America divided: Roberto Rabel discusses what the 2020 elections mean for foreign relations.

Every four years, the world watches intently as the democratic spectacle that is an American presidential election plays out. It is not surprising. Despite a relative decline in its global standing, the United States remains the single most powerful and influential nation on Earth. The selection of its national leader matters well beyond its shores.

The 2020 election was especially riveting. Democratic candidate Joe Biden had dubbed it a battle for the soul of the nation. After one of the most controversial presidencies in history, his contest with President Donald Trump offered voters very different visions of the United States and its place in the world.

Despite most pollsters forecasting a decisive victory for Biden and his party, the outcome was nail-bitingly close on the night. Reversing a similar feat by Trump in 2016, Biden then eked out narrow victories in enough so-called battleground states to amass what became a comfortable victory in the Electoral College. His margin of over five million votes in the popular vote was even more commanding (around 51 per cent to 47 per cent). The Democrats retained the House of Representatives, but they lost seats there and failed to wrest the Senate from the Republicans, with its control resting on two run-off elections in Georgia scheduled for January 2021.

Biden moved quickly to promote reconciliation after four years of bitter partisan division. In contrast, Trump jettisoned another norm of presidential conduct and refused to concede defeat (pending formal confirmation of final counts). On election night, he presented the unedifying sight of a president tweeting that vote-counting should cease where he was ahead but continue where he was not--challenging the fundamental democratic right of all citizens to choose their leaders freely and fairly. With the backing of most senior Republicans, he went on to mount an array of flimsy legal challenges that alleged widespread electoral fraud but selectively targeted a handful of districts where the vote had not gone his way.

Messy ending

This messy ending to such a consequential election reinforced what the campaign and its outcome had made patently clear: the United States is a deeply divided country.

This obvious reality has not gone unnoticed in the outpouring of prognostication that followed the election. Yet most commentary has focused on the implications of on-going partisan polarisation for domestic politics, while the analysis of likely Biden foreign policy directions has touched lightly on how the divisive outcome of a divisive election will affect American relations with the rest of the world.

The conventional wisdom about Biden's foreign policy can be quickly summarised. Most agree his victory will bring a welcome restoration of coherence and certainty to Washington's dealings with others. Above all, there are expectations of a renewed commitment to the principles of a rules-based liberal international order, for which the United States has traditionally been the most important cheerleader. A Biden administration promises to focus on climate change as a priority, aspiring to make the United States carbonneutral by 2050 and to rescind Trump's withdrawal from the Paris climate accord. Trump's stances will also likely be reversed or revised on a range of issues from relations with allies to those with adversaries, such as possible reinstatement of the Iran nuclear deal.

However, in the case of China, friction will continue. One of the few points of bipartisan and popular consensus is that Beijing represents a strategic peer competitor whose increasingly authoritarian character threatens the current global order. But a Biden administration may balance competition with China with elements of co-operation in areas like climate change.

More generally, there are hopes for a shift from Trump's 'America First' preference for transactional bilateralism to greater respect for multilateral institutions, signalled by Biden's pledge to re-join the World Health Organisation (WHO). Although clumsy weaponising of tariffs to launch trade wars is not on the incoming president's agenda, those hoping for renewed...

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