2020 U.S. Election Geopolitics Part 1: If Trump Wins
2020 U.S. Election Geopolitics Part 1: If Trump Wins
In two weeks, U.S. voters will go to the polls to elect their next president. We’ve decided to devote our next two Tuesday emails to the election results and how who wins will affect international politics and some of the industry verticals we pay closest attention to. We begin this week with President Trump, and we consider two scenarios: 1) Trump wins and the Republicans keep the Senate, and 2) Trump wins and the Republicans lose the Senate. These are the two most unlikely scenarios if current polling turns out to be accurate…and seeing as how predictive most of the polls were last time around, we’ll take that to mean they are both highly realistic possibilities.
Before we dive in, a few words about the importance (or lack thereof) of presidential elections. Generally speaking, U.S. presidential elections aren’t that important when it comes to global affairs. Presidential candidates get elected promising all sorts of changes and brilliant ideas, but the crucible of geopolitics almost always cuts those promises down to size. Foreign policy is the arena in which the U.S. president has the most authority, i.e. it is where a U.S. president is least constrained by the checks and balances of the legislative and judicial branches. But unlike U.S. domestic politics, U.S. foreign policy involves innumerable other variables the U.S. has president has no control over. Other countries have their own imperatives and are led by their own leaders who promised all sorts of changes and brilliant ideas to get where they are too. Figuring out how all these imperatives and constraints interact with each other is geopolitics in a nutshell.
Ironically, though the U.S. president has the most authority over foreign policy, it is also the arena he or she has the last power to shape according to their will. That is why U.S. foreign policy does not normally change that much from administration to administration. President Barack Obama was a shining example of this. Obama came to office promising all sorts of things, like ending U.S. wars in the Muslim world, closing down Guantanamo Bay, and resetting relations with Russia. When Obama left office, the U.S. was fighting ISIS in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay was still open, and relations with Russia were so bad that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. The great virtue of Obama’s foreign policy was he accepted these constraints. Despite his idealism, in practice, he strove for predictability, stability, and incremental progress, even when it made him look bad.
Almost always is the key phrase above. Like Obama, President Trump came to office promising all sorts of things too. He promised to tear up the Iran nuclear deal, to renegotiate NAFTA, to get tough on China, and to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And, unlike Obama, Trump was true to his word. He did almost all of it. Not overnight, of course – plenty of legal hoops had to be jumped through – but because the Republican Party controlled both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Trump administration had two years to do essentially whatever it wanted, and even after the Republicans lost the House in 2018, the administration had laid enough groundwork that it could do basically whatever it wanted, from imposing steep tariffs on imports of Canadian steel on the basis that the national security of the nation was threatened (lol), to unilaterally and thuggishly banning a Chinese social media company from the U.S. unless it sold itself to a U.S. company.
That latter example, of course, is TikTok, and the legality of the Trump administration ban is now under review by the U.S. judicial system. Also, Mexico hasn’t paid (and never will) for the border wall, so the geopolitical bumpers aren’t all gone. Even so, the most striking thing about President Trump’s first four years in office from a geopolitical perspective is how much Trump did – and how different it was from the policy choices of the previous administration. It is not hyperbole to say that the difference between President Trump’s foreign policy and President Obama’s foreign policy is bigger than the difference between any other consecutive American presidents in the history of the country so far, and that part of the instability we are seeing in an increasingly multipolar world is whiplash from just how fast the U.S.’ behavior changed.
So far being the operative phrase in that paragraph. The difference between a second Trump administration and a Biden administration has the potential to be just as stark as the difference between Obama and Trump, especially if the Democrats succeed at winning a majority in the Senate. (That’s why we are spending the next two Tuesdays on this topic!) It is an interesting and unanswerable question to ask whether this is just going to be the way things are for a while because of the intense polarization within American society right now. If it is, then the world will hold itself up as a mirror to the United States, responding to its hair-pin policy changes with an equal and opposite level of unpredictability and instability. Still, the more likely outcome is that the geopolitical constraints will reassert themselves sooner or later – and likely sooner, as many of the moves the Trump administration made sacrificed future flexibility for a fleeting sense of ephemeral agency.
If President Trump wins the election and the Republican Party retains control of the Senate, then the present is the future, and short-term, transactional decision-making will dominate for another four years. For obvious reasons, this is the easiest scenario to project because it means simply extrapolating current American behavior forward. In this scenario, the United States will continue to make foreign policy based on a very narrow interpretation of what it means to put “America First” in all things. The U.S. will deepen the trade war with China, finding more Chinese companies like Huawei to bring to heel, while increasingly pushing China on human rights issues and looking for allies willing to follow the U.S.’ lead. Relations with Russia will continue to be abysmal and New START, like the TPP and the JCPOA, will be thrown into the dustbin of history. A global arms race and a global space race will begin in earnest, and competition over key aspects of 21st-century political power like 5G technology, food, and other natural resources, access to new export markets, and biotechnology (especially pharmaceutical supply chains) will become fierce and increasingly zero-sum. Federal dollars for nearshoring and reshoring will be plentiful, as will federal funding and support for critical technologies, like 5G rollouts, space-based weapons, and vaccines. The possibility of leaving the World Trade Organization cannot be dismissed in this scenario.
