US Presidential Elections: Who is the best candidate for the EU?

, by Lucas Nitzsche, Sacha Billaudot, translated by Abi Wyatt

US Presidential Elections: Who is the best candidate for the EU?

With the US presidential elections rapidly approaching, tensions are mounting between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the two presidential candidates. In both style and content, their messages differ enormously, particularly on the topic of international policy which is a critical issue for future European Union relations.

The US presidential election is an event which gets the whole world talking every four years. And for good reason, as a world leader, the policies adopted by the USA and by its federal administration have a major impact on the world stage. Whether it’s economic, military or cultural competition, the American position regarding its allies or its rivals is key to understanding what’s at stake in the contemporary diplomatic climate. In the last two decades, the international policy of the United States has seen significant changes, first with the Obama administration and its “smart strategy”, and then with Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine. With less than two months to go until the elections, the European Union has found itself a spectator to a turning point in its relationship with the United States: the election of either Joseph Biden or Donald Trump.

American diplomacy in light of multipolarity under the Obama administration

When Barack Obama came into power in 2009, the world had already undergone a transformation since the end of the Cold War. Although his predecessor, George W Bush, refused to admit it, the United States is no longer the only dominant world superpower. The world is multipolar. President Obama thus built his foreign policy of “smart diplomacy” on three pillars: allies, negotiation and the balance of forces. By recognising the world as multipolar, the president accepted the relativity of American power and the international scene’s undeniable instability [1], an attitude considered defeatist by the Republican camp at the time.

The United States, therefore, encouraged “multipolarity with multilateralism” by means of “summit diplomacy” and diverse yet generally unrestrictive commitments. By employing this logic of military and civil burden-sharing, during his first term as President, Barack Obama brought the United States closer to the European Union, which itself was partly seeking American leadership. However, from the first implementation of this new cooperation in Afghanistan, he came up against the reality of European foreign policy which is almost non-existent. The idea of “power and weakness” developed by Robert Kagan [2] demonstrates the poor compatibility of European and American foreign policy. From then on, the United States continues to demand more ambition from its partners who, for their part, believe they are already doing enough.

This refusal brought about an evolution in foreign policy during Obama’s second term. The United States demanded that their allies align themselves with the American position, or else the US would act alone. Joe Biden, Vice-President at the time, addressed the European Union in Munich: “We will work in partnership with you when possible. We will act alone only when we have to.”

The relationship between the European Union and the United States therefore remains very pragmatic. The United States wishes to maintain a certain leadership which is now impossible for them to do alone. As for the EU, it needs the United States but has not managed to fulfil its expectations.

Trump and the America First doctrine

Barack Obama certainly wasn’t the greatest Europhile in American history but his successor has turned out to be an even more difficult negotiating partner for the EU. The President’s scepticism towards Europeans was quickly revealed by the nomination of John Bolton, former National Security Advisor, who had lent his support to Boris Johnson and the Brexit campaign. With or without a Brexit deal, the presidential advisor declared in August 2019 that he wanted to support the UK, by means of a privileged trade agreement, in order to support the British economy without going through the EU anymore [3]. Even though John Bolton was eventually fired, Donald Trump continues to consider the EU as an obstacle to American power and free trade.

In fact, the president declared the European Union, along with Russia and China, an “enemy” of the United States, at least when it comes to trade [4]. According to Trump, European nations take advantage of the United States, which could be illustrated by the trade deficit with the EU. In fact, it is on the basis of this deficit that he has threatened to heavily tax European products [5], particularly cars, up to 25%.

Although he has not followed through on this threat, the President is convinced that freedom and autonomy from the rest of the world are necessary in order to maintain the United States’ power. For this reason he has tried his hardest to withdraw from numerous multilateral deals and international conflicts. His “America First” doctrine has for example led to America withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, and even withdrawing a large number of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of these decisions have had grave consequences, but the American president places his own priorities over international issues and tries to reach his objectives using media stunts and playing the isolationist card. Therefore, in the case of Trump’s reelection, the European Union will no longer be able to count on the United States’ support in its international or trade policies, and will have to demonstrate even greater strength in order to rival its competitor over the pond.

Biden in the White House: a return to pre-Trump diplomacy?

Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the presidential elections would undoubtedly lead to a turning point in the United States’ internal and external policies. Nevertheless, to bring about the type of change much desired by the Democrats, their candidate needs to win a clear victory. Without this, a period of instability would emerge in the United States on a scale not seen for decades, because the Republican candidate would likely refuse to accept the defeat [6].

The fact remains that the probability of victory for Joe Biden, and the reversal of Trumps’ foreign policy, will delight many on the other side of the Atlantic. However, this scenario would not please countries like Poland or, outside of Europe, Israel or the United Arab Emirates. Optimists, however, should harbour no illusions. First of all, the former Vice-President to Barack Obama would not be inaugurated until January 2021 and would take a few months to put together his administration. He wouldn’t be able to take action immediately. Even so, once established, the United States would not resemble the country dreamed up to be the opposite of Donald Trump and his foreign policy. The US has never been a country inclined towards multilateralism, as demonstrated by the “unipolar period” of the Clinton era [7]. It is dangerous to believe in a return to the world as it was before, which undoubtably won’t happen. The fact remains that, without a doubt, Joe Biden will be a much more amenable and open spokesperson for the United States than the current American president.

A Biden presidency could, however, offer Europeans the opportunity to assert themselves as a real power on the international stage. In view of current circumstances, in all likelihood the United States wouldn’t refuse this step given their preoccupation with the economic crisis and China. They could see the European Union as a real ally, even an equal, genuinely committed to its foreign policy [8]. This would allow them to avoid repeating the mistake made by the Obama administration of wanting the EU to depend on the United States. Hence a Biden victory should not trigger feelings of euphoria in the EU. However, there is a real opportunity to seize here, one which we must be prepared for right now.

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