If Donald Trump is re-elected in 30 days’ time, he will be vindicated and emboldened. What constraints he had will be removed. Whole alliances will come to an end, and democracy as a finely balanced set of ideological refresh and societal warrant of fitness instruments will be replaced with something far blunter though still democratic.
But if Joe Biden wins, the US-led international order gets a little reprieve. The question is whether Biden can be bolder than President Obama to extend the reprieve.
Either result is really important to Australia and to New Zealand.
If Donald Trump can hold Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Texas, he has a route to victory. He will have a fully stacked Supreme Court, with three personal picks and the chance of 1 more. He will be at the helm as the United States economy rights itself through the term as it usually does. He will use the Vice Presidential position as occasional Chair to neutralise a Senate tilt towards the Democrats. Other than Congress he may have all levers of government working with him.
So what will the world make of that? A Trump win vindicates all other recent autocrats and hard-right nationalists from Belarus to Britain to Brazil. So it further vindicates others to have a go – the likes of aspirant radicals in Austria, Germany, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Remaining left-leaning countries will likely have to take the Danish route and start going hard against immigrants just to politically survive. Trumpism has its own named era confirmed.
After the 2016 election other governments knew that this was a possibility, but now it would be a reality. The United States will give up on any further advances of international law and will actively reverse the ones that are in place.
A second Trump term will play out differently across regions and issue areas. In Asia the big question is whether Trump II sticks to his tough China policy, or with the election out of the way he tries to resurrect his trade deal with Xi. A successful trade deal with China would signal to him that he could start withdrawing military bases from Korea and Japan, leaving North Korea to China and Russia. If he can sustain his diplomatic approach to China deal by deal as with TikTok or Apple or Tesla, then the global signal is that the US now has a purely mercantilist diplomatic operation. What this does is dissolve the global capacity to face shared global challenges such as disease, climate, environment, agriculture, labour, and financial regulation. So that would be big. No more talk about shared values or using the U.N. for anything useful for humanity, such as peacekeeping.
A Trump re-election would have a really big impact in Europe. Transatlantic co-operation has fallen off a cliff in the past year – whether over Iran, COVID19, the International Criminal Court, or the global economy. The transatlantic relationship built up since World War 1 would end – probably NATO included. Questions about whether the EU actually starts to further fall apart, let alone whether it gets future members, will get stronger and stronger as emboldened hard-right party leaders take Trump’s rise as a new state to aspire to.
But New Zealand, as functionally a state of Australia, needs to pay particular attention to this US electoral choice. For if Biden gets in, we should expect a much stronger alliance with Australia than the very good one that exists now. Australia has handled Trump better than any other liberal democracy around. We’ve just done the Solitary Noble Virtue thing and hoped it would pay off (since the 1980s it never has). As ever, Australia has covered for us and allowed us to be far more idealistic in our policy framework, such as Australia spending 2% of its budget on defence where we spend close to very little, or kicking China after egregious interference when we made mewing noises. Australia has also benefited from the trade deficit it has with the US.
As a conservative, Scott Morrison worked well with Trump administration officials, and Australia was an early mover on pushing back against Chinese political interference and in restrictions on Huawei.
Biden will deepen this US alliance with Australia. A Democrat President with a Democrat Senate and Congress will send delegations to learn from Canberra’s actions against political interference from foreign powers. Both Australia and New Zealand will be poster-children for public healthcare and public disease response, as the US tackles reforming healthcare again.
US Democrats in a Democrat majority Senate will be keen to strengthen and deepen relations with well functioning democracies in Europe and Asia, and Australia and New Zealand should play a key role in that effort because our public health and economic responses enabled us to sustain democratic freedoms during 2020 like few others could. We were dented, not smashed. Our reserve banks worked as they should, if not particularly boldly. Our public sector budget responses worked. Our recoveries look promising. Even Australasian gun reform would have something to teach a Democrat-led White House and Senate.
The Australian government is likely to favour Biden taking a tougher approach to China than did Obama – and with Helen Clark leading the investigation into COVID19 for the WHO, we will have no choice but to start picking clearer sides between Australia and China. We are likely to get reminded that it’s time to align with Australia somewhat more strongly in order to restore global models for restoring democracy in a post-Trump era. New Zealand is well overdue for a reckoning on Chinese interference, and a stronger Biden-Morrison relationship will push for that I am sure.
Unless Trump is convincingly defeated in 2020, Trumpism may well return in the 2024 election, or even before that the 2022 Senate races. The challenge for a President Biden is whether he can make use of four years to place Democratic party values as really worth restoring for good. He has to show results that are durable and big in scale for all of the 99% of Americans who didn’t benefit from Trump’s America. Otherwise a one-term Biden Presidency will be merely a stay of execution for the postwar order we’ve seen Trump actively demolishing.