America’s presidential election takes place a week today. Since most of our readers aren’t citizens of the United States, they won’t have a vote – so it can be argued that this site should keep well out of it.
But the most powerful of the “five eyes” retains the world’s biggest economy, remains its largest military power and, whatever you think of the contested term “special relationship”, is our closest ally. We are bound to it by a web of historical, familial and cultural ties. So next week’s winner will matter to us. Who should we want it to be?
The best place to start is by thinking about foreign policy, and that of the President in place as we write – Donald Trump.
His approach has been based neither on intervening abroad, in the manner of George Bush, nor not to do so, in that of Barack Obama – for like many presidents and like America’s voters, he has been reacting against the policies of his precedecessors.
Instead, he has tended to keep American boots off the ground, but deploy American bombs when he thinks it necessary. His philosophy has been: try to keep out of it all. But if you must go in, go big.
It isn’t obvious that this approach has been less successful than either Obama’s or Bush’s. The use of that “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan was a signal of intent. The Shayrat missile strike helped to hold chemical attacks by the Syrian regime in check.
The assasination of Qasem Soleimani has not been followed by an explosion of Iranian terror abroad. Indeed, the President is now winding up the economic pressure on the Ayatollahs even more tightly.
His predecessors left him a hand of fours and fives to play with North Korea, and one can scarcely blame Trump for trying a new approach – his astonishing diplomatic overture. Admittedly, there is no sign that it will work. That can’t be said of his administration’s push for peace in the Middle East.
The deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates really was what is often claimed but seldom delivered – a historic breakthrough. And it showed up the standard British take on the region as out of date.
Bahrain followed. Then, at the end of last week, Sudan. The big prize is a formal agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel – but the two are, in effect, already allies. When Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it was said that the move would set peace in the Middle East back decades.
But, as with the Soleimani killing, his critics read the consequences wrongly. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Trump may not have eliminated ISIS, but he has certainly helped to defeat them, at least for the time being.
Then again, the Middle East has shown up the dark side of the President’s anti-intervention bias – demonstrated by his abandonment of our Kurdish allies to Turkey, as American troops were withdrawn from Syria. And ultimately, Trump doesn’t believe in international institutions, any more than he necessarily sticks with America’s allies.
The President has stuck with NATO; our fear back in 2016 was that he wouldn’t. But his sympathy for Vladimir Putin shows up a character flaw: the belief that foreign policy is rooted not in democratic values, but in deal-making.
Talking of institutions, he took America out of the Paris Climate Accords – proof that the Trump administration is, in so many respects, unlike Boris Johnson’s Government. Bringing the conversation round to home takes us to Brexit. The President supports it.
Which counts here – even if there is no national U.S/U.K trade deal of any import, a matter that in any event lies in the hands of Congress as much as in those of the president, if not more.
It is hard to write about Joe Biden, because of a near-certainty: it is almost impossible to imagine him contesting a second term in his mid-80s. The world and its wife – or husband – will know this. That will have an effect in Beijing and Moscow, Tehran and Tel Aviv.
But Biden has been Vice-President of the United States, is long-standing feature of American politics, and is less likely to feel pressure from his party’s left on foreign than domestic policy.
So his past is probably a reliable guide to his future, in the event of him winning next week, which the pollsters expect him to do. His policy on China, America’s rival, will probably be little different to Trump’s, when push comes to shove.
Elsewhere, a Biden administration will be very close to the Ireland’s institutional reading of Northern Ireland. That could turn out to be a problem in the context of the Withdrawal Agreement.
However, that a Democrat administration would be pro-EU and anti-Brexit may matter less than some on the centre-right believe, if there is a trade deal. After all, Brexit has already happened. At any rate, Biden’s approach to the EU would be in line to his approach to international institutions more broadly.
His administration would be consensual – pro-NATO, more anti-Russia, supportive of collective action on trade, climate change and poverty. There would be fewer surprises. That sounds like a plus.
This article is striving to separate American foreign from domestic policy, and has fought shy of getting into the character of the two candidates. This is only sustainable for so long. For the effects that a president has on the country’s stability, let alone its prosperity, ripple out all over the western world, and wider.
Trump revels in conflict. It is horrifying to see him sending signals to alt-right groups tainted by white supremacy, like the Proud Boys. The presidency should be a focus of unity, not a driver of discord.
But it is not as though the Proud Boys and their like, in a country still haunted by the legacy of slavery, are the only source of violence. Step forward, Antifa. America really is another place, and much of it will be untouched by urban rioting, but the vandalism, looting, arson and violence in Portland and elsewhere are driven by the left, not the right.
Biden’s response to the disorder has been to try to change the subject – to project a fuzzy sense of unity and togetherness.
Better that than a sharp one of division and strife. But that’s all very weIl while campaigning. What about office? Who would call the shots in a one-term Biden administration? If Trump’s signature economic policy is racking up a boom regardless of debt, what would his opponent’s be?
Some will argue that the President’s narcissistic character, and exploitation of his office for familial gain, should disqualify him from office.
The accusation invites counter-exploration into Biden. But it may be beside the point. As Andrew Gimson, the author of a series of brief lives of American presidents, has pointed out on this site, Trump is a very long way from being the only crass, selfish and disgusting man to have occupied the White House.
Even so, put like that, one recoils from the prospect of his re-election. Then again, if one gallops through the ups and downs of the two candidates, the case for Trump turns out to be surprisingly strong.