What Trump will be leaving behind if he leaves

Author: Volker Perthes. | Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – German Institute for International and Security Affairs | Published 15 September 2020

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.

In this opinion piece, Volker Perthes contemplates what might be the legacy of Donald Trump if he were to lose the November election. Perthes’ observations are aimed at how Europe should be preparing for the possibility of a change in US president – he argues that 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. However his suggestion that “America’s partners should… already be thinking about what Trump will leave behind… ” applies as much to US allies like Australia.

Perthes notes that while “Incoming [US] presidents of any party have traditionally accepted many of the legacies of their predecessors, while simultaneously setting new accents”. But Donald Trump “consciously departed from this pragmatic and statesmanlike tradition”, making a rejection of the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, 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 “Consequently, Trump rescinded financial market rules and environmental laws of the Obama administration, withdrew the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and has also withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accord, and other international agreements.”

So what can be expected of Joe Biden, if he succeeds Trump? Perthes considers that Biden would “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” – with this applying “in particular, to the Iran nuclear agreement and the climate accord”. However, Perthes suggests that Biden would not be able to “turn the wheel of history back to the end of the Obama era” and would “have to deal with – and his presidency [would] partly be shaped by – a Trump legacy that cannot simply be undone by re-signing some important international agreements”.

Four Trump ‘legacy’ elements stand out

Perthes concludes that four elements stand out from Trump’s legacy:

  1. Political polarisation in the US: neither the political nor social divisions in the US will simply disappear with a change of political direction.
  2. The tense relationship with China: strategic rivalry between the US and China is likely to remain a guiding paradigm of international relations.
  3. Loss of international trust: any successor to Trump will be confronted scepticism from international partners about the longevity of agreements in the event of another change in the White House.
  4. Weakened multilateral institutions and international organisations: the US could recommit to shaping and supporting multilateral institutions, but other global actors may be less interested in the emergence of binding new international rules that could restrict their freedom of action.

Read the full article (external link to SWP website).