Remarks first given on June 9, 2020 at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs Webinar “US Research Day 2020: The US presidential elections – prospects and implications.”
By Michael Haltzel
It’s a pleasure to be back at FIIA, if only remotely. At the outset let me emphasize that all opinions I will give are purely personal ones and do not necessarily represent the views of any institution, organization, political campaign, or other individual.
Covid-19 has created huge uncertainties about fundamentals: national and state budgets, public opinion, and the functioning of essential services. Understanding these uncertainties, permit me nonetheless to begin by positing what might happen with domestic policy, if Donald Trump is reelected or if Joe Biden wins the presidency.
A fundamental issue at the outset: the dismantling of American democracy is a development until recently considered beyond the realm of possibility. Alas, by successfully flouting both laws and time-honored norms of democratic behavior President Trump has shown in fewer than three-and-a-half years that it is anything but far-fetched.
Trump has no conception of the separation of powers enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. According to him, the Congress has no review power over the Executive Branch. He has illegally reallocated money appropriated by Congress for specific projects.
Trump considers the U.S. Attorney General to be his own personal lawyer. In fact, he continually demonizes the Department of Justice and the FBI, calling the latter a “den of thieves and lowlifes.” He has fired inspectors-general in several executive branch departments when their investigations seem to threaten his political appointees.
Trump persists in defaming the U.S. election system as “rigged” without providing a scintilla of evidence to substantiate his assertion that 3-5 million illegal immigrants voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Similarly, he says that mail-in voting would lead to massive electoral fraud this November, an assertion which flies in the face of all objective evidence.
He has ridiculed former leaders of the U.S. intelligence services, all 17 of whom made a formal assessment “with high confidence” that Russia meddled in the 2016 elections. Trump publicly poo-pooed this assessment, despite having received a top secret intelligence briefing on January 6, 2017 containing definitive proof that Vladimir Putin had personally ordered the cyber-attacks.
The free interchange of ideas in a democracy is totally foreign to Trump. He repeatedly disparages negative criticism, especially related to the Russia probe and his impeachment, as “witch hunts.”
Trump repeatedly calls the media the “enemy of the people,” a chilling label straight from the old Soviet lexicon, and he dismisses anything he doesn’t like as “fake news,” threatening the media in the process.
Now he is warning he may shut down the U.S. Post Office, without which, of course, mail-in ballots this November would be impossible.
Trump continually debases the office of the presidency. The epitome of disgracefulness is his relentless and evil undermining of American religious and racial tolerance, most glaringly displayed in his declaration in August 2017 that there had been “some very fine people” among the racist, torch-bearing, Nazi-saluting, anti-Semitic chanting white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Trump’s behavior since the Covid-19 pandemic has become even more anti-democratic and frenzied. The widely respected former Secretary of Defense and retired Four-Star Marine Corps General Jim Mattis put it this way:
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us. … We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort.”
Just two days ago former Secretary of State Colin Powell said about Trump: “He lies … and he gets away with it because people will not hold him accountable.”
Mattis speaks directly to that issue: “We must reject and hold accountable those in office who would make a mockery of our Constitution.”
To state the obvious, the U.S. is in a grave situation, simultaneously facing three monumental crises: a pandemic that has already caused the deaths of more than 110,000 citizens; an economic collapse than has put over 40 million Americans out of work; and the brutal police killing of George Floyd that has triggered mass protests across the land.
So how has the President of the United States reacted to this triad of misery? He hurled made-up murder charges against a media critic. He accused former President Obama of unspecified crimes. He vowed to crack down on Twitter for daring to post links to fact-checking of his most egregious lies. He utilized the inexcusable violence and looting by a small minority of the protestors to militarize the response in Washington, D.C., while blaming the national unrest on the Democrats.
Charlie Baker, the Republican Governor of Massachusetts, emotionally lamented: “At so many times during these past several weeks, when the country needed compassion and leadership the most, it was simply nowhere to be found. Instead, we got bitterness, combativeness and self-interest.”
Trump’s behavior is not merely evidence of a personality disorder. It is a deliberate attempt to divert the public’s attention away from his fatally flawed response to Covid-19 and the resulting economic collapse. It is truly a “weapon of mass distraction.”
Last week Trump had his newly assembled, federalized forces use rubber bullets and tear-gas to disperse peaceful demonstrators from Lafayette Square across from the White House. Why? In order to clear the way for him to stroll over to St. John’s Episcopal Church where he held a grotesque and sacrilegious photo-op, brandishing a bible (upside down) as a prop. Again, I quote retired General Mattis:
“When I joined the military, some 50 years ago I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo-op for the elected commander-in-chief.”
Joe Biden makes the credible promise to restore dignity and normalcy to the presidency. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and massive economic crisis, Biden would also, Newsweek believes, model much of his presidency on that of Franklin D. Roosevelt — in European terms essentially a Social Democratic program. I’ll be happy to go over some of its elements in the Q&A session.
The big question, of course, is what effect the three simultaneous crises will have on the election in November. Trump’s recent ham-handed behavior has cost him several points in approval, but a backlash against the more radical protestors could redound to the president’s benefit. Overall, Trump has an immovable base of support of about 40% of the citizenry. But 52 to 55% of Americans say they would never vote for him. So it looks like a landslide for Biden, right? Wrong!
First of all, the U.S. is saddled with an anachronistic system whereby the President is chosen by an Electoral College, not by popular vote. And the Electoral College, like the U.S. Senate, is weighted disproportionately in favor of small states, most of which are strongly Republican. Do you know how many times since 1988 the Republican candidate for President has received a plurality – not a majority, only a plurality – of votes cast nationally? The answer is: only once, in 2004 when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry. As in 2016, Trump could handily lose the popular vote, yet win the Electoral College.
Second is Trump’s strategy. He has essentially given up on trying to broaden his base. Instead he has adopted a two-pronged plan: turning out his core supporters, and suppressing the vote of the opposition. The first part of the plan is as American as apple pie. The second part is as un-American as any tactic could be. Across the country, but especially in the half-dozen or so “battleground states” whose electoral votes will likely determine the election’s outcome, the Republican Party is throwing up a variety of barriers to voting, which overwhelmingly disadvantage the poor, the non-white, and the young – most of whom are thought to lean Democratic. Some of the measures will not survive court tests, but many of the court decisions will not be made until after the election.
In spite of legal and illegal obstacles, I do think that Biden should be favored to win the election. Trump has been a dismal failure, and Biden offers a strong and healthy alternative. … unless. And now we come to the ultimate nightmare scenarios. If by mid-October Republican internal polling forecasts a solid Biden victory, might Trump utilize a resurgent Covid-19 pandemic or renewed rioting as an excuse to declare martial law and try to postpone the election? Or more likely, might he cry fraud and refuse to accept election results that give Biden a victory?
Paranoid fantasies? I don’t think so. Pundits of various political stripes consider them possible. Don’t forget, in 2016 shortly before the election Trump refused to pledge that he would honor the results. Moreover, Trump never admits a mistake, never takes responsibility for failure. On the very first day of his presidency he insisted, photographic evidence to the contrary, that the crowd at his inauguration was larger than Obama’s crowd had been. So a looming decisive Biden victory simply couldn’t be true . . or couldn’t be allowed to come true. This is not a prediction, rather a possibility to recognize.
Fortunately, the U.S. has an incredibly resilient civil society and many patriots in all walks of life who would vigorously resist such a coup attempt. I hope and pray that it never comes to that.
Let me now turn to foreign affairs, where the narrow, self-isolating policy pursued by President Trump is squandering American leadership internationally. Another four years of the same would, I fear, set in train an irreversible process of relative decline, leading to the U.S. being replaced by China as the world’s number one country and to global insecurity not seen since the 1930’s.
On the other hand, Biden would conduct a hard-nosed foreign policy grounded in facts, not emotion or personal interest.
As Colin Powell remarked two days ago, “Just about everywhere you go, you will find [this kind of] disdain for American foreign policy.” Trump is the first modern U.S. president to undermine European integration, to view the European Union as a threat, and to inject conditionality into NATO. The concept of “shared values” is totally foreign to him. Largely because of these policies (or lack thereof) current U.S.-Europe relations are at their lowest level since World War II.
If Trump is reelected, many Europeans fear that things will get even worse: more tariffs, conditions on NATO’s Article 5 collective defense or even withdrawal from the organization, and further U.S. unilateralism, which would benefit, above all, China and also Russia.
I share most of this pessimistic prognosis with one important caveat: Trump simply doesn’t have a game-plan. A man totally without a personal knowledge-base and untethered to any moral principles, Trump feels free to concentrate on the only thing that matters to him: himself …. his image, his own finances, his power.
His “one size fits all” foreign policy tool is tariffs. Unfortunately, more often than not they have wound up hurting U.S. consumers more than the intended victims.
If there is a general theme to Trump’s foreign policy it is American “withdrawal” – withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from the Open Skies Treaty, from the Paris Climate Accord, from the Iran Nuclear Deal, from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), from UNESCO, from the UN Human Rights Council, from the World Health Organization, from fully supporting our Kurdish allies in Syria, and probably from our governmental allies in Afghanistan. In short, an abdication of American leadership. It’s humiliating, and it harms our security.
I view Trump’s great withdrawals more as emotional gestures than as a strategy. His laughably inaccurate self-assessment that he is a “stable genius” leads to trusting his gut instincts over advice from his civilian and military advisors. So it’s theoretically possible that in a second term Trump might renounce tariffs, unreservedly support NATO, and re-engage globally. But I wouldn’t bet on it. I can’t foresee much good happening in U.S. foreign policy if Trump wins.
Speculating about U.S. foreign policy if Biden is elected is more intellectually challenging. Recent articles by experts in Europe and the U.S. have run the gamut from fairly optimistic about improved relations to pessimism that very little would change from today’s brittle relationship. In most respects I take a view closer to the optimists.
Crucial both to foreign and domestic policy in a Biden administration would be whether the Democrats regain the majority in the U.S. Senate (I think the Democrats are likely to retain their majority in the House of Representatives). According to Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution, the Senate gives “advice and consent” and can ratify treaties by a two-thirds vote of those present. This was very important, for example, in ratifying by a 97-2 vote Montenegro’s accession to NATO in 2017, even though Trump – and Vladimir Putin — were strongly opposed. Trump signed the bill only after being warned that his veto would suffer a humiliating override.
O.K., let’s do a brief rundown of issues, beginning with what is arguably the most important and the one where there would probably be the most substantive (but not stylistic) continuity: China. A broad, bipartisan consensus in the U.S. has developed that China is our most serious strategic competitor, even foe. This consensus predates the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, which has strengthened it.
I have been going to the People’s Republic regularly for more than 30 years, beginning in 1989 just before Tiananmen when I was actually allowed to teach night-school continuing education classes in Beijing. On my most recent trip a year-and-a-half ago I was part of a small U.S. delegation that met with senior Chinese military and civilian officials, including a member of the Communist Party’s 25-person Politburo. I came away convinced that Xi Jinping’s aggressive domestic and foreign policies, especially with regard to Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, will probably intensify.
A U.S. hard line toward China, which would inevitably include decoupling selected supply chains, would severely test Western unity, such as it is. Beijing’s 17+1 Initiative, including the virtual purchase of the Port of Piraeus and maybe Trieste in the future, should be cause for concern in Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere, but greed often wins out over security.
Another area of relative continuity in a Biden foreign policy would be Afghanistan. More than a decade ago Biden publicly poured cold water on “nation building” there and instead argued for limiting U.S. policy to counter-terrorism — largely what our policy has become under Trump. I do anticipate, however, that Biden would not freeze the legitimate government of Afghanistan out of withdrawal negotiations as Trump has done.
