Espying Some Contours of Foreign Policy Amidst the Turmoil
Whereas the November election formerly had been perceived as a referendum on Trump, events have moved on.
All is uncertain for the U.S. Very. Yet, around the world governments examine closely the entrails for signs of what foreign policy may be like after November. So much hangs on it. But it is rather like trying to pin down passing clouds – for whatever the outcome in November, the losing party will likely never be the same again; and equally, however, the winning party is unlikely ever to be the same, either. That is, if there is a ‘winner’.
And that latter outcome is a real possibility: i.e. that neither Party may be able to have their win nationally certified. This may come about, should ‘one’ contender claim a 270 College delegate lead, but with the ‘other’ claiming popular ‘legitimacy’ having won the popular vote (yet be still be short of a majority in the Electoral College). There is little doubt that ballot counts, or suspicions of gerrymandering, will, on this occasion, be challenged across many states, right up to the Supreme Court.
The U.S. has a long history of ballot fraud. And this is why absentee and postal ballots are such a hot-button issue. But legal challenges this time round may become a veritable tsunami, taking weeks to be resolved in the Supreme Court (in spite of its having a ‘hairs’ breadth’, Republican leaning). The claims of election fraud may be exacerbated by the likelihood of GOP votes being counted early (Republicans traditionally vote in person), giving the impression of an early lead, but with the Blue (controversial) postal votes coming in, and being counted, later. And perhaps then changing the picture in some way.
Hilary Clinton already has warned that Biden should not concede the election under any circumstances. This, in contrast to Al Gore, the Democratic nominee in the 2000 election, who did reluctantly conceded defeat following weeks of bitter legal battles over disputed vote counts in the state of Florida.
Gore had won the national popular vote by more than 500,000 votes, but the reversal in Florida gave Bush the 271 Electoral College delegates he needed to be certified the winner, and he became President. Gore was deeply disappointed, and had sharply disagreed with the Supreme Court verdict (partisan rancour, he called it) that ended his campaign.
Well, it is again going to be partisan, and bitter. The stakes could not be higher. Pelosi has labelled the Republicans “domestic enemies” of election integrity, and as “enemies of the state”, which in conjunction with Clinton’s ‘no conceding the election’ dictum sounds, rather as if the Gore precedent is definitely ‘off the table’ for the Democratic Party. The strategy seems set. Pelosi made her expectations about the consequences explicit in a July interview, when she indicated she might become the next U.S. President.
What’s going on here is that it is all about Amendment to the U.S. Constitution number Twenty (section three): “… if the President elect shall have failed to qualify [i.e. by not having 270 delegates certified as valid, and legally correct], then … the Congress may by law, provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice-President elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President …”.
The key is whether a candidate has certified delegates numbering 270 by the cut-off date of 20 January, when a Presidential term starts by law. Without that, the Election outcome cannot be nationally certified, and by noon on 20 January, Congress then would elect a President (and the Senate, the Vice-President). Of course, if one candidate or the other were to make a clean sweep of Electoral College delegates, then disputed ballots may play an insignificant role. But if, in state after state, ballot results are disputed, a certified result may not happen before 20 January.
So this remains a real landmine – one amongst several other circling Black Swans, (as it were), that could change the course of electoral outcomes – such as, for example, the evolution of the pandemic (and how that is handled, or mishandled); whether the U.S. stock market (or more correctly certain segments of it) can continue to be levitated unceasingly by the Fed to ever more extreme valuations. (Trump has made himself particularly vulnerable to market collapse, by virtue signalling the market’s every rise.) And both parties have constituencies that just will not believe – or accept – that other side might win fairly. What they would do about that … is an open question.
In short, November may resolve little; and leave America rudderless and adrift in heavy swell.
