The Impact of the U.S. Election on Geopolitics
Dean Douglas Elmendorf
November 24, 2020
Hello. Thank you, Geraldine, for the kind introduction, and thanks to all of you for joining us today. I am grateful to the Harvard Club of the Philippines for hosting this event. About 500 Harvard alumni live in the Philippines, and about 130 of them are alumni of the Kennedy School. So, the Philippines has a terrific alumni community, and I welcome all of you to this call. I want to extend my deepest sympathy, though, to everyone who has been affected by Typhoon Vamco. I have read about the terrible devastation from that storm, and my heart goes out to you and your families and friends.
In addition to alumni in the Philippines, many Harvard alumni from around the world are joining us. In addition to representing many countries in Asia and Europe, you represent many different Harvard schools. Welcome to all of you.
I am especially grateful to Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine for asking me to speak with you today. As many of you know, Geraldine is a wonderful friend to Harvard and a member of the University’s Board of Overseers. When I became dean of the Kennedy School, Geraldine reached out to me right away, and she has been a great advisor and supporter ever since. Geraldine is a member of my Dean’s Council; she is co-chair of the Kennedy School Fund Executive Council; and she and her husband Gabe have made very generous gifts to the Kennedy School. Indeed, in her activities outside of Harvard, Geraldine demonstrates a commitment to service that is a hallmark of the Kennedy School; she founded and leads an international nonprofit organization seeking effective therapies for rare neurodegenerative diseases.
Thank you to Geraldine, to the Harvard Club of the Philippines, and to everyone who made this event possible.
I have been asked to speak today about the impact of the U.S. presidential election on geopolitics in Asia, Europe, and beyond. The United States has just witnessed a historic presidential election, with the highest voter turnout in over a century and the milestones of electing the first woman as vice president and, specifically, the first African-American woman and first South Asian-American woman. The election was also historic in the global context and implications of the outcome. Wherever you may be, I am sure that you are reading and hearing about what this election means for your own country. And the election was historic in the sharp contrast between the Democratic and Republican candidates.
Let me make four points about the impact of the election on geopolitics, and then I will offer a few words about the role of the Kennedy School at this moment. I will also leave plenty of time for questions because I would really like to hear from you.
My *first* point is that President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be leading a country that is more divided today than at almost time in our history. Although more Americans voted for the Biden-Harris ticket than had voted for any presidential ticket before, more Americans voted for President Trump and Vice President Pence than had ever voted for a *losing* presidential ticket before. Millions and millions of Americans wanted Donald Trump to continue as president, and many of them are worried now about what President Biden will do. Indeed, polls show that Americans increasingly view people of the other political party as dangerous to the country. In addition, the unwillingness so far of President Trump and nearly all other Republican leaders to accept the outcome of the election, as well as their unfounded complaints that the outcome would be different if not for electoral fraud, has further reduced the willingness of many voters to coalesce around our new president.
The heightened divisions in our country will reduce U.S. influence in the world. The new Administration will need to devote more time and attention to internal matters than it would otherwise, which will reduce the time and attention available for dealing with external issues. The new Administration will have a great deal of trouble gaining Congressional support—particularly Senate support—for its initiatives, including senior government appointments, any treaties that might be negotiated, and any substantial government spending. In addition, the leaders of other countries will recognize that the next U.S. election could reverse U.S. policies again, just as this election is doing and as the previous election did.
Thus, this division is a weakness and will reduce our influence in the world. Until the United States can make real progress at healing some of our divides, we will be a less desirable partner for other countries and a less worrisome opponent of other countries. And despite President Biden’s expressed interest in such healing, I am afraid that there is little reason to expect him to make much progress toward this goal.
My *second* point about the impact of the election on geopolitics is that the United States will be returning to a deliberate, coordinated, consistent, and informed approach to policymaking. President Trump sometimes established U.S. policy positions through tweets and other offhand comments—positions that sometimes contradicted his previous positions or the positions expressed by senior members of his Administration, and positions that sometimes were not well-grounded in reality. In addition, the trained professionals in the U.S. Foreign Service and the U.S. Civil Service were often ignored or denigrated.
That erratic behavior will not continue in the new Administration. The Biden-Harris Administration will resume making policy through a deliberate process in which knowledgeable individuals and agencies in the government will express their views before decisions are made, and then those decisions will be carried out in a coordinated and consistent way. Trained professionals in the government will be taken more seriously again.
This steadier hand in governing will increase U.S. influence in the world because it will make us a more reliable partner for other countries and a more worrisome opponent of other countries. However, I should admit that a more professional approach to policymaking does not guarantee that wise policies will be adopted: Plenty of terrible decisions have been made through careful interagency discussions. But the professional approach surely increases the likelihood of effective policy.
My *third* point about the impact of the election on geopolitics is that the United States will be refocused on multilateral efforts—but with greater emphasis than in the pre-Trump era on ensuring that every country is pulling its own weight.
The United States will work collaboratively with other nations to address Covid-19. The United States will rejoin the Paris climate accord. The United States will strengthen again its transatlantic ties with its partners in NATO and the European Union. The United States will look for ways to re-establish a united front against Iran. The United States will look for ways to build ties with Pacific nations apart from China, and I will return to that topic shortly.
Moreover, the Biden-Harris administration will be eager to reinforce U.S. ties with other countries that share more closely our values of democracy and human rights, and to apply allied pressure on countries that do not share those values as closely. Of course, every U.S. president has needed to balance moral considerations against immediate practical considerations in determining our relationships with other countries, and President Biden will need to do so as well. But clearly he is more aligned than President Trump with the view of the Kennedy School’s Joe Nye and other foreign policy experts that moral leadership strengthens the “soft power” that the United States can use to advance its interests.
