Election 2020

The Known Knowns of Election Day 2020

What to expect from the next four years, regardless of who wins the vote.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.
Donald Trump and China's President Xi Jinping leave a business leaders event at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images

We may not know who the next president is for some time. But there are a few things we do know.

First, if Joe Biden wins, we know that most countries around the world will heave a sigh of relief, at least temporarily. Donald Trump is deeply unpopular in most of the world; remarkably, leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are seen as more trustworthy than he is. America’s global image will get a big short-term bounce if voters show Trump the door; it will take a further hit if Trump clings to power despite his many failures.

Second, we can be confident that neither Trump nor Biden is going to resurrect old-style neoliberal hyperglobalization. Biden will be more interested in multilateral trade reform than Trump ever was, and his team is likely to try to build or repair multilateral regimes on climate, an array of digital issues, health, and trade. But the commitment to lowering barriers and opening markets that prevailed during the “unipolar moment” is history.

Third, the United States and China are going to be rivals no matter who is in the White House. Competition between the two most powerful countries is baked into the structure of the international system, and it is exacerbated further by a fundamental incompatibility between the two states’ core strategic preferences. In particular, China’s desire to push the United States out of Asia is directly at odds with Washington’s desire to remain there to help prevent China from dominating the region, and these contrasting objectives will inevitably spark recurring tensions. Biden may be more effective at forging multilateral arrangements to constrain China (while simultaneously seeking to cooperate with Beijing on those issues where interests overlap, such as climate change), but neither president will expect China to evolve into a democracy and become a benign stakeholder in a U.S.-dominated order.

Finally, this election will not end the deep polarization and reflexive partisanship that have roiled U.S. domestic politics for more than two decades, and this condition will continue to exert baleful effects on America’s international position. Polarization will continue to hamper efforts to address the pandemic. It will encourage and facilitate foreign interference in U.S. domestic politics (or even the mere suspicion of the same). It makes it harder to take prompt action to address serious problems like climate change, and it makes other states warier of making long-term agreements with the United States because they cannot be sure that any promises that U.S. officials make will survive the next election cycle.

There’s one more thing we also know about the next four years: Whatever Trump or Biden is planning to do over the next four years, neither will be able to implement it as he expects. No president is able to set a foreign-policy agenda and stick to it completely because the rest of the world inevitably throws unexpected surprises at them. George W. Bush got blindsided by 9/11, Barack Obama didn’t see the Arab Spring coming, and Trump dismissed and then downplayed the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having a clear set of goals and a strategy for achieving them is highly desirable, but it’s the events that policymakers don’t anticipate that often determine whether they succeed or fail.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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