The Trump convention (and it was a heavily personalised one) was explicit showmanship. Yet, many were impressed by its slick stage-management – as when, at its conclusion, the Washington skyline exploded with pyrotechnics. Spectacle: The experienced reality-TV ‘hand’ was very evident. Spectacle was the theme of the convention – a devil-may-care optimism – amidst the flaunting of ostentatious U.S. power. One commentator suggested that “it all gave a weird ‘monarchical’ overlay to what was otherwise a very American affair, as the showmanship of the Trump family was conflated with the power of the state”. It might have been a bit unseemly, and distanced from the doctrines of past precedent, but then no one seems to care overly about precedent, in these strange Corona times.
Without much doubt, the GOP had the entertainment advantage, but what may be more significant, was the return to Republican roots. Trump did touch on foreign policy themes:
“Joe Biden spent his entire career outsourcing their dreams and the dreams of American workers, offshoring their jobs, opening their borders and sending their sons and daughters to fight in endless foreign wars, wars that never ended.
“Unlike previous administrations, I have kept America out of new wars, and our troops are coming home.
“We will have strong borders. And I’ve said for years, without borders, we don’t have a country. We don’t have a country. Strike down terrorists who threaten our people and keep America out of endless and costly foreign wars.”
Of course these sentiments are not new. They were uttered by him in 2016. Though what is key is that they do hark back to more traditional conservative thinking, akin to that of Edmund Burke. And they may – if followed through – mark a shift from policies in which neo-conservatives have held big sway.
It is also true that Trump’s rhetoric has not seen much of a policy follow-through – particularly in the Middle East and West Asia. But nonetheless, there has been some follow through. Aside from troop reductions here and there, Trump, several times, has resisted calls to up the ante with Iran—aside from the times he fired Tomahawks into Syria, and assassinated General Qasem Soleimani.
Three vectors to Trump’s policy are evident: Firstly, he seeks to focus on domestic issues above foreign policy; second, geopolitics is seen primarily through a mercantilist lens, and not that of military power – and that if forced into a kinetic response, Trump prefers a pyrotechnic ‘show’ (similar to the fireworks at the convention), more than lighting the fuse to war.
In theory, China should be viewed through the mercantilist prism too, but isn’t. There is such an overwhelming bi-partisan DC consensus (about the only consensus there is today), that mercantilism (and Treasury warfare) must be augment China’s military containment, and its diplomatic isolation.
Now for the reality-check: Trump is congenitally partisan (and sectarian) in the Middle East. He has no empathy for the region, and simply cannot understand why money and ‘business’ cannot be a solve-all. He rarely misses an opportunity to try to do down Iran, or to inflate the dream of a Greater Israel.
Yet, the U.S. gradually is exiting – leaving behind a more fissured, rancorous region, with a part of it that has been pushed precisely by this U.S. acerbic partisanship more and more toward the Chinese and Russian evolving axis. Whilst another part – a last, lingering outpost of the U.S. ‘faithful’ – now fearful of abandonment clutch at the Israeli apron strings (hoping for shelter). It is not a healthy situation: too much animus, too brittle. And it runs against the grain of new power and deterrence realities: The Middle East has been turned to ‘dry wood’ for any localised brush fire to blow into conflagration.
The most striking component, however, to the shift towards restraint hinted at in Trump’s convention speech, has been the concomitant exodus of prominent neo-cons from the Republican Party, and too, the White House’s crab-like reversion to a more restrained military stance (again, China apart). It is not black and white though, as many interventionists and hawks remain in the party, including Nikki Haley, Dan Crenshaw and Tom Cotton.
‘And where have all the neo-cons gone? They have gone to war – Every one.’ Executive editor of The American Conservative, Kelly Beaucar Vlahos, has warned that we might miss noticing the neo-con “wolves, dressed in NeverTrumper clothing, sniffing around Joe Biden’s foreign policy circle, bent on influencing his China policy – and more”.
“Never-Trumper Republicans have been worming their way into the Biden campaign, offering to flesh out his “coalition” ahead of the election, and pushing their way into the foreign policy discussions, particularly on China. Given their shared history with liberal interventionists already in the campaign [notably the anti-Putin crew], don’t for a second think that there aren’t hungry neoconservatives among them trying to get a seat at the table”.