All the same, President Biden will be mindful of the anti-globalist sentiment of many Americans for whom President Trump’s rhetoric of “America First” has resonated very positively. People in the United States have had mixed views about engagement in the world from our beginning, and many people today are very skeptical about such engagement. As a result, the Biden-Harris administration will be careful to use rhetoric that describes our international activities as good for Americans, and good not just for Americans who learn or travel or trade abroad, but for all Americans. And the Biden-Harris administration will be careful to pursue multilateral approaches in which every country is bearing an appropriate share of the burden.
Moreover, the rest of the world has not been standing still for the past four years. Regardless of internal political constraints, President Biden cannot simply restore multilateral arrangements as they stood when he left office as Vice President: New approaches will be needed in many cases, and the new administration will need to work that out with leaders in other countries.
The *fourth* point I want to make about the impact of the election on geopolitics is that the United States’ relationship with China will include *both* strong elements of competition *and* strong elements of cooperation. Indeed, that will be true with any American president for years to come, although the nature of the competition and the cooperation will change in response to evolving circumstances and presidents’ views.
President Trump was especially focused on reducing the bilateral trade deficit between the United States and China, which economists nearly universally agree is not a very useful goal. But the economic competition is real: China recently displaced the United States as the world’s largest economy when measured under what economists call “purchasing power parity,” and China’s economy is growing much faster than the U.S. economy. In addition, China is using its growing economic strength to increase its ties with other countries, especially in Asia and Africa, and to build a much more capable military. Therefore, the global economic, military, and political order will be much different in the future than in the past.
How will the United States respond? Graham Allison, a former dean of the Kennedy School and now a faculty member, has described the relationship between the United States and China as a potential “Thucydides Trap.” The ancient Greek historian Thucydides viewed the Peloponnesian War as a natural outcome of the tension between an existing power—Sparta—and a rising power—Athens. Graham has shown that, over the course of history, when existing powers feel trapped by the rise of new powers, the outcome is often, but not always, war. Therefore, as the existing power of the United States is confronted with the rising power of China, managing the tension between the countries well is very important.
Some competition is unavoidable. If China or the United States can sustain an advantage in information technology and in other emerging technologies, that will matter a lot for global influence. If China’s policies regarding trade, competition, and intellectual property come more into alignment with U.S. policies, that will matter a lot for global influence. And so on.
President Biden will contend with China in these areas, and—in contrast with President Trump—he will do so in collaboration with our allies. Nearly four years ago, President Trump pulled the United States out of the impending Trans-Pacific Partnership, and other multi-nation Pacific trade deals have been signed during this time. The Biden Administration will look for ways to strengthen relationships with Asia-Pacific allies—perhaps reimagining the pivot to Asia that the Obama administration attempted—and also bring European allies along in this process.
However, there are also important areas for U.S.-China cooperation, and climate change heads the list. Climate change is an existential global threat, and China and the United States together account for roughly 40 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Working together on to reduce emissions is in the interests of both Washington and Beijing.
Thus, the relationship between the United States and China will remain complicated and challenging as far as the eye can see.
Let me wrap up my prepared remarks by saying a little about the role of Harvard Kennedy School at this moment. Although many of you here today are Kennedy School alumni, many others are not, and I cannot resist using this occasion to tell you a bit about what we do.
Our mission at the Kennedy School is to improve public policy and leadership so that people can live in societies that are safer, freer, more just, and more sustainably prosperous. We improve public policy and leadership through a combination of teaching, research, and direct engagement with public leaders and policymakers. Our work now is focused on six overriding public challenges of our time: protecting security and freedom, strengthening democracy, advancing social justice, increasing economic well-being, enhancing sustainability, and improving public leadership and management. This work has real impact, because of the caliber of our students and faculty and because of our strong connections to public officials around the world.
I will give you two quick examples related to the pandemic: First, Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School collaborate on a program for training mayors around the world. This program pivoted immediately in March to focus on Covid-19, and every week in the spring, hundreds of mayors and their key staff joined a succession of faculty members from Harvard and elsewhere, and important public leaders including former U.S. presidents, to learn what they needed to respond to the pandemic. Second, students in one of our experiential learning courses worked with a Boston-area hospital in March to develop a system for managing the flow of Covid-19 patients. I received a letter from the hospital administrator thanking us for our crucial, timely help.
In both of those projects and so many others at the Kennedy School, our faculty and staff are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge, providing immediate service to public officials and the citizens they represent, and teaching our students how to become good public officials themselves. Our students are amazing, as you all were when you were students at Harvard and are today as Harvard alumni. My colleagues and I feel lucky to have them with us for brief periods of their lives, and we look forward to seeing what they will do after they graduate.
I am very optimistic about the power of principled and effective public leaders and public policy. Next month, for example, the Kennedy School will present its Gleitsman International Activist Award to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for her principled and effective public leadership, addressing the coronavirus pandemic, terrorist acts, climate change, and more. So, even in dark times, we see wonderful bright spots.
Harvard’s alumni are among those bright spots. No matter which Harvard school you attended, no matter your career path, you are part of a special global community. I hope that you can use your talents and energies to serve the communities you belong to. I hope you can find ways to stay connected to each other through your alumni networks and to stay connected to Harvard.
I even hope that more of you might connect with the Kennedy School. You can join us for executive-education programs—virtually or, someday again, in person. You can earn our new, online Public Leadership Credential. You can attend online events at the School, check out our podcast called “PolicyCast”, follow us on social media, and subscribe to our newsletter. And you can share job and internship opportunities or support our students in other ways.
Working together, all of us in the Harvard community can continue to help make a better world. Thank you for coming today. I would love to hear what questions you have for me.