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2020 US presidential election: What can the world expect?

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The presidential campaign in the United States is unfolding amid a weakening of America’s position in the world and this is what many commentators both in and outside the US now focus on. How is this situation seen by the two main contenders for the White House? What do their election pledges promise the world?

Washington’s current foreign policy is highly controversial. On the one hand, many of Donald Trump’s actions look like a deliberate attempt to destroy international institutions that the United States itself created in the wake of World War II. This “policy” is a subject of scathing criticism by his political rivals. On the other hand, it is hard to say whether the current occupant of the White House is really striving for a new chaos, a war of all against all, as one might think after reading his National Security Strategy, published in December 2017, or this is just an attempt by the businessman-turned-president to extract concessions from America’s rivals.

If President Trump really hoped to ease the burden of America’s foreign policy obligations by reformatting existing global institutions and pushing its allies towards greater “independence,” then his plans are obviously not working out. Neither allies nor pragmatists, who viewed the United States as a “world policeman” least harmful to their interests, have been made to believe that Trump’s “America first” slogan does not necessarily mean “America only.” As a result, most of the countries, including in the West, are now looking for a way to build a viable international system that would be able to function without relying on America’s dominant power.

That being said, the better part of the US establishment, even within the Republican Party, would very much like to maintain America’s global leadership. A new-look pyramidal hegemony, with the United States at the top is something that not only Trump and his associates, but many of his nominal political foes would be all too happy to embrace, including in the West as such.

And how this emerging international situation is viewed by the contenders for America’s top job? It is a rare case when foreign countries are well aware of both candidates’ theoretical, and not only theoretical, views on foreign policy, especially Joe Biden’s. The Delaware Senator is certainly no stranger to international politics that he has been involved in since the 1970s, until he came to the head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee in 2007. Later, for eight years Vice President Biden played a big role in the Obama Administration’s foreign policy, maybe even bigger than President Obama himself. And what kind of policy statements do we hear coming from both candidates?

In describing the foreign policy of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly disagrees with the Western leaders, who “question” America’s commitment to transatlantic relations and its global leadership. During the Munich Security Conference in February, Pompeo outlined President Trump’s policy as a combination of toughness and strength, which, as history shows, are the only factors of success in international affairs. In a veiled form, he actually conveyed to the Europeans Trump’s idea of a foreign policy to pursue.

“Name me a moment in history, when the weak and the meek have prevailed,” America’s top diplomat inquired half-rhetorically.

Joe Biden, for his part, hopes to restore America’s “respect in the world.” To this end, Biden, “above all,” intends to “repair the damage” inflicted on US foreign policy by the Trump administration, and “rebuild” traditional alliances and international institutions. Biden intends to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, bring the US back into the World Health Organization and resume America’s participation in the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. Finally, Biden intends to preserve arms control agreements, and renew the New START treaty.

An emphasis on the climate change agenda, described by Biden as a major threat to national security, is the main novelty of US foreign policy under Biden. This means that US sanctions could target those who “undermine” measures aimed at overcoming the negative consequences of climate change. Borrowing from his former opponents in the “Left” Democratic camp, Biden pledges to make America’s trade policy instrumental in obtaining concessions from other countries on environmental and labor standards, as well as human rights issues.

Biden is particularly keen on dialing up pressure on China, which is accused of “outsourcing carbon emissions,” including through projects being implemented by Beijing as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Biden also faults Russia for its “activity” in the Arctic, and intends to seek, within the framework of the Arctic Council, the introduction of a “global moratorium” on mining on the Arctic shelf under the pretext of protecting the region’s fragile ecosystems.

Biden’s environmental agenda is sure to resonate with Europe, as will his promise of a return to “traditional” Atlantic politics. However, Biden’s election will most likely change the “shape,” rather than the essence of Washington’s foreign policy. “It will become softer on the outside, and the treatment of allies will be more polite,” but the “content” may well remain the same. The fact is that statements, especially practical steps by the EU to regain its role as one of the important elements, if not the cornerstones of the international order, or even as a “counterweight” to the United States, fly in the face of the US establishment’s desire to preserve “American leadership.”

President Trump’s policies have had a dual impact on Europe. On the one hand, many Europeans are eager to maintain American leadership, primarily when it comes to defense. Some in the European elites still see America as the main guarantor against some EU countries’ attempts to prevail over the others. Finally, the Europeans still hope to use America as a “counterweight” in their relations with Moscow and Beijing.

