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Trump’s Season Finale

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Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

With just days left until the Electoral College meets to determine the outcome of the 2020 presidential election officially, it’s becoming increasingly likely that we’re in the final episode of the Trump presidency.

While tumultuous at times, Donald Trump’s reign has had all the makings of a blockbuster television series. It’s been infused with lies, scandals, assassinations, and plenty of palace intrigue to keep both national and international audiences glued to their seats. The last few weeks have been no different. Trump surged to an early lead in the late hours of November 4. Still, like the 1972 Olympic men’s basketball final, Joe Biden won it all with buzzer-beater finishes in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.

Unsurprisingly, those victories were not without controversy. Within days, the Trump administration and its surrogates took to Twitter, refusing to concede while making outlandish claims of widespread voter fraud and corruption. However, after multiple defeats in court for lack of evidence, it’s becoming increasingly clear that those claims have been without merit and that Joe Biden’s promotion from former vice president to sitting president is all but inevitable.

The truth is Donald Trump lost for a variety of reasons, but none of them included voter fraud. He lost because of his own shortcomings and inability to manage his administration strategically. The former television star turned politician, who was praised for his prowess in public relations, fought a war of attrition with the mainstream media and lost. Negative storylines peeled off his support the way water erodes rock, leaving a Republican coalition too undersized to repeat the anomaly that took place in 2016.

What’s striking is that the past four years before COVID-19 were actually reasonably good for the American people. Under the Trump administration, the United States achieved record unemployment and considerable economic growth, so much so that 61 per cent of Americans say they are better off now than they were three years ago. However, that did not translate into support for the president because of his failure to effectively communicate with the public. Instead of controlling the news cycle, President Trump fought battle after battle with the media over nanoscopic issues that often distracted the public from his successes.

In hindsight, those skirmishes brought self-inflicted wounds, but they didn’t bring down the orange swan. It was COVID-19 that acted as the kill shot.

In fact, according to NBC exit polls, the coronavirus pandemic was the most important factor for 17 per cent of American voters. Of those voters, 81 per cent of them favored Joe Biden. That, of course, is not an accident. Since the epidemic began, Donald Trump has failed to communicate consistently and has made it easy for his opponents to chastise his response to the virus. Casually dismissing the pandemic, publicly quarreling with the nation’s top medical expert, and eventually testing positive with the virus, amongst other such instances, were weaponized by Democrats to paint Trump’s approach as ineffective and unserious. And that’s precisely the impression millions of voters had when casting their ballots.

So voter fraud is not why Trump lost this election, but that doesn’t mean that the American electoral system is not without flaws. Indeed, American democracy is in a crisis right now, marred with widespread dissatisfaction, a concerning lack of political pluralism, and a decentralized set of election rules that set the tone for chaos. What the United States needs to do before 2024 is reform its electoral system. Here are ideas on how that could be done.

Break the Duopoly

According to the Pew Research Center, almost 60 per cent of Americans are dissatisfied with the way their democracy is working. Obviously, there are multiple reasons for that, but the Republican and Democratic Parties’ duopoly over the American political system is ostensibly the most fundamental cause of this discontent.

As Harvard’s illustrious Michael Porter has pointed out, the two parties might seem like bitter rivals, they actually have colluded in creating rules that guarantee their dominance and prevent competition. For example, the Federal Election Commission requires a presidential candidate to have a 15 per cent polling threshold to participate in a nationally televised debate. This was a rule obviously set to benefit the establishment parties. What it means is that although candidates like Gary Johnson (Libertarian) who polled at 10 per cent and represent millions of voters are never given an opportunity to make their case in front of the broader American public.

There are numerous examples of laws and rules like this that make it hard, if not impossible, for third-party candidates and alternative voices to compete. Consequently, we’re left with an alarming lack of thought diversity, millions of people discouraged from participating in politics, and a bipolarized electorate that is being increasingly pushed to extremes. Thus, there needs to be a systematic review and reform of the laws and rules surrounding elections. The barriers to entry for third-parties have to be lowered, allowing for more open competition and equal opportunities.

