Foreign Policy

Does an indecisive US presidential election pose a risk to nationwide safety?

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! How long do you think it is possible for people to get along without sleep? It was a few days when we were doomed and waiting for an election result.

Matthew Kroenig: You are stronger than me I was determined to stay up Tuesday night, but I crashed at 11 p.m.

The race was a lot closer than almost anyone had predicted. Foreign policy should start a series on the American Midwest so the Washington-based wonks can better understand their own country.

EA: I suspect some in DC would benefit from studying abroad in the Midwest, but I think almost everyone was surprised at how close this choice has become. Actually, that's not entirely true. The choice is not over at all. Joe Biden is currently ahead with nearly 4 million votes. However, the strange structure of the U.S. electoral college means we'll have to wait and see if a handful of votes in a tiny percentage of counties in five states go in the same direction as the referendum or not. It's a reminder of how unrepresentative American democracy can be at times.

MK: Thank goodness for the US Constitution. The founders did not trust a democratic mob in the election of the president and delegated the power to states to send representatives to vote in an electoral college. My loved ones in Missouri and Ohio are grateful that they are less vulnerable to the tyranny of the coastal majority in New York and Los Angeles, who do not understand or share their political preferences.

However, this is a column on international affairs. How does the rest of the world see the election results in the US?

EA: Well, they are watching closely. The elections have been the top story on the BBC website for days – a reminder of the importance of US elections to foreign policy. We have ambassadors hedging their bets and governments refusing to say anything that could offend any of the potential winners in the vote.

What I found particularly sad were the comments from European allies such as the German Foreign Minister calling for confidence in the US electoral system. It sounded exactly like a statement the State Department would make about controversial elections in a distant, semi-democratic country. The US elections were never the epitome of the virtue some suspect – Jim Crow, anyone? – but these statements from other countries are a reminder of how badly the image of the United States has suffered in recent years.

MK: So far, however, the elections have been largely good news for American democracy. It was free and fair and we are patiently waiting for the process to go through. Of course, the president has made unfortunate and unsubstantiated claims about the integrity of the process, and opponents like the top Iranian leader poke fun at the US system. (I think he prefers bloody repression to disorder of democracy.) But worst fears have not materialized. There was none of the feared acts of violence. The shops around my house in Georgetown are boarded up for free.

But I think people run the risk of misinterpreting the results. I have heard many in the Beltway Bubble and abroad say that the large vote for Donald Trump shows America is more racist, sexist, and isolationist than many understand. However, this is not the correct view. Believe it or not, most people in red states don't spend most of their time thinking about race, gender, and foreign policy. They just liked Trump more than Joe Biden.

EA: So does it show support for some of Trump's more unorthodox foreign policy ideas? Eventually he returned to his 2016 promises to end the war in Afghanistan during the election campaign. Even if Biden wins in the end, it seems like Trump thought this was a popular foreign policy view – and that some voters agreed with him.

MK: Maybe for some. But most Americans don't vote on foreign policy. My friends and family who voted for Trump did so because they consider themselves Republicans and support the team even if they don't love the coach. Others thought Trump was good for the economy and worried about a tax hike in Biden. They fear the left more than the right. Most do not closely follow what is going on in Afghanistan or are unaware of Trump or Biden's position on the matter.

EA: "Really?" I agree with you that voters rarely vote on foreign policy, but polls show that two-thirds of Trump supporters think he was right to negotiate with the Taliban. Trump himself clearly thought it was important enough in the campaign to try to cover up the fact that he had failed to keep that promise in his first term.

MK: When pollsters ask for an opinion, they get one, even if it does not affect respondents' political behavior. And that poll says that Trump's supporters support something the pollster tells them that Trump is trying to do? Not surprising. I suspect two thirds of Trump supporters would tell a pollster that they support Trump's efforts to negotiate peace with the lost city of Atlantis.

EA: OK, that's probably true. I remember the time when pollsters managed to get 30 percent of Republicans to agree that the US should bomb Agrabah, the fictional land of Disney's Aladdin.

However, my general point is that even if voters do not vote on certain foreign policy issues, the substantial support for Trump suggests that they certainly will not oppose his foreign policy approach. Foreign policy Trumpism – a kind of belligerent one-sided nationalism – could stay here.

MK: That sounds terrible. Martial, one-sided internationalism would be much better suited to a globalized world.

I just don't think Trumpism exists other than Trump. He is sui generis. We saw in the Vice-Presidential debate that Mike Pence's articulation of America's role in the world was a return to usual Republican rhetoric.

EA: Yes, but will "Standard Republicans" look different after Trump? After all, he was quite opposed to nation-building and the rest of the George W. Bush-era freedom agenda.

MK: We'll sure see in just two years when non-Trump Republicans will fight for the 2024 election. I suspect that the likely candidates (Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and others) will have foreign policies more similar to Ronald Reagan's than Trump's.

