American Elections: How Much They Count in International Politics
OPINION |

American Elections: How Much They Count in International Politics

THE FOREIGN POLICY OF THE UNITED STATES, ON WHICH THE PRESIDENT HAS AMPLE DECISIONMAKING POWERS, IS UNINFLUENTIAL OVER THE COURSE AND IN THE OUTCOME OF THE ELECTORAL CAMPAIGN, BUT IT CAN DETERMINE INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS. EVEN WHEN, AS IN THE CASE OF DONALD TRUMP, THIS IS GUIDED BY DISENGAGEMENT AND THE AMERICA FIRST PRINCIPLE

by Massimo Morelli, Professor of Political Science, Bocconi University

Even though foreign policy is not at all a salient topic in the political campaigns and debates in any Presidential elections, and priority is always given to economic policies, the order of importance  is reversed when  we focus on the consequences of who wins: the President has in fact much more freedom in foreign policy decisions than he  can ever obtain in terms of domestic policies, where Congress reigns.
 
The US being a superpower (and the dominant one after the end of the cold war) it is obvious that foreign policy doctrine changes by a new American President matter for international relations. However, the direct exercise of American power is not what should  concern us the most: I will argue that international and national security  can be affected in all forms even when direct exercise of power is actually lower than expected.
 
President Trump's foreign policy stands out from that of previous presidents in two main ways, both  connected to the populist 'America first' principle:
 
First of all, Trump's foreign policy has aggressively used economic statecraft, which means protectionism together with economic coercion and sanctions, to pursue foreign policy goals (Drezner, 2019).
The trade war is only the most often discussed component of this strategy.
 
The second important component that characterizes President Trump's foreign policy is 'strategic disengagement' (aka Pulling back, Posen, 2013), which creates security vacuums and threatens regional stabilities.
 
In my Populism and War article with Mattozzi and Nakaguma we analyze the terrible consequences of the two above components of current US foreign policy for conflict and inequality around the world.
We show that the statecraft component determines an increase in civil war risk in all ethnically divided countries, together with an increase in inequality, both within and between countries.
 
Moreover, strategic disengagement always increases at least one of these two effects, depending on the side the disengagement happens on. The effects on interstate conflict risk are more nuanced:
protectionism may increase the risk of conflict in bilateral disputes where one country is open and militarily strong while the other is closed and militarily weak. We find that a reduction in global trade makes the open and  militarily strong country more aggressive. The greater aggressiveness of Turkey  in all bilateral and multilateral disputes observed recently is therefore not a surprise given our findings. Furthermore, it is true in general that US disengagement from the side of a weaker country increases the risk of conflict.
 
Bernie Sanders seemed to share the disengagement strategy in part, mostly due to the proposal to scale down defense spending to make space for welfare policies, but the expectation was that  his more cooperative attitude on environmental issues could  have compensated.  Moreover, nobody would have expected Sanders to continue on the path of aggressive statecraft. Biden is also expected to make large changes  in the direction of free trade and international cooperation. Thus the election of a challenger in November would have very large consequences for international relations.
 
In terms of domestic policy, on the other hand, Biden will constitute a discontinuity especially on social and cultural policies. But in general domestic policy changes depend much more on which party has the majority in House and Senate than on the President.
 
As we know, even Obama-care did little to change the power of private health insurance companies, and Wall Street is equally happy with Trump or Biden. Main Street would definitely benefit from a change in the White House, but only if in conjunction with a significant democratic majority in the Senate. However, the inefficient form of redistribution in place today through protectionism and closed borders would likely be replaced by more healthy redistributive policies that would have less negative spillovers on efficiency and equality worldwide.

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