US Elections Untangled – EP 15: The End of US Global Leadership? (with Ville Sinkkonen)


Is the American democracy itself at stake in the 2020 elections? Will foreign powers try to interfere with the elections again? What is the significance of these elections to climate change, NATO or the American relationship with Russia, China and Iran?

FIIA Podcast US Elections Untangled dives deep into the big questions surrounding the 2020 elections. Drawing on the expertise of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the series looks mainly at the international relations implications of the elections.


US Elections Untangled – EP 15: The End of US Global Leadership? (with Ville Sinkkonen)

What will be Donald Trump’s foreign policy legacy, if Joe Biden wins the election and Trump steps down after one full term in office?

“As trumpian ideas about American (global) leadership role have become more mainstream, it has created a situation where we can expect a lot more oscillation, more violent swings between different administrations when it comes to the United States’ approach to its international role,” says Research Fellow Ville Sinkkonen from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

“That’s an international level manifestation of the Trump phenomenon.”

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[recording starts]

[Podcast intro 00:00:01]:  Welcome to US Elections Untangled, a podcast series brought to you by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

[Playback of Trump 00:00:09]: “From this day forward a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

[Playback of Biden 00:00:27]: “Donald Trump’s brand of America first has too often lead to America alone.”

Maria Annala [00:00:35]: Hi everyone, and welcome to US Elections Untangled. I am Maria Annala from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and I am going to be your host throughout this podcast series. In today’s episode we ask whether the US global leadership is coming to an end. Our guest today is Research Fellow Ville Sinkkonen from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

Annala [00:01:05]: Hi Ville, thanks for being here.

Sinkkonen [00:01:07]: Thanks a lot Maria. Glad to be here.

Annala [00:01:09]: You have told me that you find it annoying when people talk about a potential Biden presidency as if that meant a return to the Obama years. Why does that kind of wistful thinking bug you?

Sinkkonen [00:01:21]: There are, of course, a lot of reasons to believe that we will not go to a status quo ante. The first obvious one is that the world has changed too much in the last four years, and even if you look at the last less than 12 months – the pandemic has certainly changed things to an extent that it will have an impact on foreign policy priorities. That much is clear. There are a few deeper issues, I think – the pandemic is a deep issue, of course, and a tragic one. There are a few other issues that I think are quite relevant. First off, the American domestic politics… The Trump supporters and his constituency will not disappear overnight even if Trump is defeated in the elections. If, and when, Trump is defeated, the disenchantment of his supporters will be huge – if we want to quote Trump here. That much is clear, and you have written a lot on this and you know how committed these supporters are to Trump. They won’t disappear overnight.

          The second issue is that, of course, within the Democratic Party, as well, the progressives are not going to accept a return to a default third Obama Administration setting or a full-scale return to Obama era policies. There is a debate going on within the Democratic Party, of course. On the other hand, it is going on between the centrists – if we want to call them that – and the progressives. Also, what Brookings scholar Tom Wright has called “restorationists and reformers” within this sort of centrist camp. There are people who want to go back to the Obama era policies, but then there are people who advocate certain reforms based on that and I think Biden will have to adjudicate between these different strands within the Democratic Party. Those are the domestic factors. Then there is, of course, an even deeper divide over questions of foreign policy in the United States. Very broadly speaking, the post Second World War consensus, or post-Cold War consensus on foreign policy, has fractured. I think it has fractured beyond repair. Well, not necessarily beyond repair, but what comes in its place will have to be something different than what we had in the past.

Annala [00:04:07]: Yeah. In your opinion, what are the key elements of the American global leadership?

