy to achieve especially the Iran component.
Aaron David Miller, a former American diplomat who served as a negotiator and adviser to six US administrations on Middle East peace, thinks the Iran component of a prospective Biden administration may be difficult to realise. Miller explained to the Weekly: “I think Biden, if elected, is going have a difficult time. Whatever his intention to return to the [Iran nuclear deal], I do not think that is possible. You are going to have to negotiate a new agreement with Iran. And we have Iranian presidential elections coming up next year. But more important, Biden will be just incredibly busy trying to repair America’s broken houses, and is going to have very little time,” to address Middle East issues in his first 100 days.
Despite expected European pressure on a Biden administration to restore the Iranian deal, Miller emphasised that pressure “does not mean Biden is going to jump immediately into some sort of full-blown negotiation with Iran”. “He may work through the Europeans, he may work directly with the Iranians through some sort of backchannel, but I do not expect any early breakthroughs with Iran. This is going to be very messy and it is going to take time, and Biden’s first 100 days are going to be spent trying to deal with domestic issues.”
Nonetheless, Biden’s intentions to depart from Trump’s foreign policy would ease some nervousness in the old continent. Europe sees things getting out of control in the Middle East, amid an ongoing migrant crisis and increasing extremism. Many say that Europe is paying for civil wars and instability in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
“The best thing Biden could do would be to adopt a more balanced approach. Instead of giving some states unconditional support and refusing to talk to others, the United States should have business-like dealings with all of them. We should support countries in the region when their actions and interests align with ours and distance ourselves when they do not. This would mean less reflexive support for Israel, the Gulf, etc, and a willingness to deal with Iran more directly in the hope of addressing our differences. But I do not expect Mr Biden to do this if he is elected,” said Stephen Walt, a prominent US professor of international affairs at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government.
Professor Walt argued that the US under Biden, Trump, or any other administration in the future needs to restructure its policy in the Middle East and in the world. “The Middle East is not irrelevant, but its strategic importance is declining for many reasons. There is presently an oil glut, and demand for oil and gas is going to decline in the future as the world tries to reduce climate change by moving away from fossil fuels. Furthermore, the main US strategic interest is preserving a local balance of power, so that no single country can dominate all of the region’s energy resources. There is no country that could do that today or in the near future, so the United States can safely reduce its role and let local actors deal with these problems,” Walt told the Weekly.
He continued: “Trying to shape the local politics of the region (ie, in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere) has been a costly failure. The United States should therefore return to its earlier strategy of offshore balancing, limit its military footprint in the region and have normal relations with countries in the region, instead of special relationships with some and no relations at all with others.”
Without restructuring US foreign policy and replacing the “liberal hegemony” mantra, America’s standing on the global stage will continue to decline.
Walt concluded: “I do not think Biden will embrace liberal hegemony as enthusiastically as Bill Clinton, George Bush, or Barack Obama did. This is partly because he would have to focus most of his attention on fixing things at home, but also because trying to remake the world in America’s image — which is what liberal hegemony tries to do — did not go well. He will try to reverse some of Trump’s policies — especially towards US allies — but he will not try to wind the clock back to 2009, 1993, or even 2016.”
This is the world’s election as much as America’s election. The outcome will be very consequential on America’s role in the world, the international system as we know it since 1945, the Middle East, and most importantly the future of America itself.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly