The Return of Diplomacy?
How the World Doesn’t Understand the American Elections: Are Our Expectations Our Problem?

Aside from tactical and stylistic nuances, a change of administrations does little to modify the course of the United States, which is clearly visible in the example of recent electoral cycles. Behind the parade of ambitions, eschatological rhetoric and bright performances that accompany presidential campaigns in the United States, there is an unpleasant truth – the revision of American politics is determined by a change in circumstances, not personalities, Igor Istomin writes.

When choosing contenders for the title of the most expensive and large-scale series in history, you can safely look beyond “Game of Thrones,” “Stranger Things”, and Marvel’s “The Avengers”. The largest project in global show business is the presidential election process in the United States. Every four years, gigantic sums of money are allocated to determine the leader of the United States. Hollywood producers never dreamed of such budgets. Candidates spent a total of $4 billion on the 2020 campaign, and political action committees, formally independent funds campaigning for them, shelled out another $13 billion.

At the same time, new seasons are released without delays on all available platforms with a consistently high level of suspense. The 2024 campaign, not yet halfway through, has already brought joy with the resurrection of political heroes of past episodes, colourful secondary characters (such as Vivek Ramaswamy and Robert Kennedy), as well as fresh plot twists, including numerous legal proceedings, attempts to exclude the leading contender from the vote, and confrontation between the federal authorities and the leadership of individual states.

Let’s expect the drama to continue to rise as we approach the sacramental first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. It is not surprising that although the organisers are primarily focused on the domestic audience, the colourful performance is followed around the world. This interest has a pragmatic explanation – the US elections are one of the most important events; they have a significant impact on international relations. True, the nature of this influence is not at all the same as is commonly believed.

The US Presidential Election and the Impact on Global Governance
Glenn Diesen
It is now evident that the unipolar moment has come to an end. After exhausting itself in failed forever wars against weak adversaries, the US military prepares for war against Russia, China, and a regional war in the Middle East, Glenn Diesen writes.

American elections and American politics

The main marketing element of each election cycle is the invariable thesis that the upcoming elections are the most important in American history. Never before has so much been at stake as this time. Never before has democracy faced such existential challenges as now. Never before is the struggle as unpredictable and intense as it is now. Such mantras turn presidential campaigns in the United States into a mass neurosis.

In reality, changes in leadership rarely lead to large-scale shifts in government policy. The decision-making system in the United States was initially created with the goal of limiting the voluntarism of presidential power. The Founding Fathers, who were afraid of turning the head of state into a tyrant, added a lot of checks and balances to his powers. The need to negotiate with Congress, the broad powers of states, and the risks of legal challenges are aimed at ensuring that the federal government makes as few life-changing decisions as possible.

Even in cases where one party manages to establish simultaneous control over the executive branch, the House of Representatives and the Senate, the ambitions and interests of individual politicians complicate, delay, and sometimes even completely disrupt the pursuit of a single strategic objective. In an environment where each legislator is elected from a specific state or district, he retains greater autonomy from the party organisation, which makes him a potential spoiler. To use a fashionable slang: this is a feature, not a bug of the American system.

A striking example of this is the 2020-2022 period, when Democrats held not only the White House, but also a majority on Capitol Hill. However, the current administration’s large-scale internal reform programme encountered resistance from Democratic Senator Joseph Manchin.

Similarly, in 2017, Republican Senator John McCain blocked the healthcare reform law sought by his own party and led by President Donald Trump.

In foreign policy, this institutional paralysis is complemented by structural constraints from the international system, which dictate behaviour regardless of party preferences.
Despite the temptation to attribute US strategy to the machinations of the “deep state” or ideological narrow-mindedness, Washington’s policies are rational and internally consistent.

Since the 1990s, the US has seized a dominant position in the world and seeks to maintain it in the face of a weakening material basis for this dominance.

Therefore, aside from tactical and stylistic nuances, a change of administrations does little to modify the course of the United States, which is clearly visible in the example of recent electoral cycles. Thus, Donald Trump, despite the fierce criticism of his predecessor, having come to power, continued his course of containing China, countering Russia, and supporting Kiev. Despite campaign statements, he did not leave NATO, nor did he abandon the alliances with Japan and South Korea. On the contrary, under him there was an increase in practical interaction with these allies.

Joseph Biden, who denounces Trump as a threat to democracy, accepted his line on expanding the US military presence in Europe and building the Indo-Pacific architecture. He not only increased sanctions against Moscow, which was expected amid the escalation of the Ukrainian conflict, but also intensified trade and technological restrictions against Beijing.

The Democratic administration also continued to increase pressure on Tehran without returning to the JCPOA to address the Iranian nuclear programme.

Thus, behind the parade of ambitions, eschatological rhetoric and bright performances that accompany presidential campaigns in the United States, there is an uncomfortable truth – the revision of American politics is determined by a change in circumstances, not personalities. This does not mean that American elections do not produce practical consequences.
It’s just that the most interesting changes are taking place not in Washington, but in completely different capitals. Surprisingly, they rarely come to the attention of experts.

American elections and non-American politics

On November 9, 2016, the Russian State Duma welcomed the news of Trump’s victory with an ovation. Although the Republican candidate made a number of curtsies to Moscow, it is difficult to explain such a reaction by saying they were enamoured with his personality. The popularity of Trump was determined by the hope that the negative trend in Russian-American relations would change. Russia did not even respond to the expulsion of its diplomats, which had been organised by the outgoing Barack Obama. Deviation from reciprocity in this matter was directly positioned as a signal to establish a dialogue with the new team.

