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US presidential election: A provincial exercise

Kanishk Tharoor | Updated on October 31, 2020 Published on October 29, 2020

Old order: The real difference between a Trump and a Biden presidency lies more in symbolism than in policy   -  REUTERS

A change of guard at the White House may calm fears in capitals and drawing rooms, but will not alter the granular details of America’s global policies

* American voters think not at all of the rest of the world when they head to the polls.

* There does seem to be some daylight between President Donald Trump and his rival, former vice-president Joe Biden, on issues of foreign policy

* A US election a decade from now may not capture the imagination of the world

When India holds parliamentary elections, the international media descends on the country to describe in often exotic detail the world’s largest exercise in democracy. Stories about intrepid election officials setting up polling stations in remote places — for the single voter in Gujarat’s Gir Forest National Park, for one woman in the village of Malogam in Arunachal Pradesh, and so on — spread through the wires and social media. The particular detail of the enormous electoral undertaking gets lost in this impressionistic view — all broad strokes and vivid imagery.

International coverage of the US presidential election — the second largest exercise in democracy in the world — is almost exactly the opposite. Networks such as the BBC and Al Jazeera, and publications such as The Economist and Financial Times take it for granted that their viewers and readers care about the in-and-outs of American politics. The media presumes that the mercurial mood of Cuyahoga County in Ohio, for instance, or the likely turnout rate of American college students is a matter of global importance.

And yet American voters think not at all of the rest of the world when they head to the polls. Domestic issues — this year, the rampant Covid-19 pandemic but in other times the economy, healthcare, or cultural planks — take precedence over any differences in the candidates’ approach to foreign policy. In large part, that disinterest in the US’s involvement in the world is understandable; since World War II, Democratic and Republican presidents have not offered hugely different visions of the world and understandings of the country’s global role. But that indifference is also testament to the parochial nature of American power. The sun cannot set on the US’s globe-spanning empire of military bases and deeply vested interests, but Americans are conditioned to not look beyond their own backyard.

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In this election, there does seem to be some daylight between President Donald Trump and his rival, former vice-president Joe Biden, on issues of foreign policy. Biden, for instance, would recommit the US to multilateral institutions and negotiations — such as the Paris climate agreement — from which Trump has withdrawn and about which he has routinely expressed contempt. Biden might tone down Washington’s current adamantine support for Israel and Saudi Arabia in their regional power struggle with Iran. But Biden doesn’t offer any particularly radical changes to the country’s global profile. Should he win, expect a degree of sabre rattling with Iran to continue, for US-Israeli ties to remain close, for the US to still ruffle feathers in multilateral arenas such as the United Nations.

In other foreign policy areas, it’s unclear what difference, if any at all, there will be between a Biden presidency and a Trump re-election. With US troop deployment in West Asia deeply unpopular, Biden will probably continue to seek a withdrawal from Afghanistan. He will not depart hugely from the substance of current US policy toward China even if he changes its tone and de-escalates the trade war. “The China challenge” — an ungainly euphemism that passes as daily jargon in Washington — will remain the central question facing his administration and foreign policy advisers. As a result, it’s hard to see much difference between Trump’s or Biden’s likely approach to India. Both leaders will want to more firmly enlist New Delhi in the larger geostrategic positioning against Beijing. Some Democrats — notably the Representative Pramila Jayapal, one of a growing number of impressive Indian-American politicians — may push a Biden administration to criticise the BJP’s anti-minority domestic policies and its cracking down on dissent. But it’s unlikely that those concerns will really supersede the larger calculus and rise to the point where they threaten US-Indian ties.

The real difference lies less in policy than in symbolism. A Biden victory would place a familiar kind of figure back in the White House, a politician steeped in the late-20th century rhetoric of upholding the liberal international order. Trump’s bluster perturbed American allies and partners, and it disappointed majorities of people in countries around the world — various polls show that the reputation of the US has taken a battering in the Trump years. The return of a seemingly more “normal” US president would calm fears in capitals and in drawing rooms everywhere, even if the granular detail of US policy doesn’t change dramatically.

There is a telling gap, then, between the international media’s inordinate focus on the US election and its actual consequences for the rest of the world. The US wins attention thanks to its unparalleled political, economic, and cultural power, its undisputed position as first among all countries. But will this last? As China rises, as the certainties of the post–Cold War world continue to crumble, as the US remains dogged by domestic dysfunction and rancour, and as Washington cannot lead on the international stage as it once did, one can imagine a big change in the way outsiders view American exercises in democracy. A US election a decade from now may not capture the imagination of the world. Instead, it could come to be seen, as all elections to some extent are, as resolutely provincial.

Kanishk Tharoor   -  BUSINESSLINE

 

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction; Twitter: @kanishktharoor

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Published on October 29, 2020
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