November 11, 2020
In the aftermath of the US elections of 2020, Global Bridges hosted a video conference on the consequences of the elections for America and the world. Close attention was paid to the foreign relations between the US and the EU as well as the US and China, which had both deteriorated significantly during Donald Trump’s four-year presidency. Domestic affairs were also discussed, in particular the direction the Republican Party is going and how the country will change in the next four years.
The conference had more than 80 participants, among them The Hon. Richard R. Burt, Managing Partner at McLarty Associates in Washington, DC, and former US Ambassador to Germany, the current German Ambassador to Washington, DC, H.E. Dr. Emily Haber, several German officials and former ambassadors, and Global Bridges members as well as Young Leaders Alumni from both sides of the Atlantic. The discussion was moderated by Dr. Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of DIE ZEIT, together with Dr. Beate Lindemann, Executive Chairman of Global Bridges.
The conference began with the introduction of the topic and a description of the current situation in the US as “a tale of two countries”. On the one hand, there is a President-Elect who is already taking decisions, receiving calls from foreign leaders, and preparing for his office, on the other hand, an incumbent president who has started to contest the election results, with his attorney general permitting legal action to investigate allegations of electoral fraud. This creates a sense of uncertainty in the populace, because of which outbreaks of political violence cannot be precluded. The citizens that voted for Trump are largely under the impression that the election was fraudulent, and there is a general move within the Republican Party towards “Trumpism”. It was predicted that the outgoing president will continue to have a large following, both from the American people and the Republican Party.
It was considered likely that Biden, with his long history of and experience in working with the Republican Party, will not be blocked like Obama was, by a possibly Republican-dominated Senate, since he also has a good working relationship with majority leader Mitch McConnell. Still, the relatively high number of “split-ticket” voters, who voted for Biden in the presidential election but gave the Republican Party their vote for the Senate and House elections, indicates that Biden has been given a mandate to follow a centrist agenda and that he will not be able to implement controversial plans, as it is likely that the Republicans will have to agree.
It was noted in the discussion that Biden will have to focus on domestic and foreign affairs in his time in office, but that he and many of those close to him are experienced enough to competently handle what comes their way. However, this will likely not mean a return to the status quo ante, rather, the President-Elect will demand stronger involvement from Germany and the EU in collective security and international matters, especially in light of the relative decline in power of the West. It was also predicted, that economic difficulties between the US and Europe would continue to create friction. Stronger cooperation would be necessary in order to protect Western values and influence.
Dr. Josef Joffe wondered, how the world would change with the swearing-in of President-Elect Biden and if a reversal of policies back to the Obama or Clinton administrations was to be expected. The answer was, that the quick pace in which the relations between the EU and the US changed in the last four years was due to reasons related to global change, such as the ascent of China in matters economic and scientific. These circumstances will not change, forcing the EU to change its behaviour, adapt its attitudes, and make compromises to gain alliances.
Questioned about the return to multilateralism by Biden, who demands more engagement by the EU to share the load in the challenges of the future, and whether Germany and the EU will have to choose between China and the US, it was argued that while Germany and the US agree on the main problems both countries have with China, the underlying motivations are quite different. Halting or even reversing the rise of China was not considered within the power of the West, and the US and EU, with as many allies as it can, will have to redefine the relationship with China by using incentives and restrictions to prevent China from taking advantages and exploiting the free market system.
Regarding the withdrawal of US troops from Germany and the rising expectations toward Germany to increase its military budget, concern was expressed that the majority of Americans favoured the troop withdrawal due to the pervasive view that Germany was not fulfilling its obligations in security matters.
Richard Burt remarked, that a new US administration under Biden would have to address several key issues such as COVID-19 and the healthcare and economic crisis that goes along with it, the racial justice issue and the growing income inequality in the country. Especially with regards to the latter problem, he noted the alienation of the working class and strong dividing lines between those who have and have not studied at university. Addressing these issues would in his view be necessary to build political consensus, a prerequisite for a strong and decisive foreign policy.
It was predicted that the foreign policy will consist of several small, symbolic steps in the short run, such as negotiating a new START treaty, rejoining the Paris Agreement and the WHO, improving the WTO’s effectiveness in settling disputes, and starting negotiations with Teheran over a new Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Longer-term, the foreign policy will not aim at restoring the status quo ante but will aim at fostering cooperation between democratic countries, bringing them together in a “summit of democracies”, in which India, as a key potential ally against China, will likely play a big role. The Biden administration is likely to pay more attention to the democratic countries than the previous administration did, and focus less on the populist and increasingly undemocratic leaders of the world, such as Bolsonaro or Erdoğan. More attention will also be paid to human rights issues. Generally, the next administration will attempt to compromise whereas the current administration was looking at diplomacy as a zero-sum game.