A President Biden would immediately be faced with the nuclear challenge from North Korea. I won’t pretend that he – or anybody else – would have an easy solution. I can assure you, however, that Biden wouldn’t be snookered by “love letters” from Supreme Leader Kim Jung-un.
Biden’s behavior toward Xi and Kim would illustrate that he, unlike Trump, disdains authoritarian leaders. And that goes for second tier authoritarians like Viktor Orbán and Mohammad Bin-Salman. The flip-side is that Biden understands the importance of allies and would behave accordingly.
No doubt the U.S. and EU would continue to be economic rivals in many areas, but I would not put a resurrection of TTIP, although a remote possibility, as completely out of the question.
It is NATO, however, where the greatest difference between Biden and Trump would be apparent. Joe Biden is a “NATO guy.” In 1998 the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, recognizing Biden’s expertise and trusting him, took the remarkable step of appointing him — a Democrat — as floor manager for the treaty ratification of the first post – Cold War tranche of NATO enlargement, which accepted Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into the alliance. I had the great honor of organizing a series of Foreign Relations Committee hearings and seven days of floor debate, which culminated in an 80-19 vote in favor. Biden believes in NATO. He knows the ins and outs of the organization. He knows many of the allied leaders. Biden would never turn U.S. support into a protection racket as exemplified by Trump’s impulsive decision to withdraw 9,500 troops from Germany because he is angry at Angela Merkel. This move undoubtedly gladdened the heart of Vladimir Putin, whom Trump phoned shortly thereafter.
In a Biden presidency relations with Russia would be substantially different. To begin with, Biden is not personally beholden in any way to Putin. Well versed in arms control agreements, Biden would probably extend New START, even if China were not brought into the accord. He might try to re-negotiate the INF Treaty with stronger verification safeguards. Biden would bolster NATO’s defensive preparedness in Europe and would actively counter Russian meddling in the Balkans.
Another area of disagreement between Biden and Trump is policy toward Israel. A strong supporter of the Jewish state, Biden — unlike Trump — would not recognize unilateral Israeli annexations of parts of the West Bank. In this refusal Biden would have large segments of the Jewish-American community behind him, but not most Christian Evangelicals, solid Trump supporters whose theological beliefs have translated into rather uncritical support of Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies.
Bolstered by the United States’ greatly reduced dependence on oil from the Middle East, Biden would likely take a more balanced stand toward Saudi Arabia. I would also anticipate ramped up special forces cooperation with our Kurdish allies in Syria, who contributed mightily to the defeat of the Islamic State.
In a Biden presidency the United States would re-engage with an array of international organizations and agreements from which Trump has withdrawn: the Paris Climate Accord; the Iran Nuclear Deal – probably with updates; the World Health Organization; UNESCO; the UN Human Rights Council; and the Open Skies Treaty. I have already emphasized Biden’s iron-clad commitment to NATO.
Many aspects of foreign policy are inextricably connected to domestic policy. Two of those would change dramatically in a Biden presidency, especially if the Democrats regain the majority in the U.S. Senate: immigration reform and environmental policy. As part of a comprehensive immigration reform there would be a clear path to citizenship, above all for the so-called “dreamers,” the nearly 800,000 individuals who were brought to the United States as infants or youngsters and who know no other home.
With regard to the environment, the federal bureaucracy in a Biden presidency would be staffed by people who believe in science – including in human-accelerated climate change. A President Biden would rescind the host of executive orders issued by Trump that have weakened environmental protection across the board. And in a combination of immigration and environment, I believe that he would halt work on Trump’s misguided border wall with Mexico.
To stay within my time-allotment I’ll stop here. Thank you for your attention. I look forward to your comments and questions.
# # #
Michael Haltzel is Chairman of the Transatlantic Leadership Network.