The Fallen Eagle

Assessing lasting damage to US global leadership after 2024
Lance Cpl. Cristian Ricardo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
58th Presidential Inaugural Ceremony. Lance Cpl. Cristian Ricardo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Western world is apprehensive as it looks towards the US Presidential election in November this year. The election shows the deep crisis pervading politics in the country regarded as the leader of the free world and makes it clear that US democracy is fundamentally broken. We have the two oldest candidates in the history of the Western world, neither of whom is certain to serve their full term. Cast your mind back to when the choice was Clinton v Trump, and now consider that just eight years later, we are in this position for the second, if not the third time, and the choice is arguably even worse. Currently, both candidates have proven to be divisive, unpopular Presidents. The 2024 election is symbolic of a confused and corrupted US politics that has lost sight of any true patriotism. This has grave consequences for America’s public image across the world, which, while relying evermore on hard power, has lost a great deal of soft power in recent years. 

Each candidate offers their own worsening factor on the USA’s image abroad. Starting with Joe Biden, many in Europe were thrilled when he got elected and were filled with hope for the future as supposedly sensible leadership finally retook the reins of world politics. In most cases, they have been thoroughly disappointed. Under Joe Biden, the US has lost world stature to adversaries in China and Russia as constant gaffes have made the US seem weak on the World Stage. In February this year, he accidentally referred to Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as the “president of Mexico”. With Biden, the biggest elephant in the room is his age. His February gaffe occurred at a press conference in reaction to a recent court ruling into his mishandling of improper documents that found Biden unfit to be charged. Instead of assuaging fears, he gave even more reason as to why real questions remain over whether he can finish a second term – questions that weaken his position on the World stage. This is one reason why China’s growing influence in Africa has continued unopposed, and the US has lost ground in several key regions as China swoops in as the US withdraws. Biden has strained relations in Asia by pursuing a worker-centric trade policy with a cautious approach to trade deals, achieving even less than Trump. Biden has also been criticized for undermining US credibility on human rights, only selectively condemning those autocrats adverse to US interests, while ignoring abuses by allies. Furthermore, Biden’s adherence to the diplomatic rule book could be said to have assuaged Putin’s fears that persisted under Trump’s unpredictability, a claim Putin in fact made in February 2024. Despite Biden claiming to be a stark contrast to his predecessor, he stuck to Trump’s Afghanistan withdrawal plan which ultimately rendered the entire US mission in Afghanistan obsolete, and the lives and resources lost wasted. The Afghanistan fiasco has left little doubt that Europe must reconsider its reliance on American support, and be extra cautious in any future joint intervention.

At home, Biden has struggled to work with House Republicans to ensure sustainable funding flows to US allies. Ongoing domestic crises like spiraling drug use problems, rising inequality, and rising illegal immigration are unlikely to be solved in a second term, which will allow these tensions to continue. This has had direct consequences for foreign policy, with aid withheld for Ukraine and Taiwan as ransom for actions in other areas. While not a fault of Biden exclusively, it is hard to see how a second term would not suffer from the same problems. While Trump was disloyal to allies, Biden will be increasingly unable to fulfill expectations. Joe Biden’s decision to run again is part egotism, part unwillingness from the Democratic powers-at-be to choose between the socialist and more moderate wings of the party today. Biden is emblematic of a confused party clinging to a figure that can unite both factions, albeit reluctantly. The US currently seems far from the optimism of JFK, with Biden a symbolic manifestation of a country that has failed to embrace its younger generations, at the expense of its leadership potential. 

Biden’s Administration can still point to several successful foreign policy achievements. Biden has reinforced and mended relations with allies across the World. Biden’s new Summit for Democracy has championed emerging democracies and inspired further change. By rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change, the US can again lead global cooperation in addressing environmental challenges. He has also participated in NATO meetings and fostered collaboration with European leaders, repairing the damage caused by Trump. Biden has acted decisively, expressing support for Taiwan – for the first time explicitly clarifying that the US would respond with military force in the event of a PRC invasion. Although more cautious than some would like, Biden’s support for Ukraine has been instrumental in countering Russia’s aggression. And despite this focus on Ukraine, Biden has also shifted State Department efforts towards curbing China’s growing influence through a new ‘invest, align, compete’ strategy.  This strategy arguably goes further than Trump’s position and ensures the US can compete against China on multiple fronts, including with additional infrastructure investment to sustain the economy. 

If Biden’s term has been problematic, Trump can more than compete. It is hard to find anyone outside of the MAGA camp who was not appalled at the scenes from January 6th and the pure hatred demonstrated by so-called ‘patriots’ to law enforcement officials and elected politicians. Under Trump, even the most unthinkable scenarios became part of a new but uneasy normal. In terms of domestic stability, Trump’s character worried investors globally and was ultimately his downfall – failing to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic proactively, preferring denialism and inaction. However, regardless of his politics, Trump is a supremely effective politician with a cult-like following that will support him even when indicted for several crimes. His negotiating credibility is strengthened by the knowledge that he can expect the rest of the Republican party to follow any agreement he makes.