With regards to Europe, an American participant predicted that cooperation with the EU would increase in order to resolve economic, political, and security issues, and that an effort will be made by the next administration to better understand and work together with the EU. He also considered a reduction in US military spending and, parallel to that, an investigation into the effectiveness of military spending by sector a likely step in order to better allocate money, cutting funding where it is not needed. As an example, he used the case of Russia, saying that the threat from Russia was not based in the Russian capability of projecting military force and that the United States will therefore have to decide carefully what to invest in. He also considered it unlikely that the Biden administration would get involved militarily, favouring diplomacy and a gradual reduction of troop numbers in the Middle East.
Iran was identified as a key issue for the next administration. Biden is likely to get closer to and negotiate with Iran to prevent hostilities, alienating traditional US allies like Saudi-Arabia and Israel. A return to the JCPOA was predicted, which would be used as a “stepping stone” to reach new agreements in order to normalise relations with the country. The approach of the Trump administration towards Russia and China was criticised, because they should have treated the countries separately from each other instead of lumping them together. The Biden administration will cautiously attempt to normalise relations with Russia and will use incentives and regulations supported by many allies around the world to guide China to become a “responsible stakeholder”, a phrase Robert Zoellick, former president of the World Bank, coined. Rick Burt was optimistic that the Biden administration would succeed as long as they took their allies’ interests into account and look for compromise rather than zero-sum equations.
When a question about potential conflicts of interest between the US and its European partners was raised, the Airbus-Boeing trade dispute was mentioned, and it was warned that a continuation of tariffs could lead to both companies being overtaken or even put out of business by Chinese competitors. Similarly, the US and EU would have to work together to prevent Chinese intellectual property theft and create advantages for Western technology firms, which might require less taxes on companies like Google and Amazon in Europe. It was also mentioned that the Biden administration will have a “Made in America” policy rather than an “America First” policy, so that the long-standing devotion of the United States to free trade is likely to lose importance. In spite of these issues, it was made clear that Europe “could not get a more pro-European” US president than Biden.
Responding to a question about the future involvement of Donald Trump in US politics, Rick Burt contended that it was more realistic that Trump will find himself in legal trouble the moment he leaves office, as he might be prosecuted for some of his financial dealings in the past. He also mentioned that Trump appointed loyalists in high positions in the intelligence apparatus, especially the NSA, which he might use to gain information after his term ends.
Answering a question concerning the difficulties the next administration would face due to the strong internal divisions within the US and how it could possibly get involved abroad while having to deal with these issues, a participant explained that while the divisions were substantial and it was still not clear if the Democrats would get a majority in the Senate, the US could not afford to look inward. Many of the problems it was facing today were due to global issues, such as the trans-border problems with Mexico, and to confront them they would need partners around the globe. He also made sure to say that the president could, even without a majority in the Senate, handle foreign policy quite well by using presidential decrees.
Rick Burt was then asked why the election process in the US was so complicated and ineffective, seeing as how states have different voting rules and procedures, and the voting was not finished more than a week after the election, and whether this would change. He answered that due to the strongly federalist character of the US, this would not change in the foreseeable future. He also saw the reasons for the slow counting of the votes in the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused many more voters to send in mail ballots, which the states were not able to count as quickly.
Asked how long President Trump would continue to allege voting fraud, he answered that he found it shocking to see so many Americans believe the unfounded allegations of Trump and added that behind closed doors, most senior Republicans would certainly admit that the Republican candidate lost. However, publicly, they would not dare to because they are afraid of Trump. He credited Trump with a capacity to connect with the large number of Americans who are prepared to believe what he tells them, which he believes is the greatest threat to American democracy nowadays.
The number of people who are Trump’s loyal base was estimated at about 30 to 40 million people. According to recent Fox News polls, even more than 70% of Republicans believe the elections were fraudulent and more than 80% of Republicans and Democrats alike believe that the other side does not believe in American values. This was considered indicative of the division lines in the country, which, citing The Atlantic, are about “[population] density and diplomas”. President-Elect Biden, if he wanted to overcome the division in the US, would have to address both of these factors, which would likely involve spending money for infrastructure in rural regions and making higher education more accessible.
Concerning the Biden administration’s stance towards Eastern Europe, it was agreed that countries ruled by populists like Poland and Hungary would have little latitude going forward and that the close relationship between Eastern European countries and the US would cease, and while Biden would strive for a productive relationship with major European countries like Poland, relations with Hungary would get much colder.
Taking a question about the direction of the Republican Party in the next four years, Rick Burt predicted that due to the leading position that many Trump loyalists such as Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton held and the relative weakness of the pragmatists within the party, “Trumpism” would remain an important force within Republicanism for the foreseeable future. He also noted that the Republican Party was now more than ever a party of the working class and lower middle class, while it used to be that of the 1%, but remained a party mainly voted for by white people.
He then explained the difficulties the Republican Party would face in the next 30 years due to the fact that by 2050, more than half of the US citizenry will be made up by non-whites, who overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates. In this he sees the reason for the at times racist comments and policies by the Republicans.
Concluding the conference, Josef Joffe highlighted the COVID-19 vaccine, borne from the cooperation of the American and German companies Pfizer and Biontech, as a symbol of what can be achieved when the two countries work together, while Dr. Lindemann thanked Rick Burt and the other participants for their insights.