President Trump winning the presidency but the Democratic Party taking hold of the Senate may be the most destabilizing outcome possible from the U.S. election. In this scenario, the Democrats would try to frustrate any attempts by President Trump to move his domestic agenda forward, which means President Trump would likely devote even more time and energy to foreign policy, the one area where his authority would remain relatively unencumbered. Even there, however, the Democrats would likely try to block as many of President Trump’s moves and decisions as possible. Every U.S. foreign policy decision would become subject to U.S. domestic politics, and the Democrats might even try to impeach Trump again, sowing the seeds of even more uncertainty for foreign countries observing American political machinations from the outside. The Democrats would likely not have enough votes to override a presidential veto, so plenty of legislation that ends up on Trump’s desk could simply be rejected. Trump, having already won reelection, will have little incentive to compromise or play to the middle. Instead, he will continue to play to the base. The result on a global stage would be paralysis. Countries looking to the U.S. for leadership will find only confusion and mixed messages. Without a coherent sense of what the U.S. should be doing in the world, it will be every country/company/individual for themselves as the U.S. digs in for another four years of partisan bickering and domestic unrest.
Despite the differences, there are a few key elements that would be common to either scenario. The U.S.-South Korean relationship would come under extreme duress, as the U.S. would push for more and more burden-sharing, a stance Seoul is quite openly miffed about. International and multilateral institutions would be weakened, and NATO’s future would become increasingly uncertain, with some of its member states (France and Turkey) at each other’s throats and the U.S. unwilling to play a conciliatory role until everyone has shown they have paid the requisite 2 percent of GDP on military spending (which they won’t!). The European Union would be forced to rely on itself more – ironically, a Trump presidency is a best-case scenario for a stronger, more coherent EU that behaves more like a geopolitical entity rather than as a bulky monetary union. Other U.S. allies will begin to question the value of aligning with the U.S. and will attempt to play both China and the U.S. off of each other. The U.S. will, even under the second scenario, authorize massive amounts of stimulus to kick the can as far down the road as it can…and then will kick it some more. Above it all will hang the same two wildcards that have hung over the past four years: North Korea and Iran. Iran is the more rational actor of the two and has more to lose, and yet even then, the U.S. almost went to war with Iran right before the pandemic started. North Korea, on the other hand, will continue its march towards nuclear ICBMs and may even test U.S. and South Korean resolve, especially if relations between Seoul and Washington continue to deteriorate.
These of course are not exhaustive scenarios. They reflect just a taste of the sort of top-down, blue-sky thinking necessary for even starting to prepare for the geopolitical decisions, risks, and opportunities posed by a second Trump presidency. We should also caveat that in the thoughts above, we are intentionally painting in extremely large brush strokes because how these scenarios and geopolitical forces affect individual decision-makers, corporate strategies, and bottom lines will vary significantly depending on specific contingencies and contexts.
Even so, the common geopolitical threads of a second Trump presidency are actually pretty easy to discern. Supply chains will be forced to shift rapidly away from geopolitical hotspots. The “eye of Sauron” will stay on 5G and expand to other key technologies, like space-based weapons and AI, while competition for key minerals, energy sources, food, and export markets will become increasingly fierce and zero-sum. The period 2016-2020 will appear in hindsight like a prelude to even more far-reaching changes, many of which we discussed at length in our 2020s forecast when we launched the company backed in April. A second Trump presidency would effectively nail the coffin shut on the post-Cold War era, as the Trump administration would continue to raze old structures down, sometimes replacing them, and sometimes simply burning them to the ground. This stands in stark contrast to a Biden presidency, whose primary goal from day 1 will be damage control (Biden in that sense is the literal embodiment of the word “conservative”), but that “discussion” will have to wait till next week.
In the meantime, if we can help you, your company, or anyone you know navigate the risks posed by the issues we write about all the time, don’t hesitate to reply back to this e-mail, or write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. These are uncertain times, but we eat uncertainty for breakfast. Seriously, don’t be shy. No matter who wins on November 3rd, the key to dealing with geopolitics is to remember that we are living in an era of rising and falling great powers amidst an industrial revolution. Presidents are constrained by institutions and nations are constrained by geography but that doesn’t mean you have to be constrained by ignorance of the forces shaping your business environment. Trump, Biden, Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, Vladimir Putin — they are all just shadows on the walls of the cave. We can help you see what’s really making them.