The elections have another international dimension that worries me. Perhaps it is my background in the Pentagon, but I fear an adversary might try to take advantage of America's internal fixation on the elections and the possible uncertainties of moving to a new government. This would be a good time for China to move to Taiwan, for example. The likelihood is slim, but the cost of World War III is so high that I would be watching this closely if I were still in government.

EA: I think the fear of a fait accompli in Taiwan – or elsewhere – during the election aftermath or transition period is seriously exaggerated. As Michael Kofman noted in an excellent article the other day, a fait accompli is harder to obtain and less common than is commonly believed. Yes, it is possible that China could use this period of uncertainty to attack Taiwan, but it would still be incredibly difficult and costly to break through the island's defenses.

As Kofman points out, conquering Taiwan is not a simple land grab. It would be the invasion and seizure of an entire country, which has not happened in 70 years. In other words, the United States is not the only deterrent to Chinese actions against Taiwan. Despite the growing discussion about it, I am seriously skeptical that China or other states will attempt to use the electoral uncertainty for nefarious purposes on a large scale.

MK: I'm not sure. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has made no secret of its desire to eventually involve Taiwan, possibly by force. Chinese fighter jets increased their entry into Taiwanese airspace this fall. And it wouldn't have to be a D-Day style attack. The People's Liberation Army could use 21st century tactics, including cyber attacks, conventional precision strikes, and other gray zone tactics, to force Taipei into submission.

At least I think it makes sense for the United States to clarify its commitment to Taiwan to help the CCP avoid miscalculations. And it would be great if treaty allies around the world could join that promise. Cross-strait World War III would be a problem for everyone, including our allies in Europe. Germany, for example, could not send troops, but it could make a political statement backed by threats of sanctions. The free world united on this issue would give the CCP a break.

EA: Not being the cynical realist here, but it would only be World War III if the United States interfered. This is precisely why so many people speak out against a specific security obligation towards Taiwan. The risk of conflict between China and the United States is not worth it.

MK: So we should watch a rising revisionist superpower use violence to devour its neighbors who happen to be allies of the US. I would think this is something a cynical realist would want to put off.

EA: It depends. Taiwan is a pretty unique case in terms of its historical ties and proximity to China. This is certainly not the same as deterring Chinese aggression against Japan, South Korea, or other US allies in the region. And let's face it, Taiwan could defend itself relatively easily if it invests in the right military skills. Taiwan has opted for the US instead, even though Washington has never given any concrete security guarantee. This poses a significant risk of escalation for the USA.

But we're not on the subject here. I think your second point is more relevant to the news of the day. The United States cannot make decisions about how to interact with the world until it has a confirmed new leader. I don't think it is dangerous that it will take so long to find out the next president, but it does not reflect well the United States that the electoral system is so disorganized and that the current president is making profoundly undemocratic statements. I mean, a few hours ago, Trump tweeted that any vote received after election day shouldn't be counted, which is against the law in a number of states. And he demands that all vote counts be stopped – except where he runs after and still has a chance of victory.

MK: I hope we can answer the question of how the US government will deal with the world over the next four years in our next column in mid-November. What would a Biden or Trump administration mean for America's role in the world? Who are the winners and losers on an international level?

But we should probably turn to the civil war in East Africa. Have you followed events in Ethiopia?

EA: Do they also have an electoral college?

MK: That would certainly be less chaotic than the current situation.

EA: So it looks like the Ethiopian government, having finally ended its external conflicts, is caught in a civil war and after an alleged raid on federal troops and in response to the ruling TPLF party of the region (in the Tigray region) military actions could initiate. which formerly dominated the federal government until the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018) in order to achieve more political independence. What do you make of it?

MK: It's disappointing to see the country fragment. Abiy received the Nobel Peace Prize for signing a peace accord with neighboring Eritrea and implemented some much-needed economic and political reforms. I hate being a broken record, but that action may have been timed when the United States – a key partner for Ethiopia – was diverted from domestic problems.

EA: Yes, there is probably more to it than that. I still think it is unlikely that China will attack Taiwan, but there is definitely an "when the cat is gone" element to what is happening in Ethiopia. Tensions have been building for months, but the time the administration's attack coincided with the US elections should almost certainly avoid so much attention and criticism.

For Ethiopia this is a serious step backwards. There is no question that this could lead to civil war or even division. After all, one of Ethiopia's other neighbors, Sudan, has just waged a long civil war over the independence of South Sudan. However, I am not sure if I see any role in the US here other than mediation.

MK: Africa is not a priority region for US foreign policy. However, Ethiopia has been an important partner in advancing US interests in the region, including counter-terrorism and development. This is sure to complicate the relationship. The conflict is ethnic and I hope this will not be a new Yugoslav style war leading to the disintegration of a multi-ethnic country. We have to watch this closely.

But we'd better rest now to prepare for our second debate of the day. Apparently our doodles have a growing audience here. We have been invited to a college campus tonight (virtually) to discuss US foreign policy. I hope you are up to the challenge.

EA: Matt, the sooner you accept that you are wrong about foreign policy, the sooner I can stop following you to remind you!

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