Sinkkonen [00:04:13]: This is going to be a bit theoretical and a bit wonky. I guess the academic term that is often used, at least partly, in placed leadership is hegemony. For present purposes, we can really use leadership synonymously. I like to think of it in three different elements or images, or building blocks or prerequisites or whatever you want to call them – I think it depends on who you are asking. I would start with the material building blocks that are necessary for a presumptive leader. We can talk about military power – much is still being made of the fact that the United States remains well ahead of its challengers when it comes to military power, even though China is catching up in that regard. According to some estimates quite rapidly. Then you have other material prerequisites like economic power. You can look at the size of the economy, you can look at the industrial base etc. Then there are other material aspects, geographical factors – the US being end out with quite a fortuitous geographical position, when it is oceans removed from the Eurasian landmass. You can think about demographic factors, the level of technological sophistication, the economy. You can look at the quality of human capital. These kinds of things. These are the material prerequisites for a state to actually mount – well, not really mount to challenge the leadership, but to actually presume to be a leader you need to have some kind of material prerequisites in place. Then there are certain intrinsic aspects that are tied to the country per se, the will to lead and the requisite ambition to pursue a leadership role in the international arena. There are various factors that have an impact on this. You can think about the quality of political institutions. There has been a lot of discussion on equality of America’s democratic institutions in the past four years, as result of the presidency, for example.

Annala [00:06:39]: Yeah and especially recently with all his attacks on mail voting and all that.

Sinkkonen [00:06:45]: Yeah, sure. This of course reflects upon how the leader can lead, ultimately. If the domestic institutions are dysfunctional, then it is going to be quite difficult for the leader to act on the international arena in any consistent or coherent manner, or to pursue a broader vision or strategy. Then, of course, we could talk about the quality of domestic leadership. Another factor that has been quite prominently debated during the Trump presidency. Public opinion on foreign policy plays a role and this we have also seen in the case of Trump’s rise to the presidency. Ideas regarding an American disengagement from the global arena. Related to that are the ideas regarding a state’s international role. The big debates that are being had within a state about how it should conduct itself on the international arena. These can have quite a bit of impact on how that state then ultimately acts on the international arena, so they are also quite relevant. So that is the intrinsic aspect, the second foundation of leadership.

          Then there is a third one. This is, in many ways, the most interesting one. We could call it the social institutional part. To be a leader you have to have followers, right? In this particular case, leadership really requires the acceptance of others in an international society. Then these followers need to regard that leader as a legitimate leader, so it is not only about being powerful. A powerful state can dominate other states, but this would not, in my view, be an example of leadership. A powerful state can probably bribe others to do things that they want, to sort of buy them out essentially to follow a certain policy, but that is not leadership either. That sort of social institutional aspect is very important. Tied to that is the idea that a leader somehow upholds international order. What does mean concretely? It can mean that provision of certain, the academic debates, called public goods. The provision of security to your allies. Keeping the global trade flows open, ensuring free access to the global commons. The seas and the aerospace for example. It also refers to certain norms and values that are fundamental for that order. There is a lot of talk about the liberal international order that, according to certain theorists, has existed since the end of the Second World War, where a lot of the values are built into that system by the United States. It’s not only about things like state sovereignty, it’s also about questions like human rights, freedom, rule of law etc.

          Then of course tied to this, again, are different institutions wherein these different norms and values are debated between states and that also function as the arenas for state cooperation. These different institutions, whether you think of the UN and its massive organizational edifice or whether you think of the WTO, you think of NATO. You think of the European Union as maybe one example of an institution that has come into existence partly as a result of the bargain between the United States and Europe. And then of course vital for this whole edifice are all the different relationships that the leader has with the other states. I already referred to the fact that a leader can only lead if it has followers. Tied into all of this is the imperative of being able to manage different international relationships. Especially, I would argue, to manage relationships with states who are friends and allies.


[Podcast interlude 00:11:16]: US Elections Untangled.


Annala [00:11:23]: Yeah, a lot of these things you are talking about sound like things that Trump is not very good at. Or that he has taken a very unorthodox approach to. How do you think President Trump defines the US’ global power? Not the same way you do, I think.

Sinkkonen [00:11:40]: Not really, no. He is not very privy to this final social institutional aspect of American leadership. I can certainly agree with your take there. The thing about Trump is that he is very set in his ways, first off, when you think about his foreign policy views. We read some of the stuff from the 1980s interviews and the ad that he had, I think in the New York Times and in Washington Post as well. You look at that, the gist of what we could call a Trumpian approach to foreign policy, it’s all there, right? He is critical of allies. Critical of the fact that others take advantage of the United States, in term of security commitments. And he is also obsessed with trade deficits. It’s just that the target Trump’s critique has really changed over the years. He is not lambasting Japan anymore; he is lambasting China for the same reason – trade deficits. I think, this is actually his major beef with China anyway, he is more concerned about the trade aspect.

          It is a different question, how concerned he is about this broader great power competition aspect of it, but we can get back to that perhaps later. But building from that, I think it is central that Trump’s approach to a foreign policy is this kind of critique of what he calls globalists, what might be called liberal internationalists. He is very skeptical of these security commitments that the US has through NATO, and through its Hub-and-Spoke security system in the Asia-Pacific with Japan, with South Korea. He is more skeptical about these than the people in his administration, so clearly, they have kind of been able to keep some of his impulses in check in this regard. He is not a fan of multilateral institutions and treaties. Those institutions that I just spoke about and there are a lot of examples from his presidency, from the pull outs from the Trans-Pacific Partnership early on, the Paris Agreement of the climate change, of course. The Iran nuclear deal, and WHO most recently. He is clearly very skeptical when it comes to multilateral institutions ad their utility for the United States. Also tied to this kind of critique of globalism, there has really been a rhetorical shift and that shift has been from speaking about democracy and human rights, which have been central to the American idea of its own global leadership. He has shifted to talking about things like sovereignty or patriotism, for example.

Annala [00:14:34]: Yeah. You mentioned the military and economic power that is sort of the basis for the US to have this role. Trump seems to care about having a big, powerful military and a big, powerful economy, but it seems to me that he is not really accumulating those things for the purpose of propping up this US leadership role, it’s more just that he wants them for the sake of having them. For no other reason.

Sinkkonen [00:15:05]: Yeah. You could even go as far as saying that he is power obsessed in that regard and I think that you wouldn’t be too far off the mark. It is interesting, he has really been pushing this building up America’s military capabilities. There are some signature moves, like building of the Space Force for example. The thing is, like you say, he is not necessarily very keen to use that military power. The instances where he has done so, they have been more like spectacles. Almost like public relations spectacles, forming the airfield in Syria or the strike against Soleimani. The military almost seems to be this kind of status marker or a marker of prestige for him. To an extent he thinks similarly about the economy as well.

Annala [00:16:03]: Yeah, I keep thinking about how he wanted to surround himself with generals. He was so proud to have a lot of people with military background in his cabinet. He was referring to them as “my generals”, but then in the end he didn’t really get along with them because – it seems to me, he doesn’t have a lot of respect for the military himself. If all these leaked reports are true, what he has been saying about people dying in combat being losers and things like that. It doesn’t seem to stem from a personal high respect of the military, it’s more that people would think he is powerful, and he is really something if he has a lot of generals surrounding him.

Sinkkonen [00:16:49]: Yeah, I think what he didn’t realize is that a lot of these generals that he surrounded himself with, where actually quite aware of these sort of social institutional aspects of American global leadership that we have talked about earlier. Similarly, to this kind of building up the military power, I think the generals – “my generals” as Trump called them – were sort of status markers for Trump.

Annala [00:17:15]: How about Joe Biden then? It seems to me that his thinking, when it comes to the US’ global leadership role, is very different from Trump’s.

Sinkkonen [00:17:25]: Yeah, it’s very different in terms of both style and substance. Clearly Biden believes that the United States should leave his pledge to restore the international leadership. I think that is the starting point for Biden, when it comes to foreign policy. He is not going to be like Trump who builds his international relationships on the basis of these deal-based transactions – sort of issue specific transactions, these Trump’s deals, so to speak. Biden wants to build up – or let’s say rebuild – all these important relationships that the United States has, especially with its allies and partners, whom he regards as extremely important. He regards them as intrinsically important in the sense that they share America’s values, but also important from an instrumental standpoint. They are sort of forceful suppliers for the United States, essentially.

Annala [00:18:32]: One of the biggest assets, I think.

Sinkkonen [00:18:35]: Exactly. Especially when you compare with America’s allotted great power rival in this coming age of great power competition, China. China does not have that kind of broad international network of allies that the United States has. Biden has this idea of for example putting together a summit of democracies to deal with shared threats. He clearly emphasizes that aspect of America’s global leadership. He also thinks that values are important in the US foreign policy, something that Trump clearly does not think. I kind of referred to that already earlier. Biden is really concerned about issues and democracy, human rights, freedom etc. Not maybe to the extent that he would go on these moralistic crusades around the world to spread democracy, but he clearly thinks that these are important in and of themselves. These values are something that the United States needs to promote in the international arena. Biden is really a class apart from Trump. I think the more – we already kind of touched upon it – the more important analytical framework when you look at Biden, is not how different he is from Trump, it’s more about how different he will be from Barack Obama in this regard. There are of course a lot of similarities.

Annala [00:20:03]: Will be – or perhaps would be, he hasn’t won yet. 

Sinkkonen [00:20:07]: Yeah, of course, there would be. We could think about foreign policy thinking, Biden and Obama, that’s sort of what I was referring to. If you look at what Biden says about foreign policy and if you look at what transpired during Obama and what Obama would say – there is a lot of overlap. Of course, there is a lot of people from the Obama Administration who would then get jobs in the Biden Administration. They sort of draw from the same foreign policy debates, draw from the same pool of people, when it comes to positions in the administration and to foreign policy ideas per se.

Annala [00:20:54]: When it comes to foreign policy, what do you think Trump’s legacy will be? 

Sinkkonen [00:20:58]: That is a really interesting question, I think. If there is something that really stands apart from the Trump era now, even though I kind of said at some stage that it’s not necessarily that Trump buys into this whole idea of great power competition or strategic competition, maybe he is more concerned about trade deficit and China. The centrality of seeing China as a great power challenger and gearing up for this era of great power competition. I think that that will certainly outlive the Trump presidency. There was discussion about this issue before. Obama had his tidbits of Asia, which was then rebranded as rebalancing. Clearly the challenge of China has been on the radar, but I think it is during these four years of the Trump Administration, that it is really become this core tenet of US approach to the world. I also think that there clearly is an emerging by bipartisan consensus, that there is a need to confront China and there is a need to confront China in a holistic manner. That means, not only when it comes to the traditional geopolitical questions or China’s increasing assortedness in its near abroad, but it also is very much a question of geo-economics, answering China’s economic challenge, and it is also a question of an ideological struggle between democracy and authoritarianism. There is a strong aspect of technological rivalry in there as well, this is especially pronounced in the sphere of these new emerging technologies, whether we talk about 5G or whether we talk about artificial intelligence. It is really a holistic battle and we have seen the narrative manifestation of it in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. We see these clashing narratives between the United States and China, about who is to blame for the pandemic. Granted, this sort of Trumpian trope of putting the blame squarely on China and calling this the China virus or the Wuhan virus or what have you. That is more catered to his domestic audiences, as are this sort of conspiracy theories that we heard some Chinese official’s voice. Nevertheless, there is this kind of narrative contest for this pandemic situation and I think we will see more of that as well. In that sense it is a holistic branding of great power competition and it pervades all these different domains, arenas and regions in global politics. 

Annala [00:24:09]: Another thing you mentioned earlier is that the Trump supporters are not going away. That’s what I have been saying as well. The reasons people voted for Trump, the reasons they felt drawn to him in the first place, those identity political issues and other reasons behind the Trump phenomenon, they are not going anywhere. That is another reason why I feel that republican politics and American politics on the whole is going to change for good. That is, in a way, also part of Trump’s legacy. I think he made some of these identity political factors and other underlying factors much more visible, and now that the cat is out of the bag we can’t really go back. The politicians are going to have to be aware of all these factors from now on. 

Sinkkonen [00:24:59]: Yeah, of course that is extremely important. We think of it in terms of foreign policy and go back to this idea of global leadership, or more broadly than foreign politics, perhaps about American global engagement. This Trump phenomenon as it has surfaced and as these Trumpian ideas about America’s international role have become more mainstream. It has created a situation where we can expect a lot more oscillation, more violent swings, when it comes to how the United States approaches its international role between different administrations. That is an international level of manifestation of the Trump phenomenon. These ideas, transactionalist ideas, nationalist ideas, about international institutions, about America’s place in the world, about putting America first, create a situation where you can have a presidency if Biden wins, where the US sort of comes back from the cold and tries to reassume this mantle of global leadership. But then in four years’ time there is the real risk that you will have some other politician, who will tap into this Trumpian or Trump’s constituency, and then you will see another violent swing in how the United States looks at the world and how the United States thinks about alliances or multilateralism or different aspects of its foreign policies. This is something that has certainly become a prospect in the Trump era, as a result of Trump.

Annala [00:27:00]: Yeah, and that is something that the allies, the partners and the adversaries also aware of. Now that we have all become aware that the US might turn inward and might just be all about America first, the European leaders and other allies, they are not going to forget it. They are not going to back to this false thinking that they are never going to leave us, we can always rely on them. That innocence has been lost and it is not coming back no matter what the next post Trump president does and says.

Sinkkonen [00:27:40]: Yeah, this sort of seed of doubt has been sown in the minds of allies – and also in the minds of adversaries, I guess. That much is clear. Now, it is a different question how much that will concretely lead allies to pursue some sort of hedging strategies, or to what extent that will really function as a driving force for example the Europeans to further try to build up their, whether we call it the European sovereignty or strategic autonomy. That is still an open question. Or whether they go back into this post Trumpian lull where they think that things are better now. But as you said, there’s certainly a lot of people who have become very aware of this risk that we will see another drastic change in US foreign policy, four or eight years down the line. If Trump loses this election. Then we have an interregnum presidency and then we will have something more Trumpian in the future.

Annala [00:28:55]: I think we are about to run out of time but to finish this off, could you describe one nightmare scenario and one optimistic scenario about what the 2020 elections could mean for the US’ global leadership.

Sinkkonen [00:29:06]: I think the negative scenario is, we would have a second Trump administration. Potentially, a second Trump administration as a result of a very contested election, a drawn-out contested election, that already erodes the domestic foundations of US leadership. We would have a presidency where Trump, even more than in the past four years, gets to have his way and these Trumpian impulses have an even bigger impact on what US foreign and security policy and US trade policy look like. I think that is from the standpoint of a lot of Europeans, at least, a nightmare scenario. The positive scenario is that – or there actually are two positive scenarios, let’s put it this way.

Annala [00:30:08]: Wow.

 Sinkkonen [00:30:08]: There is the less likely positive scenario that Trump does win the election and then something miraculous happens and he actually does a George W. Bush. Which would mean that he would revert to a more internationalist Trumpian foreign policy. He would have some kind of an awakening and he would say “okay, maybe we have been a bit too hard on the allies. We need to reassure them. Maybe we need to rethink our relationships and international institutions. Maybe we need to be nicer to our allies because we want to answer the challenge of China and for that we need our allies.” Now this is a very unlikely positive scenario. The other positive scenario is that we have a changing of the guard in the White House and a situation where the US assumes leadership. It assumes leadership in combatting these shared global threats that we all face. Namely, the climate crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Which are two massive issues – potentially existential implications for humanity. I think, in these cases US leadership is sorely missed at the current moment. To have an American administration that really is very concerned about climate change and is also willing to take a lead in combatting this pandemic and potential future pandemics.

Annala [00:31:40]: Well, here’s hoping for good things to come. Thanks so much for being on this show.

Sinkkonen [00:31:45]: Thank you very much Maria.

[Podcast outro 00:31:46]: Thanks for listening. Please tune in next week for our next episode. We will be discussing the role the US has in international cooperation, for example in the UN and when it comes to human rights. Our guest will be Leading Researcher, Katja Creutz from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

[recording ends]