Volker Perthes

What Trump will be leaving behind if he leaves

Point of View, 15.09.2020
Volker Perthes

Should Joe Biden win the election, he will not turn the wheel of history back to the Obama era. Europe must help the United States to regain its lost reputation, says Volker Perthes.

Whether Donald Trump will serve four more years as president of the United States will be decided on 3 November at the earliest. America’s partners should nonetheless already be thinking about what Trump will leave behind – namely the consequences of his policies – if he loses the election and agrees to hand over power to his challenger, Joe Biden.

Every US president sets priorities for domestic developments as well as for the country’s positions in foreign and security policy. Given the international weight of the United States – still by far the most powerful nation in the world in terms of absolute power, even when compared to China – US presidents will always shape the international order, too. Incoming presidents of any party have traditionally accepted many of the legacies of their predecessors, while simultaneously setting new accents. This is not surprising; it is a characteristic of a functioning state. The foreign policy, security, economic, and ecological challenges that a new president faces the first day in office are not, after all, fundamentally different from those challenges that were on the table the day before.

Only Donald Trump has consciously departed from this pragmatic and statesmanlike tradition. Fighting against the legacy left behind by his predecessor, Barack Obama, has been a central part of his agenda. Consequently, Trump rescinded financial market rules and environmental laws of the Obama administration, withdrew the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and has also withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, and other international agreements.

Should Trump be replaced by Biden, the new president will certainly reverse some of the most blatant measures of his predecessor – if only to regain trust and strengthen the international reputation of the United States again. This applies, in particular, to the Iran nuclear agreement and the climate accord. Biden will not be able to turn the wheel of history back to the end of the Obama era, however. He will have to deal with – and his presidency will partly be shaped by – a Trump legacy that cannot simply be undone by re-signing some important international agreements.

Four elements stand out from this legacy.

First, there is the political polarisation in the United States, which is as intense as it was during the Vietnam War. A new president may attempt to reunite the country politically and to mitigate the growing social inequalities through social and tax policies. However, neither the political nor social divisions in the United States will simply disappear with a change of political direction.

Second, the tense relationship with China will test the Biden administration from the beginning. Trump certainly did not cause the rise of China. Even Obama had tried to redirect the focus of American policy towards Asia – he saw China’s rise as a game changer, but overall still regarded China as a partner. In the meantime, China’s policy has become more challenging. There is a wide-ranging bipartisan consensus in the United States for taking a tough stance towards Beijing. President Trump, however, has weakened America’s position in the rivalry with China by duping friends and allies, leading the United States out of international institutions and agreements, and thus creating empty spaces that China could – and did – fill. Strategic rivalry between the United States and China is likely to remain a guiding paradigm of international relations, even under a President Biden: a conflict that structures world politics with power-policy, security, economic, technological, and ideological dimensions. How this rivalry will be shaped and evolve will largely depend on future US policy.

Third, a new president will have to deal with the loss of international trust. Much here depends on the personality of the individual in the White House. A president Biden would likely enjoy an advance of international trust. This could even help him to push for certain demands that not only Trump has articulated – not least that America’s NATO partners increase their defence spending. Any successor to Trump, however, no matter how much they may be trusted as a person, will be confronted with a new form of scepticism, if not fear, among international partners that any agreement they may negotiate today could be called into question after another change in the White House. For this reason alone, new negotiations with Iran or future arms control talks with Russia and/or China will become more difficult: Negotiating partners will want to offer less if they cannot be sure that future presidents will also abide by an agreement. American negotiators, however, are more likely to demand more in order to make such agreements more acceptable across the political spectrum in Congress, and thereby prevent a new president from simply turning them over.

Finally, multilateral institutions and international organisations have been weakened, not only as a result of Trump’s policies, but also his active contributions. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, we live in a world with fewer binding rules than four years ago. Important arms control agreements have been terminated, the World Trade Organization has been weakened, and the legitimacy and financial resources of the United Nations have been under attack. A new president can certainly try to change course and recommit the United States to shaping and supporting multilateral institutions, but other actors on the world stage have become more self-confident and assertive during the last four years. These actors, China above all, are unlikely to be interested in the emergence of binding new international rules that could restrict their freedom of action.

And Europe? It is simply not enough to hope that Trump will be voted out of office, and then relax if it happens. The European Union and its member states must seriously think about how they could help a new US president to regain international trust for the country. Europe can hardly expect that the United States under a President Biden will set out to safeguard international order on its own. Nor should it expect a Biden administration to simply adopt Europe’s multilateral agenda. Instead, Europe needs to strengthen its own capabilities, and it should take the initiative and press for a joint strategic analysis and agreement with the United States on future issues – climate, digitization, and the relationship with China, among other areas. Moreover, Europe will also have to explain how it envisages fair burden-sharing in order to create a more symmetric transatlantic relationship.

This text was also published at fairobserver.com.

Recommended Reading

Wolfgang Richter

Attack on the Open Skies Treaty

President Trump Wants to Withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty

SWP Comment 2020/C 29, June 2020, 8 Pages

doi:10.18449/2020C29

Barbara Lippert, Volker Perthes (eds.)

Strategic Rivalry between United States and China

Causes, Trajectories, and Implications for Europe

SWP Research Paper 2020/RP 04, April 2020, 53 Pages

doi:10.18449/2020RP04

Peter Rudolf

The Sino-American World Conflict

in: Barbara Lippert, Volker Perthes (eds.)
Strategic Rivalry between United States and China

Contributions to Research Papers 2020/RP 04, April 2020, 53 Pages, S. 9-11
Nadine Godehardt

Shaping Beats Decoupling: Alternatives to Global Conflict between the United States and China

China is increasingly seen as the central threat to the liberal Western world order. A growing sense that this shift is unstoppable creates a climate of discussion that overlooks important alternatives, writes Nadine Godehardt.

Point of View, 02.03.2020
Marco Overhaus

A Matter of Credibility

Conventional and Nuclear Security Commitments of the United States in Europe

SWP Research Paper 2019/RP 10, August 2019

doi:10.18449/2019RP10

Wolfgang Richter

The End of the INF Treaty is Looming

A New Nuclear Arms Race Can Still Be Prevented

SWP Comment 2019/C 04, January 2019, 8 Pages

doi:10.18449/2019C04

SWP Comment

Bettina Rudloff, Christine Wieck
Sustainable Supply Chains in the Agri­cultural Sector: Adding Value Instead of Just Exporting Raw Materials

Corporate Due Diligence within a Coherent, Overarching and Partnership-based EU Strategy


Christian Wagner
Political Upheaval in Sri Lanka

Internal and External Consequences of the Parliamentary Elections on 5 August 2020


SWP Research Paper

Andrea Schmitz
Uzbekistan’s Transformation

Strategies and Perspectives


Muriel Asseburg
Reconstruction in Syria

Challenges and Policy Options for the EU and its Member States