Introduce Ranked Choice Voting and Get Rid of the Electoral College

Another aspect of the two-party system and this prevailing dissatisfaction is the winner-take-all nature of American elections. Congressional seats are determined on an all or nothing basis, which means the candidate who wins a majority or plurality wins everything. The same goes for determining the presidency, where 48 states give all the electoral votes to the candidate who wins the state popular vote.

This inevitably forces voters to coalesce around the two major political parties. For example, a person might favor the Green Party, but knowing that the Green Party is in the minority and has no chance of winning, that person will either abstain or vote for the candidate they view as the “lesser of two evils.” This once again stifles political competition and disincentivizes participation.

The way to solve this is through ranked-choice voting at both the congressional and presidential levels. Ranked-choice voting means that voters vote for more than one candidate and rank their choices by their first, second, and third preference. If a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an “instant runoff.” The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the vote.

This system of voting encourages more participation, political diversity, and promotes majority support. However, to make it possible, Congress would have to abolish the electoral college, which would bring even more benefits. It would force candidates to campaign across the whole country instead of focusing solely on a few swing states. In fact, Republican voters in deep blue states and vice versa would have more reason to participate because their vote is no longer meaningless. More meaningful participation translates into more satisfaction.

Standardize Federal Elections

The next step is to standardize the federal electoral process. Standardizing the election will bring more fairness and clarity—and less controversy and chaos.

A major source of the chaos that has followed this year’s race is the fact that each state has its own rules concerning elections. How you can vote and when you can vote depends on the state you’re in. This means there are unequal opportunities to vote, as some states have more days and fewer barriers to voting than others. It also leads to misguided accusations of voter fraud based on citizens misunderstanding the election process in states different from their own.

There is no reason someone in Pennsylvania should have more or fewer opportunities to vote than someone in Georgia. And likewise, there is no reason an election that determines the leader for the entire country should have different rules based on different locations. This is an easy and obvious fix.

That said, we should be realistic in the actual potential for reform. The truth is that American politicians love telling other countries how to improve their democracies, but rarely do anything to improve democracy within the borders of the United States. Republicans and Democrats have very little incentive to break up their duopoly, provide voters with choices, and cede authority to a standardized system that might threaten perceived advantages.

For that reason, it’s unlikely that lawmakers will make any fundamental changes. However, if you’re someone who wants to see American democracy succeed, then making such reforms should be a priority not taken lightly.

From our partner RIAC

Americas

Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.

Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.

Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.

In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.

Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?

In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.

This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.

President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.

What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.

If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.

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Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.

A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.

I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.

The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.

But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.

Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.

Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.

Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.

For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.

This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.

Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.

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Will Geneva Be Any Different Than Helsinki?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Any meeting between the leaders of Russia and the U.S. is inevitably an important international event. At some point in history, such summits decided the fate of the entire world, and the world held its collective breath as it followed Kremlin-White House talks on strategic arms or the two sides seeking agreements on urgent regional problems or any political signals coming from the superpower capitals prior to another round of negotiations.

The bipolar era has long been gone, and the Russia-U.S. relations are no longer the principal axis of international politics, although the suspense over bilateral summits remains. As before, the two countries are engaged in “top-down” interaction. Summits give the initial impetus to Moscow and Washington’s cumbersome bureaucratic machines, then diplomats, military personnel and officials start their assiduous work on specific issues, collaboration between the two countries’ private sectors and civil society perks up, the media gradually soften their rhetoric, bilateral projects in culture, education and science are gradually resumed.

Still, there are annoying exceptions to this general rule. In particular, the latest full-fledged Russia–U.S. summit in Helsinki in July 2018 failed to trigger improvements in bilateral relations. On the contrary, Donald Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Finland’s capital aroused massive resentment among the anti-Russian Washington establishment. Ultimately, on returning home, the U.S. President had to offer awkward apologies to his supporters and opponents alike, and relations between the two countries continued to rapidly deteriorate after the summit.

Surely, nobody is willing to see another Helsinki scenario in June 2021, this time in Geneva. Yet, do we have good reason to hope for a different outcome this time? To answer this question, let us compare Donald Trump and Joseph Biden’s approaches to Russia-U.S. summits and to bilateral relations at large.

First of all, in Helsinki, Trump very much wanted the Russian leader to like him. The Republican President avoided publicly criticizing his Russian counterpart and was quite generous with his compliments to him, which inevitably caused not only annoyance but pure outrage in Washington and in Trump’s own Administration. Joe Biden has known Vladimir Putin for many years; he does not set himself the task of getting the Russian leader to like him. As far as one can tell, the two politicians do not have any special liking for each other, with this more than reserved attitude unlikely to change following their meeting in Geneva.

Additionally, in Helsinki, Trump wanted, as was his wont, to score an impressive foreign policy victory of his own. He believed he was quite capable of doing better than Barack Obama with his “reset” and of somehow “hitting it off” with Putin, thereby transforming Russia if not into a U.S. ally, then at least into its strategic partner. Apparently, Biden has no such plans. The new American President clearly sees that Moscow-Washington relations will remain those of rivalry in the near future and will involve direct confrontation in some instances. The Kremlin and the White House have widely diverging ideas about today’s world: about what is legitimate and what is illegitimate, what is fair and what is unfair, where the world is heading and what the impending world order should be like. So, we are not talking about a transition from strategic confrontation to strategic partnership, we are talking about a possible reduction in the risks and costs of this necessarily costly and lengthy confrontation.

Finally, Trump simply had much more time to prepare for the Helsinki summit than Biden has had to prepare for Geneva. Trump travelled to Finland eighteen months after coming to power. Biden is planning to meet with Putin in less than five months since his inauguration. Preparations for the Geneva summit have to be made in haste, so the expectations concerning the impending summit’s outcome are less.

These differences between Biden and Trump suggest that there is no reason to expect a particularly successful summit. Even so, we should not forget the entire spectrum of other special features of the Biden Administration’s current style of foreign policy. They allow us to be cautiously optimistic about the June summit.

First, Donald Trump never put too much store by arms control, since he arrogantly believed the U.S. capable of winning any race with either Moscow or Beijing. So, his presidential tenure saw nearly total destruction of this crucial dimension of the bilateral relations, with all its attendant negative consequences for other aspects of Russia-U.S. interaction and for global strategic stability.

In contrast, Biden remains a staunch supporter of arms control, as he has already confirmed by his decision to prolong the bilateral New START. There are grounds for hoping that Geneva will see the two leaders to at least start discussing a new agenda in this area, including militarization of outer space, cyberspace, hypersonic weapons, prompt global strike potential, lethal autonomous weapons etc. The dialogue on arms control beyond the New START does not promise any quick solutions, as it will be difficult for both parties. Yet, the sooner it starts, the better it is going to be for both countries and for the international community as a whole.

Second, Trump never liked multilateral formats, believing them to be unproductive. Apparently, he sincerely believed that he could single-handedly resolve any burning international problems, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to North Korea’s nuclear missile programme.

Biden does not seem to harbor such illusions. He has repeatedly emphasized the importance of multilateralism, and he clearly understands that collaboration with Russia is necessary on many regional conflicts and crises. Consequently, Geneva talks may see the two leaders engage in a dialogue on Afghanistan, on the Iranian nuclear deal, on North Korea, or even on Syria. It is not at all obvious that Biden will succeed in reaching agreement with Putin immediately on all or any of these issues, but the very possibility of them discussed at the summit should be welcomed.

Third, Trump was not particularly fond of career diplomats and, apparently, attached little value to the diplomatic dimension of foreign policy. The Russia-U.S. “embassy war” had started before Trump—but not only did Trump fail to stop it, he boosted it to an unprecedented scale and urgency.

Sadly, the “embassy war” continues after Trump, too. Yet President Biden, with his tremendous foreign policy experience, understands diplomatic work better and appreciates it. Practical results of the Geneva summit could include a restoration of the diplomatic missions in Washington and Moscow to their full-fledged status and a rebuilding of the networks of consular offices, which have been completely destroyed in recent years. Amid the problems of big politics, consular services may not seem crucial but, for most ordinary Russians and Americans, regaining the opportunity for recourse to rapid and efficient consular services would outweigh many other potential achievements of the Geneva summit.

From our partner RIAC

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