By Steve Hoadley

As the US presidential election approaches in November, attention is shifting to not only who the leading candidates will be but also to what their policies may foreshadow. These policies are customarily divided into domestic policies, including taxation, spending, social welfare, immigration, crime, and the environment on the one hand, and foreign policies, including diplomacy, trade, and defence on the other. This Big Q report focusses on the latter.

The foreign policies of the Trump Administration are now evident in widely reported presidential utterances and tweets. They are evident also in documents such as the America First National Security Strategy (2017). Collectively these purport to radically downgrade US relations with traditional allies, particularly those in the NATO alliance, and to ramp up confrontation with adversaries such as Iran and China. While the actual behaviour of the US diplomats, soldiers and traders is more moderate than the unexpurgated assertions and fervent wishes of the President, it is undeniable that the US ship of state is slowly, inexorably moving from the high seas of internationalism back towards the home waters of neo-isolationism. At least this is the perception of partners of America around the world, many of which are reducing their trust in, and dependence on, their erstwhile ‘great and powerful friend’ and benign global hegemon.

Thus a Trump win in November will legitimise and accelerate the current America First trend and attenuate the hegemonic stability that the US has provided to the international system in the decades since World War II, during which major wars have been averted, and trade, tourism, innovation, and scientific and cultural diffusion have flourished as never before in history.

Several examples will suffice. US aid to poor countries, and support of international institutions, including the World Health Organisation, the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations, will continue to be cut back. Military support to beleaguered governments in Afghanistan, Iraq and South Korea will weaken as Trump ‘brings the troops back home.’  Supply chains and trade ties will fracture as the US sanctions not only Iran but also China, and harasses other economies to buy American products, guard US intellectual property, or comply with other US interests. In bizarre contrast, Trump shows tolerance for dictators in Russia, North Korea, and the Philippines. In short, the trend towards globalisation in all its myriad manifestations will slow and possibly go into reverse as nationalism, protectionism, and xenophobia rise in governments and electorates.

Can a Democratic Party president arrest these developments? The answer depends on which Democratic Party president. This turns the spotlight on the current state primaries that are allocating delegates who will choose the Democratic Party candidate in Milwaukee in July. At time of writing, the bulk, although not all, of the US states have conducted primaries. Customarily, by this time a clear front-runner has emerged, as did Bill Clinton in 1990. True, in 2008 Hilary Clinton was close on Barak Obama’s heels and in 2016 Bernie Sanders was still challenging Hilary Clinton at this point in the cycle. But by the convening of the national convention Obama, and Clinton, commanded a majority of delegates and each won on the first ballot.

The latter pattern appears to be emerging again but the outcome may be different. Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Bloomberg have dropped out and thrown their support to Joe Biden, making him the clear front runner. But Bernie Sanders, leading the progressive wing of the Party, continues to poll strongly as a close runner up. Elizabeth Warren’s supporters are expected to come in behind Sanders now that she has dropped out of the race.

So a two-horse race is emerging: Biden versus Sanders. If they were both as mainstream and policy-convergent as were Obama and Clinton, a win by either would strengthen Democratic Party chances against Trump. But the ideological and style differences between Biden and Sanders are not a gap but a canyon. While Biden hews to the centre of the Party, and the US electorate, Sanders represents a more radical persuasion, sometimes described as ‘democratic socialism’, which is dismissive of ‘the establishment’ and of conventional incrementalism in economic, social, and foreign policies. As such he excites younger, progressive voters who in turn have given him winning margins in Vermont, Utah, Colorado and California.

According to Real Clear Politics, as of 5 March he has attracted 501 delegates, close to Biden’s 566. If he continues to attract support in subsequent state primaries, he might be in a position to deny Biden a clear majority in the national convention, and the decision of which one to pick would be thrown to the elected delegates. If they cannot produce a first-ballot majority for Biden, Democratic Party officials (the ‘super-delegates’) will be given the vote. They are likely to swing behind Biden. While a clear winner is desirable, the consequence of a Biden nomination might be disillusionment in the Sanders camp which will translate into Democratic voter apathy on election day, giving Trump the presidency by default.

On the Big Question of foreign policy there are two answers, a Biden answer and a Bernie answer. From Biden we can expect a reversal of many of Trump’s foreign policies. Biden will strengthen diplomatic ties, boost aid and reaffirm alliances and commitments to a mutually beneficial rules-based international order. This will move America back towards the internationalist policies of Obama’s second term.

Sanders, while respecting international rules, order, and alliances, will approach these values differently. He is suspicious of the neo-liberal free-trade ideology. He would renegotiate major trade agreements to make them ‘fairer’ to the US, an outcome that, ironically, resembles Trump’s aims although not by Trump’s abrasive methods. Sanders would also reduce the size and global footprint of the US military, and curb the influence of the ‘military-industrial complex’ so as to free up federal funds for his social, medical and educational reform priorities. He is sympathetic to ‘socialist’ regimes such as those in Cuba and Venezuela that are anathema to Trump…and to mainstream Democrats. However, he is said to be amenable to the use of the military for humanitarian interventions, to stop mass atrocities.

Finally, would a new president return America to its pre-Trump policies and status? There is little doubt that partners of the United States would prefer almost any president to Trump. Governments prize stability, predictability, and trust, and if either Biden or Sanders can provide these values, the world will work willingly with the new administration even if disagreeing with some of its policies. But some analysts are predicting that America’s inward-looking policies are here to stay, that the prior internationalism was a product of the Cold War, and that global circumstances have changed since then. The challenge of China, the hybrid warfare of Russia, intensifying nationalism and xenophobia, spread of terrorism and organised crime, uncontrolled migrations, and emergence of pandemics have changed the parameters, bringing self-help and protectionism to the top of governments’ agendas, not least that of the United States. A new president will have to deal with these issues and also with a disgruntled population and a volatile electorate. Trump might not yet be ‘the new normal’ but not all of Trump’s political vindictiveness and selfish foreign policies will disappear when Trump leaves office.


Steve Hoadley is an Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in foreign policy and trade. 

See Also:

Q+A: What does a Trumpian foreign policy look like?

Q+A: The pollution of war: What is the environmental impact of the US military?

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