A completely different mood prevailed in Tokyo at that time. Violating the established practice, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe rushed to meet with the US president-elect before he took office. Trump’s criticism of the trade imbalance and the terms of military-political cooperation prompted the Japanese leadership to agree to a large-scale purchase of weapons from the United States and lower tariffs for American manufacturers. In this sense, the change of administration had a greater impact on Japanese policy than that of the USA.
Despite the fact that the elections make cosmetic changes to Washington’s activities in the international arena, they generate expectations among the governments of other states.

Emerging ideas become an independent factor in international politics, regardless of the degree of their correctness. They encourage US counterparties to take actions that they would not otherwise take, or, conversely, to refrain from taking previously typical steps.

Attributing high foreign policy significance to elections in the United States is not a new phenomenon. The campaign of 1796, ahead of the third presidential election in American history, was perceived by foreign observers through the prism of the struggle between the pro-British and pro-French factions. The victory of the federalists threatened to strengthen the emerging trend of strengthening relations with London. Against this background, the French Ambassador to the United States, Pierre-Auguste Adet, gained fame as the pioneer of the electoral interventions practice.

On the eve of the vote, he published a series of articles in print designed to increase the chances of Thomas Jefferson’s victory. The latter had previously headed the embassy in Paris and was considered a supporter of the American-French alliance concluded during the War of Independence. Adet’s efforts were in vain – John Adams was elected president, and the diplomat himself soon had to return home. At the same time, Jefferson’s success in the next election in 1800 demonstrated that he was by no means a convenient leader for Paris.

The third US President maintained the line of equidistance from the European powers laid down by his predecessors. He was extremely sensitive about the transfer of Louisiana from Spain to the rule of France, and was able to buy it from Paris. In 1807, he did not support the Napoleonic blockade of Britain. Instead, he imposed an embargo on all warring countries. Paris’s miscalculations regarding Jefferson’s benevolence revealed the deceitfulness of past rhetoric when predicting the course of a future administration.

However, similar illusions were evident in Chinese assessments of the latest presidential elections. Beijing was inclined to link the worsening relations with Washington with Trump’s personal idiosyncrasies. Biden’s victory raised hopes of easing tensions.

Instead, the very first meeting of representatives of the new administration with their Chinese counterparts degenerated into a verbal skirmish. The lesson is clear – if you think the current team is unreasonably hostile, don’t count on that their replacements being more negotiable.

2024: Are there any believers in electoral magic?

The intensity of pre-election discussions and the persuasiveness of candidates’ speeches time after time encourage us to forget the experience of previous disappointments. From campaign to campaign, a hope is being revived that this change in power will make a difference, and there will be tectonic changes in Washington’s strategy. External players seem to be guided by the formula: “It’s not difficult for you to deceive me, I’m happy to be deceived.” They look for reasons for inflated hopes or fears in the personality or programme of the winning side.

Russian domestic observers have repeated this mistake more than once, expecting positive changes with the arrival in the White House of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, not to mention Donald Trump. Even Joe Biden’s victory prompted comments suggesting that relations with him would be at least more clear.

These calculations had grounds, since after the inauguration of the new leaders, Russian-American interactions did experience short-term upswings. True, with each subsequent cycle they turned out to be less pronounced, and short-lived.
By the 2024 elections, discussions about the preferability of Democratic or Republican candidates in Russia have almost died down. Finally, there is a recognition that “both are worse.”

A similar debunking of illusions is expected in other countries. In particular, Beijing, after 4 years of butting heads with Biden, is hardly so afraid of Trump’s possible return. In the current electoral cycle, perhaps the only ones who see a strategic fork in the American elections are European politicians.

In 2020, it was they who rooted for the victory of the Democrats much more openly than even China. The Trump administration was accused of undermining the foundations of transatlantic unity. They feared Washington’s refusal to make commitments in the military-political sphere and being pressured over trade and economic issues. Biden’s rise to power was welcomed by most NATO allies as a return to normality, although not without fear of the lingering spectre of Trumpism.

The Democratic team was happy to demonstrate symbolic politeness towards Europe, but in essence its approach differed little from the policies of its Republican predecessors. Biden’s disregard for the interests of allies was also evident in the circumstances of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and with the establishment of AUKUS, as well as with the adoption of the inflation reduction act. As a result, initial enthusiasm for a blissful return to reliance on American power among allies greatly diminished.

However, the fear of Trump’s victory could stimulate their rapprochement in military-political, technological and other spheres. This doping may turn out to be more effective than the difficulties in providing assistance to Ukraine, which have slightly stirred up Washington’s European allies. However, it is unlikely to turn them into truly autonomous players. Paradoxically, fears of a change in administration may increase the usefulness of these countries, making them even more attentive to its wishes.

The implementation of this scenario will once again confirm the reputation of American elections as a source of significant consequences for international politics. Once again, the burden of change will fall not on the United States, but on those who were too mesmerised by its electoral show.

The US Elections and the Cold War 2.0: Implications and Prospects for Russia
Dmitry Suslov
Russian-US relations will be faced with new challenges in the near future. That future will bring either further escalation of the confrontation in the event of Clinton's victory and selective cooperation in the event Trump wins. However, this cooperation may quickly degrade due to disagreements between the two countries regarding China.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.