On the other hand, reasonable arguments are obviously not enough to “prevent an increase in customs duties and the threat of sanctions by the Trump government. Europe can no longer afford to bury its head in the sand and needs to build alliances capable of decisive countermeasures,” the German news magazine Der Spiegel wrote.  Had it not been for Trump, the EU could have “overslept” the moment from where its dependence on the United States would not only minimize the Europeans’ “freedom of maneuver,” but would completely deprive them of their “identity” in international affairs. Instead, after nearly four years of “chaos” in the White House, and due to the coronavirus epidemic when the European Union finally parted with illusions about their ability to rely on overseas “friends,” Europe is “suddenly” showing signs of awakening from its geopolitical slumber.

Whatever the outcome of the November elections, America’s standoff with China, will remain a systemic modern-day conflict. Even though Biden has so far paid little attention to China in his speeches on the stump, the differences between him and Trump look purely tactical now that there is a strong bipartisan consensus in the US on the need to contain the People’s Republic. Trump will ramp up tensions in a more “straightforward” way, as he believes that such a policy is already paying off. Biden, who during his stint with the Obama administration pursued a policy of “drawing” Beijing into global institutions under US auspices, will act in a more sophisticated way, acting “in the name of values” and “interests of the world community.”

According to several British media outlets, the Chinese elite are divided. The main question is whether the US decline is irreversible and how it can be beneficial to China. Representatives of China’s “power” structures believe that Trump’s re-election will “further” weaken America and lead to a further degradation of its relations with allies in Asia and elsewhere in the world. As for the country’s financial and economic circles, they fear a premature collapse of the global trading system, which brings significant benefits to China, and see Biden as a better option, since under a Democratic administration the economic realignment of the two powers will be more orderly. Much as the Chinese establishment realizes that the Biden team will be no less anti-Chinese than the Trump administration, it still believes that on his watch Washington’s policy will be “more predictable” and the world’s two economic powerhouses will have “more reasons for dialogue and interaction.”

In Moscow, the majority of political observers do not expect any improvement in US-Russian relations, no matter who wins in November.  Trump’s victory will not change the anti-Russian sentiment in Congress. There are new accusations already being made of “Russian interference” in the upcoming presidential elections “in favor” of the incumbent president.  Director of the Moscow Carnegie Center Dmitry Trenin believes that even if Biden wins, “Moscow will still be viewed by Washington as the ‘lesser Satan,’ and there will hardly be any improvement in bilateral relations under the Democrats, with perhaps more attention being paid to arms control, though not necessarily.”

Overall, each of the two presidential candidates looks fairly predictable with neither one ready to publicly admit that the world will no longer adjust to America, and that it is now time for the United States to adapt to a new, more decentralized and chaotic world. Both are campaigning to preserve America’s global dominion.

Trump has unequivocally returned America to the paradigm of Realpolitik, prioritizing “interests,” the way he and his supporters understand them, over “values,” which has alienated many, especially among Washington’s nominal allies. However, the world has been familiar with such rules of the game for more than a century now. If Trump is re-elected, the reaction of the establishment and those in American society who oppose him will be hard to predict.

Biden, in turn, is holding out for a “new model” of managing globalization – one that would bring the personal and social-group competitiveness of most Americans to a new level. To make this happen, almost the entire American society will have to be reformatted and pressure increased on countries that reject the “progressive agenda” American style. Bringing America’s foreign policy back to normal would be a major priority for the Democratic president, whose team will be more competent too.

With the United States losing its dominant position in the world, other countries and interstate associations will either have to create their own order, integrate with other states and fight for an adequate position within a new collective order, or try to fence themselves off against any changes. However, the efforts to build a new world order will be hampered by the increasing inefficiency and rigidity of many existing political institutions. The quest for new forms of coexistence, especially cooperation, is fraught with increased conflict and instability.

From our partner International Affairs

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The hegemony of knowledge and the new world order: U.S. and the rest of the world

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In today’s world, knowledge and technological advantages determine – to a large extent – differences in the management of international policy. The increase in a country’s intellectual power directly defines an increase in its economic power, thus changing its position in the international competition for dominance.

The power policy, first in the agricultural age and later in the industrial age, was characterised by military and then economic hegemony, while the power policy in the information age gradually reveals the characteristics of knowledge hegemony at both the scientific and intelligence levels.

The hegemony of knowledge in contemporary international relations manifests itself specifically as unequal exchange in international trade, exploitation of high-value information and various conditions related to technological production. Hence, we see the transfer of polluting industries from privileged to poor countries: energy-consuming and high-intensity activities.

Western culture and values are disseminated vigorously, through the so-called soft power in information and mass media, and take on obsessive and oppressively hypnopedic forms.

