The point of no return: the 2020 election and the crisis of American foreign policy

Political leadership World politics Diplomacy International relations United States of America

In his first term, President Donald Trump tried to overturn key principles of American foreign policy since the Second World War — alliances, free trade, and support for democracy and human rights. His effort was blunted by members of his own administration and Congress. But we are now at the point of no return.

If Trump is re-elected, he will be vindicated and emboldened. He will surround himself with loyalists and will act without constraint. The world may be irrevocably altered — alliances may come to an end, the global economy could close, and democracy could go into rapid retreat.

On the other hand, if Biden wins, the US-led international order will be granted a reprieve. The question for Biden is not whether he will be different from Trump. That much is obvious. It is whether he will differ from President Barack Obama.

To answer that question, this paper studies the intra-centrist debate within the Democratic Party’s foreign policy establishment — between restorationists (those who would continue Obama’s approach) and reformers (who would challenge key elements of it) — and how that plays out on China, foreign economic policy, the Middle East, and democracy. The first half of a Biden term is likely to be defined by a struggle between these two world views.

Key points:

  • With the international order weakened by COVID-19, economic recession, and receding American leadership, the 2020 presidential election will be even more consequential than that of 2016.
  • There is no reason to believe that President Trump will follow in the tradition of other Republican presidents and pursue a more multilateral and cooperative strategy in his second term. Emboldened and unconstrained, a second Trump administration could spell the end of the alliance system and the postwar liberal international order.
  • A Biden administration would be a reprieve for the US-led international order, and will act on climate change, COVID-19, immigration, and multilateralism, while Biden will need to adjudicate internal debates on China, the Middle East, globalisation, and foreign economic policy.
Publication Details
License type:
All Rights Reserved
Access Rights Type: