The U.S. election could shape the world like none before

Alexander Smith
·7 min read

LONDON — On Nov. 3, almost 7.5 billion people outside the United States will face one of the most important elections in their lifetimes — without having any say in its outcome.

Every U.S. presidential election has an impact on international affairs; the winner after all becomes the leader of the world's largest economic and military power. The contest between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden is different, however.

If re-elected, Trump looks set to continue remaking Washington's foreign affairs in his own image. So far that's meant focusing on deals rather than alliances, cozying up to authoritarian strongmen and pursuing his norm-busting "America First" brand of transactional nationalism.

Biden would not be able to turn back the clock to his vice presidential days. But he would seek a more traditional model of U.S. foreign policy, one that would have a starkly different impact on traditional U.S. allies and foes. That doctrine's success in today's altered geopolitical landscape would remain to be seen.

NBC News journalists in bureaus around the world have spoken with officials, experts and citizens to ask what's at stake for them this election. Read our reporting from around the world using this interactive tool.

Image: Donald Trump and Mike Pence (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: Donald Trump and Mike Pence (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images)

For Trump's critics, his re-election would mean catastrophe not only for Washington's standing in the world but its ability to have a positive impact on American interests abroad.

"If Trump wins we're going to be in a much more fragmented, competitive, nationalist world," said Karin von Hippel, a former nonpolitical senior adviser at the State Department under President Barack Obama. "I think that Trump's second term would be the end of America as a superpower."

She believes this election is the most significant in her lifetime. For her, a Trump re-election would see Washington walking an increasingly isolated path, eventually abandoned by its weary longtime allies and making way for its adversaries to capitalize.

"But even if Biden wins, the U.S. will never be trusted in the same way as before," said von Hippel, who is now director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.

Trump is widely unpopular across Europe and in parts of South America, the Middle East and Asia. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that the little support he does have among Europeans is from supporters of right-wing populist parties. The president does have pockets of majority support in India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland and Israel, according to Pew.

Image: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Image: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

But according to supporters, focusing on how much the world likes Trump misses the point. They say that he has stood up for American interests rather than aiming to placate foreign governments as his predecessors have done.

"Trump is never going to win a popularity contest, but the goal of the U.S. should not be for other countries to have pleasant feelings about it," said Salvatore Babones, an associate professor at the University of Sydney and author of "The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism and the Tyranny of Experts."

Babones doesn't class himself as a Trump supporter but believes the president can point to significant accomplishments abroad: overseeing Israel's normalization of relations with some Arab countries, North Korea's nuclear-testing abstinence, tightening Russian sanctions and avoiding further involvement in Syria.

"People might not like it, but Trump is like a hard boss," said Babones, an American, who's also an adjunct scholar at Australia's Centre for Independent Studies, a think tank. "That boss is generally going to be unpopular — but they might get more work out of you."

Image: G-7 leaders meet in France (Andrew Harnik / AFP - Getty Images file)
Image: G-7 leaders meet in France (Andrew Harnik / AFP - Getty Images file)

Perhaps the most obvious consequences of this election will be on the world's two most pressing issues: climate change and Covid-19.

Trump has long flirted with climate science denial, and if he wins he will follow through on his pledge to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change — the only country to do so.

International experts have derided Trump's coronavirus response. And in a second term the president has signaled he won't join international vaccine cooperation and would complete his withdrawal from the World Health Organization.

In contrast, Biden has pledged to immediately reverse the Paris Agreement and WHO decisions, though his success in making a dent in either crisis would remain to be seen.

On China, the difference is less clear-cut. Both Trump and Biden have vowed to get tough on Beijing: Trump going it alone with hard-nosed trade-war tactics, Biden seeking to enlist the cooperation of Europe. Some observers believe Trump's stepping back from multilateral institutions has created a vacuum China is more than happy to fill. It's unclear which candidate Beijing would prefer.

Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Joe Biden (Lintao Zhang / AFP - Getty Images file)
Image: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets Joe Biden (Lintao Zhang / AFP - Getty Images file)

Across the globe, the list of these potential alternate realities is seemingly endless.

In the Middle East, Trump would likely keep "maximum pressure" on Iran while backing Israel over the Palestinians. Biden would seek to revive the Iran nuclear deal that Trump scrapped, while possibly offering more criticism of Israel.

Trump would most likely continue his camaraderie with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, who has Indian heritage, might seek to hold Modi to greater account on human-rights. The same could go for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, another populist Trump ally.

Trump has fostered a friendship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un; Biden calls Kim a "tyrant." Neither, however, have much hope of persuading Kim to give up his nuclear arsenal, most experts agree.

When it comes to America's relationship with Russia, its former Cold War adversary, Biden would be more hawkish in his rhetoric against President Vladimir Putin, an adversary Trump is often accused of softballing.

European powers like France and Germany would be overjoyed to see the back of Trump after enduring years of insults, ultimatums and threats. Biden would repair some of that diplomatic damage, but he would pressure NATO allies to spend more on defense, as other presidents have done — albeit more politely than Trump.

Image: Abraham Accords signing (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images)
Image: Abraham Accords signing (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images)

Style matters for the leader of a country traditionally viewed across the West as a cultural and political lodestar. On that score these two candidates would send dramatically different signals into the world.

"One thing Trump introduced that's not going away is what I call rogue or uncivilized behavior," said former Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb. "If you have a political leader who can basically call people names, can throw around insults, then that soon becomes acceptable."

Bolsonaro and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte are among leaders whose brash approach has at least coincided and perhaps even been emboldened by their White House counterpart.

Others fear the global consequences of re-electing a president who, in their view, does not appear to care too much about projecting American values of democracy and liberty. Trump has joked about serving "12 more years," laced speeches with brazen untruths, and often appeared more comfortable praising illiberal leaders than America's democratic friends.

"Trump has been leading by example by promoting a more nationalistic, in some ways racist, foreign policy," said von Hippel. "He doesn't seem to care about human rights abuses unless he wants to bash that particular country for trade reasons."

Ultimately, many experts simply don't really know what a Trump second term would look like, according to Stubb, who was also a member of the European Parliament and a career diplomat. He believes the choice between Trump and Biden is one of "predictability versus unpredictability."

"Most of the world will breathe a sigh of relief if Biden is elected," said Stubb, now director of the School of Transnational Governance, at the European University Institute in Florence. "But I think we should all be realistic and understand that we're not going back to the supposed good old days — either way I don't think American power will return to what it was."