Developed countries have patents in the use of outer space, as well as in the development of deep sea resources and in the production of environmental resources that pollute, while developing countries can only sigh as they look at other’s oceans and satellites, which fly around, do reconnaissance activities and monitor them.

The resources of the great and deep seas – which should be shared by mankind as they belong to everybody like the air, the moon and the sun – are instead exploited by the developed countries. On the contrary, they freely and ‘democratically’ share with the wretched ones only the evil consequences of environmental pollution.

With specific reference to sanctions and armed interference in international relations, the technique of violent and conscious bullying is adopted: whoever is militarily stronger imposes the validity of their interests, also at legal level.

The root cause for generating knowledge hegemony lies in the polarisation of the intellectual status of the nation-State. Western developed countries have already crossed the threshold of an information society, while developing countries are still struggling to climb towards industrial civilisation from the most primitive and closed state of existence. Although developing countries hold most of the world’s natural and human resources (just think of Africa), they are far behind in science and technology. Just look at the continental histogram of the 207 Nobel Prizes in Physics from 1901 to 2017 (winners are counted by country of birth except for the Algerian Nobel Prize winner Claude Cohen-Tannoudji [1997], who was born when Algeria was a French territory):

Source: Nadua Antonelli <<Africana>> XXIII (2017) page 12

If they have no means to study, even the greatest and most brilliant brains cannot make discoveries or file patents, looking only at the sky and the earth.

About 80 per cent of science and technology staff and their achievements are concentrated in developed countries. The knowledge advantage gives developed countries the right to set the rules of the game and of communication for all global knowledge production and dissemination. In particular, the developed countries’ knowledge advantages in the military and high-tech media enable them to expand their influence on the civil and military fronts and achieve their strategic objectives.

Developing countries wander between traditional society, modern industrial civilisation and post-industrial civilisation, and are often challenged and oppressed by the third party’s hegemony of knowledge.

The new economy created by the information revolution is still a ‘rich-country phenomenon’, the core of what is called ‘advantage creation’, under the cover of ‘competitive advantage’, or rather: competitive towards those who cannot compete.

The country leading the information revolution is the United States, which is the biggest beneficiary of these achievements. The digital divide highlights the status of the US information superpower. In the global information sector, in 2000 the central processing unit production in the United States accounted for 92%, and software production for 86%.

IT (Information & Technology) investment in the United States was 41.5% of global investment, Microsoft’s Windows system accounted for 95% of global platform applications, while the US Internet users accounted for more than half of global Internet users, and 58% of all e-mail goes through US servers.

E-commerce is worth 75% of the global total and US commercial websites account for 90% of the planet.

Currently, there are almost three thousand large-scale databases in the world, 70% of which are in the United States. There are 13 top-level domain name servers in the world and 10 of them are located in the United States.

The above figures far exceed the share of US GDP, which is 28% of the world total. The United States is far ahead of all countries in the world, including the other developed countries. The leading position in information technology allows the United States to control the basics in the field of information with its strong economic and talent advantages, as well as to master the actual rights, and to set standards and formulate rules and regulations.

The status as cradle of the information revolution has brought enormous wealth and development benefits to the United States. Since the 1990s, the development of information technology and the rise of the related industry have become an accelerator of further economic advancement in the United States.

In the growth of US GDP – from 1994 (the beginning of the Internet) to 2000 – the share of the information industry in the value of the country’s total output has caused the economy to rise from 6.3% to 8.3%, and the contribution provided by the information industry development to the actual US economic growth is estimated at 30%.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States – with its strong national-global power and the relative hegemony of knowledge/information – was already ready to build a new world order.

Knowledge is also the soul of military hegemony. Since the 1990s the United States (after the USSR’s demise) has taken advantage of its absolute leadership in information technology to vigorously promote a new military revolution and equip its armed forces with a large number of modern sophisticated weapons, especially cyber weapons: an overwhelming advantage in the conventional field, clearly overtaking the Third World, as well as its Western allies.

The US superiority in equipment ranges from one to two generations (i.e. from 15 to 30 years) over developing countries and from 0.5 to one generation over allies. All this has established the hegemonic status of the United States as the world’s number one military power.

Gulf Wars II (1991) and III (2003) (the first was the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88), the Kosovo War (1999), the Afghanistan War (2001- still ongoing), and the Iraq War (2003-2011) were four localised wars that the United States fought to establish a new world order after the Cold War. During those events, the US hegemony was strengthened on an unprecedented scale and its attempt to establish a new order made substantial progress.

Moreover, backed by strong military advantages (scattering the planet with its own bases and outposts), as well as economic and technological advantages, those events ensured that the United States had and still has a leading position in the world, thus making the White House a planner and defender of the new world order. (1. continued)

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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