There is no return ticket to the world before Donald Trump. But there is life beyond the demagogue who seized the White House four years ago.
The opinion polls seem unanimous that Mr Trump will be a one-term president. The snag is that they pointed in the same direction in 2016. In any event, defeat at the hands of the Democratic party’s Joe Biden will not eradicate Trumpism. Mr Trump is the symptom as well as cause of America’s sharp turn inwards, of the rage against elites and a backlash against so-called globalism that too easily merges into nativism.
Those campaigning for the president’s defeat — old-school Republicans who have held on to their principles, as well as Democrats — sometimes convey the impression that the slate can be wiped clean. Absent the villain, the nightmare will fade in the memory. The proper working of the constitution will repair the damage done to American democracy and the US will rediscover its vocation as the leader of a liberal international order.
This skips over the reordering of politics in America and the irreversible shifts in the international landscape. The deep divisions in US society, exploited and inflamed by a president who shows himself content with the support of white supremacists, will not be easily bridged. Nor is middle America about to rediscover an affection for a world trading system that is no longer skewed to its advantage.
China’s rise has irrevocably changed the balance of power in the global system. The post-cold war advance of democracy has made way for a counter-revolution of despots and autocrats — lately with the blessing of the White House. Mr Trump’s admiration for self-styled “strong men” has been matched by his disdain for America’s traditional, democratic allies.
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When Mr Trump first swept into the White House, the smart money in Washington said that the populist New York huckster would be contained if not civilised by the system. Sure, he might fire off on his Twitter account, but the old guard would take charge. Instead, the Republican party has bent to his will. America’s national interests have been subsumed in the president’s ego and ambition.
To say history cannot be rewritten is not to downplay the significance of the outcome on November 3. On the contrary, the stakes are higher than at any time since the creation of the American-led international order at the end of the second world war. A Biden presidency could not replay the past. Nor could it just pick up where Barack Obama left off. It would most certainly set a different course for the future.
The Pax Americana has gone — and with it the ability of US presidents to set global rules to fit Washington’s interests. China is catching up, and President Vladimir Putin has shown Russia’s capacity to make trouble. And yet. If the US can no longer act as a hegemon, it remains the world’s most powerful nation and, in spite of Mr Trump’s efforts, heads an extraordinary network of global alliances. US policy remains the first point of reference for just about everyone else.
For now, the world sits at a crossroads. The multilateral order built after 1945 is fracturing in the face of China’s rise and the return of great power rivalry. American voters are no longer willing to see the US expend blood and treasure to police the world. China’s president Xi Jinping has spurned any notion of Beijing as a stakeholder in a western-designed system.
If the old order is passing, the shape of its replacement remains undetermined. One route out of the present no man’s land ends in Mr Trump’s might-is-right unilateralism — a return to the 1920s and 1930s when blithe indifference to the world beyond the western hemisphere saw Washington ignore the rise of fascism and communism.
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The other path — the likely course of a Biden presidency — would combine selective retrenchment with a refurbishment of alliances and America’s multilateral obligations. The eventual destination? A patchwork order in which a measure of rules-based internationalism forestalls a slide from great power competition into confrontation.
The rhetoric, if Mr Biden wins, will be rather more grandiose. Those around him promise he will gather together the world’s democracies, return the US to the Paris climate change and Iran nuclear deals, and renew solemn pledges to allies. American voters, though, will have other priorities. They will expect him to put every effort into repairing the economic damage wrought by coronavirus.
So here, for the world at least, are the likely options. The wanton destruction, with Mr Trump, of the norms and institutions that, broadly speaking, have underpinned the international peace for 75 years and a return to the beggar-thy-neighbour nationalism that brought the world to its knees during the 1930s. Or a chance, with Mr Biden in the White House, for the US to rebuild its moral authority and recast itself in an albeit more limited role as convener of the west’s democracies.
Some will complain this scarcely sounds a heroic prospectus for the Democratic party candidate. Many others will conclude that, always assuming the polls are right, it is more than enough that Mr Trump will be replaced by a decent, intelligent politician possessed of a moral compass.