There is a certain precipitousness in efforts to peer into the unknown beyond 3 November. The effort is motivated by the weight the presidency has in the US political system and the weight of the US in the international order. That the electoral battle seems a contest between two antithetical world views — one Trump’s, the other Biden’s — and it gives the impression that nothing has changed in the world during the past four years. But, of course, the world has changed. Its pulse does not depend on a particular individual or an electoral process, however crucial.
This said, among all the various commentaries and analyses we basically find four scenarios. The first, and most common, is that Biden will win because opinion polls place him well in the lead. The second and less common prediction is that Trump will win because opinion polls cannot be trusted, as was demonstrated in the 2016 elections, and because the US economy is on the road to recovery, at least based on statistics for the third quarter of this year which will probably be announced before the elections.
In a third scenario, Biden wins by a narrow margin which precipitates a legislative and constitutional crisis that ricochets from Congress to the Supreme Court. In this case, Trump wins because during his term Republicans managed to up the number of right-wing conservatives on the Supreme Court bench to six, the last appointee being Amy Coney Barrett. The fourth scenario foresees a constitutional crisis more severe than all parties had expected, to the extent that it raises the spectre of civil war. To avert this, Senate Republicans conclude a deal with Trump along the lines of that concluded with Nixon, promising him immunity if he steps down.
Whatever scenario plays out, Americans will still be battling with Covid-19, which remains a cold global reality. Then, domestically, there are the issues on which Trump has left his imprint, such as immigration, world trade and relations with crucial US allies. Whether Republican or Democrat, the president will also have to deal with the revolution in US wealth which has gravitated towards well-known tech giants (Apple, Amazon, Microsoft and Alphabet-Google), each of which is now worth more than a trillion dollars, with Apple passing the two trillion mark.
The cries are mounting from across the political spectrum in the US to bring them into compliance with antitrust laws, as occurred with AT&T and Microsoft. The fact is, the US has changed during Trump’s term in office. Its institutions have been restructured. Its whole view of US history has changed. This was not just the doing of the Trump administration. It is the product of a political and ideological wave of which Trump is an exponent. So, even if Trump goes, which is possible, “Trumpism” will remain because the large political mass that supports him will remain, continue to assert pressure and try to prevent the situation from backsliding.
The rest of the world will not be in much of a different state. The Covid-19 pandemic has a lethal persistence that cannot be ignored, and dealing with it is costly whether we fight it or try to live with it. It has already been proven that the virus mutates rapidly and there is evidence that it spreads quickly and can resurface in subsequent waves. The good news is that it has become easier to detect and easier to treat. The world is now divided between Asian countries, which have succeeded in controlling its spread, and Western countries which have failed.
From the former we can learn what to do and from the latter we can learn what not to do. Although it has become possible to remedy a difficult problem that takes tolls on both health and the economy, life will not be the same as it was before. There are unavoidable facts that the pandemic has thrown into relief.
In like manner, China’s recent emergence in the international arena has made so many truths stand out more clearly. One of the most important is that China is no longer a developing or Third World country. It is an advanced, wealthy and powerful nation and it has to deal with the world and the world has to deal with it on that basis. Similarly, if America is to be “great again” (the Republicans’ slogan) or a “leader again” (the Democrats’ slogan), the US also has to deal with this world.
This is not an option. It is the result of historical experiences that have dictated the price Americans have to pay for their country to be “great” and/or a “leader”. No US leader can ignore the progress that Trump has made in restricting North Korea’s nuclear development or in curbing Iranian expansionist ambitions and trends.
Campaign debates and polemics aside, there is no great difference between what Trump or Biden would bring to US policies towards the Middle East. The US had already begun to withdraw from this region during the Obama era and Biden has supported the most important components of the “Deal of the Century” that occasioned the relocation of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and that encouraged Arab states to normalise relations with Israel. However, probably the more important reality is that the countries of the Middle East must now solve their own problems by themselves.
This means that they must not remain prisoners of hollow slogans and timeworn diatribes. The peace process, including the Arab Peace Initiative, is no longer contingent on collective action. Its essence can be realised through bilateral communications and activities depending on the circumstances and interests of the countries concerned. No one should remain stuck in the attitude that the collective diplomacy of the Madrid Conference is the sole ideal for solving the recalcitrant Middle East conflict.
Indeed, history has shown that the direct interaction between Egypt and Israel that was initiated by President Sadat was the inroad to reducing the Israeli empire, that the progress that led to the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty was essentially the result of a bilateral dynamic, and that Oslo was effectively a process of mutual recognition and bilateral negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Whether progress in Arab-Israeli relations comes via the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, bilateral initiatives between the UAE and Israel and Bahrain and Israel, or US and UAE mediation between Sudan and Israel, any outcomes of these processes will be welcomed by whatever administration comes to power in Washington.
In sum, the whole world has changed a lot as the result of major threats, of which Covid-19 is only the best known, and as the result of the maturing process most countries have undergone. As for those who are still living in other worlds, such as those who are fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, no one in the US, whether Republican or Democrat, will shed a single tear over them, not before the elections or afterwards.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly