(CNN) — The world is living on the edge in a way it hasn’t since World War II. Covid-19 has cut into our certainty, a million people are dead, and our lives are limited by it. But even as a crippling pandemic sweeps the globe, there is nothing more important today for most of us than the US presidential election.
President Donald Trump has been the most divisive and one of the most recognizable American presidents in living memory. His policies reach right around the globe. His social media footprint is bigger than any other leader. His ability to attract attention, often negative, is unrivaled. Though the vast majority of people across the planet don’t get a vote for the leader of the free world, we are all impacted by the outcome.
Four years ago, the world was stunned when Trump defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin.
Now millions are hanging on every newscasters’ words, waiting for projections for key states, and wondering if the pollsters tipping Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s lead got it right — or if Donald Trump will get four more years.
Not what the world expected
Since he took office, Trump and his prodigious tweeting have given the planet more to talk about than any other recent American leader.
For many outside the US, he appears a product of an American entertainment culture — though one far removed from the old-fashioned Hollywood allure which generations of moviegoers once eagerly devoured.
When cowboy actor turned President Ronald Reagan was elected to the White House in 1980, not for a moment did he try to live up to his gunslinging characters, and the world breathed easy. With Reagan came Soviet arms control agreements, as he helped nudge the nuclear-tipped Cold War toward a peaceful conclusion and, in so doing, re-wrote his movie image.
As Wall Street Journal editor Gerald F. Seib notes in his book “We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump — A Front Row Seat to a Political Revolution,” Reagan was the antithesis of the current incumbent, “a modestly successful actor with a self-effacing style and no intellectual pretensions.”
Trump, a self-styled “stable genius,” and his impact on the world could not be more different. His entertainment chops were honed in reality TV, which vaulted him to the global stage. What America saw on his hit show, “The Apprentice,” is what the world got — and it wasn’t exactly what most expected from the leader of the free world.
The former real estate developer’s transactional approach has translated into a fragmented foreign policy. Rather than learn on the job, the President demanded that other leaders and institutions change to suit him. But in the process, this often cost the US in international standing and stature.
Abandonment of global leadership
During past US presidential elections, citizens of many nations often said it didn’t matter who won. That’s not the case this year.
A host of high-drama international issues are unresolved: The future of NATO is uncertain. Humanity’s most pressing existential need, curbing climate change, is struggling to get off the ground. Iran and North Korea are yet to be coaxed toward concessions on potentially dangerous nuclear development. Russia is poisoning who it wants, when it wants, with impunity. And conflict with China that could envelop the world continues to escalate.
If Trump keeps the White House, we won’t just see four more years of the same erratic, seat-of-the-pants policymaking that distinguished his administration’s first term at the world’s helm. Instead, expect the cascading consequences of his miscalculations — the most serious being his abandonment of global leadership — to start catching up with him.
On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump boasted he could shoot someone dead on New York’s swanky Fifth Avenue, home to some of the world’s ritziest stores and richest clientele, and get away with it. On the world stage, he set about doing the diplomatic equivalent, running roughshod over allies and cozying up to dictators.
His early months in office were characterized by chaos at the State Department, as then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hollowed out the diplomatic behemoth. Even Russian diplomats complained they no longer knew who to call.
Trump could have used the State Department’s intellectual heft as Putin ran rings round him. At their first encounter at the 2017 Hamburg G20 meeting, the Russian leader suckered Trump into believing his proposal for a Syria ceasefire. Trump fell for one of the Kremlin’s oldest military ploys, freezing the conflict so that it could finish it off bit by bit at Russia’s convenience.
Although Trump would later sanction Russia over Ukraine and expel 60 Russia diplomats for Moscow’s use of a deadly nerve agent against a former Russian agent in the UK, Trump never got ahead of Putin on big foreign policy issues after falling behind in Hamburg.
Trump’s self-belief and lack of experience have also run the US into trouble with China, despite initially having the backing of allies who agreed China’s intellectual property theft and predatory trade policies had gotten out of hand.
He has squandered his advantage by ignoring his allies. At the APEC summit in Vietnam in November 2017, Trump told the alliance leaders he was looking out for his national interests and they should do the same. “I am always going to put America first, the same way I expect all of you in this room to put your countries first.” In that same speech, Trump berated China, saying “we can no longer tolerate these chronic trade abuses and we will not tolerate them.”
What began as a US-China trade war sending shivers through global stock markets has now become a military escalation in the South China Sea, and exchanges of sanctions. Today, there’s still no trade deal, and Beijing is flexing its authoritarian power in Hong Kong. As Trump tries to pin blame for the coronavirus pandemic on Xi, the world waits to find out what comes next in the growing confrontation between the world’s top economic powers.
Nuclear threats to the world remain, despite Trump’s hopes to strike his own signature deal with North Korea. The President first tried confrontation, comparing nuclear buttons with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un before exchanging oversized ‘love’ letters and holding two summits with him.
The result: Kim won. He hasn’t handed over a single nuclear weapon, likely continues to develop more, and last month showed off a brand new ballistic missile potentially capable of carrying a nuclear warhead toward US targets.
And with no new deal with Tehran to replace the Obama-era JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), what comes next with Iran is an open question, too, as it continues to enrich uranium beyond agreed limits and the US heaps on ever more sanctions. The bad blood between the two worsened even more after Iran fired missiles at US bases in Iraq, injuring more than 100 troops, in retaliation for the US killing of Iran’s powerful military commander Qassim Soleimani.
However, Trump has earned some tempered respect among Gulf allies who have been happy with his tough policies on Iran, albeit concerned he doesn’t spark a war on their doorstep. He has also won praise in Israel for recognizing Jerusalem as the capital and facilitating the normalization of relations with Sudan and the UAE — though those deals have been condemned by Palestinians and others.
No appetite for foreign commitments?
Trump’s rival, the Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has offered a more traditional vision of the US role in all this. He says he would work by consensus with allies, offer Iran an off-ramp from increasing tensions and stay tough on China.
If the US does not take a leading responsibility to confront these issues, “one of two things will happen: either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue,” Biden wrote in Foreign Policy magazine earlier this year.
But will Americans buy that argument? Many have lost their appetite for the foreign commitments and entanglements that leading the free world requires.
A 47-year veteran of US politics, much of it spent working foreign policy, Biden is considered abroad to have a steadier pair of hands than Trump. But he also has a lot of catching up to do — in the years since he was in high office, the world has changed: issues like misinformation and cybersecurity threats, an insidious pandemic, and a reckoning on racial justice will be stacking his in-tray should he get to the Oval Office.
With this much at stake, whether people tune in to confirm Trump’s White House season is truly over or root for a four-year encore, it will likely be the most-watched drum roll for a presidential season finale.
Reality TV, of the type that made the incumbent a household name, doesn’t get any more real than this. Could this really be where Trump gets written out of the script?
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