Their focus is said to be on the ‘failing China trade deal’, and Trump’s supposedly ‘weak posture’. Essentially, Team Biden is being pressed by the Republican strategists to ‘out-Hawk’ Trump on China policy by taking a tougher line than the President. In other words, the campaign is setting up to be about who will be tougher on China – and will be fought out on the President’s key platform.
Vlahos observes “though if they seem like the mushy end of the Right flank, think again! These guys are charter members of the Washington foreign policy consensus, mixed in with neoconservative NeverTrumpers, like Eliot Cohen and Robert Kagan (his wife Victoria Nuland was a top neo-con official in the Clinton State Department) and who have despised Trump from the beginning. They think his America First foreign policy is “deeply misguided” and leading the country to “crisis””.
So where does this take U.S.? Well, no-where better – either in terms of China, or the Middle East. On China, cold war escalation is effectively baked-in for both major parties. Maybe this will stay limited and contained; maybe not. Trump would probably like the former; but beware, there is yet another ‘Black Swan’ aloft. In the latest update to its 2020-2030 budget outlook, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) said that it now projects a federal budget deficit of $3.3 trillion in 2020, “more than triple the shortfall recorded in 2019” as a result of the economic disruption caused by the 2020 coronavirus. The CBO further Projects U.S. debt will hit a record 107% of GDP in 2023 … And then explode.
This is the most serious landmine of all: Exploding, unsustainable debt. What is it that eases an exploded debt burden, coupled with high unemployment? … War. The hawks are circling over China.
China understands this, and is preparing strategically. Tactically, we suspect that China is playing Breer Rabbit: keeping its head down, playing Washington expertly, and trying to pass through the November elections before making any irreversible choices. China would be wise to expect no change or lessening hostility from the Dems, should Biden be elected President. Those neo-con ‘wolves’ have not lain idle in Biden’s camp. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes:
The global arms race in green technology is escalating fast. The Democrats’ $2 trillion blitz on clean energy is as much a bid for superpower supremacy – as it is about climate change. It is aimed directly at China. The words ‘Buy America’ pepper the text of the Democratic Party platform. The Biden plan may look like the earlier Green New Deal of America’s radical Left, but is nothing of the sort. It is muscular, and reeks of Great Power politics, almost a mirror image of Xi Jinping’s nationalist strategy documents.
Should Mr Biden achieve a clean sweep in November – probable, if not assured – the U.S. will commit to net-zero emissions by 2050, and net-zero in the electricity sector by 2035. It will do so as a weapon of trade policy and in order to prevent the U.S. losing its footing in the 21st Century market for clean technology.
The U.S. and the EU will again be aligned on the Paris Agreement … Both plan a carbon border adjustment tax to shut ‘Paris’ violators out of their markets, a policy that was deemed – revealingly – to be economic warfare by Chinese officials earlier this year.
Mr Biden says his aim is to bring “global economic outlaws” to heel. Almost in the same breath he says the purpose of the border tax is to “hold China accountable”.
And in the Middle East, anyone hoping for a softening of U.S. policy towards Iran, or a return to multi-lateral alliances, should Biden win, may be pinning too much hope on Bernie or ‘The Squad’ being able to soften the sharp edges from the Washington Consensus. It is just too obvious: That neo-con ‘Washington Consensus’ crowd is a lot ‘redder in tooth and claw’ than the Bernie-Squad crowd. And, all of the former are committed to maintaining, and even expanding, America’s footprint in the Middle East. It will be unilateral, rather than multilateral, naturally.
And so to the bottom line: Whereas the November election formerly had been perceived as a referendum on Trump, events have moved on. Voters have seized upon an important truth: It is that the civil unrest in U.S. cities is no ‘side issue’. It has become the very focus of every American, on whichever side of the electoral fence they stand. For Trump, this is a risky issue to harness, since it is happening ‘on his watch’. But Law and Order is already the issue. For Biden, torn between his personal instincts and a political base that literally wants to defund the police, the challenge is arguably much greater.