Trump’s Presidency was characterized by strained relationships with traditional international allies and his ethos of ‘concede nothing, take all’ left Biden in a weak position upon assuming the Presidency. This is likely to continue in a 2025 Trump White House. Recently, at Trump’s explicit direction, aid for Ukraine and Taiwan has been suspended by House Republicans – a profoundly un-American decision that harks back to the days of US isolationism that concluded with the onset of the Second World War. One must ask how will the US maintain allies if US policy continuously flip-flops? Trump’s decision to demand Congress to refuse funding for policing of the US southern border shows he still prioritizes self-interest above all: in order to avoid handing Biden a political win before the election, he sacrifices the national interest. Policymakers also cannot forget the Trump-Ukraine scandal that saw Trump withhold nearly $400 million of congressionally approved aid for Ukraine as he tried to coerce Ukraine’s Zelensky to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden. This consistent track record will make it hard for him to gain trust with allies and adversaries alike. 

However, Trump’s term also oversaw some significant advances in US foreign policy, with Trump unafraid of unsettling the international status quo. He oversaw the Washington Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, which had some success. He withdrew from the Iran Nuclear Agreement, placed extra sanctions on the regime and ordered a drone strike in Iraq which assassinated Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani; even with these bold actions, current events have shown Trump’s term saw more regional peace. Most significantly he signed the Abraham Accords, an Arab-Israeli normalization agreement with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco; this is something Biden pursued with Saudi Arabia, albeit unsuccessfully because of events following October 7th 2023. He was also the first and only President to meet a North Korean Leader, albeit for no prize. It was a common theme, despite major headline-grabbing events, that Trump’s grand gestures garnered few material achievements. 

Trump’s foreign policy did not respect allies or value long-term relationships. As well as threatening to leave NATO, Trump recently said he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to any NATO member country that does not allocate 2 percent of GDP to defense. The Trump administration took an adversarial stance toward the EU in its pursuit of the “America First” agenda, departing from traditional US-EU cooperation on economic and global issues. In 2018, he called the EU a “foe” and “worse than China, just smaller”.  He also clashed with key leaders in France and Germany. With rising right-wing populism in Europe, Trump could capitalize on some natural allies across the continent; however, US-EU relations, particularly over trade, are likely to suffer again. Trump’s foreign policy had many severe mistakes, the Doha Agreement which Trump oversaw is arguably the main reason why the Afghan National Security Forces collapsed. He failed to change China’s trade policies despite a self-defeating trade war. China signed the RCEP and reached an agreement on an investment deal with the EU at the expense of US interests. 

A victory for Biden would see a continuance of the serious approach to foreign policy that has dominated this term. If the fears of a domestic challenge from an upset MAGA base are assuaged, Biden can swiftly return to strengthening relationships with European and Asian allies. Biden’s term is unlikely to see any major shifts in US foreign policy, however Taiwan is expected to become a bigger problem as experts predict China will reach military readiness to embark on an invasion attempt in 2025.

In the opposite scenario, a defeat for Biden would be the ultimate comeback for Trump and a redemption for 2020. One might imagine a Trump presidency to resemble his last, with all the surprises it saw, and more. Trump’s promise to end the Russia-Ukraine war on his first day in office will be his first test and the first hint of what else is to come. We must not forget the chaotic and unprecedented events that overshadowed his last days in office – even refusing to acknowledge his successor or attend the inauguration. His presidency will be treated with utmost caution. History has shown Trump to be his own rule-maker, who answers to no one. International convention is likely out of the window, and an emboldened Trump could be expected to take very dramatic steps. While some have posited that Trump is unlikely to defer from Biden’s policy on Israel and only step back in Ukraine, his unpredictability means it is likely he will want to take his ‘genius’ solutions to the rest of the world. Trump’s victory would lead to a second – and final – term, as he cannot constitutionally run again. The short shelf-life of a second Trump administration will make it hard to achieve any meaningful success. Whoever he picks as running mate is the likely successor for MAGA leader. However, one cannot imagine Trump stepping back from politics completely. His interference in a 2028 election is a real fear, as the reprieve of a Biden-free democratic ticket is likely to be of high appeal to the American public after a Trump presidency. 

In conclusion, neither a Trump nor Biden term is what the Western world wants to see. A Trump presidency appeals to global autocrats but would ring alarm bells in Europe. A second Biden term would bring more of the same – with unresolved conflicts dragging on without conclusion. Looking forward to 2028, Europe hopes the US chooses an inspirational leader with the charisma of JFK or Obama, who achieves concrete foreign policy wins to further global security for all.

About the Author
Jack Twyman is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.
Related Topics
Related Posts