COVID-19, Presidential Elections, and US Foreign Policy

The year 2020 has been a transformative one for US politics. The coronavirus outbreak forced an unexpected economic recession that has dominated and altered the presidential race. Former Vice President Joe Biden, against all odds, is now the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party and has rallied Democrats around his candidacy. These crucial developments are defining not only the presidency of Donald Trump but also US foreign policy and its positioning in the American discourse during a decisive election year.

It is noteworthy to highlight at the outset that the 1918-1920 flu pandemic (the so-called “Spanish flu,” which did not actually originate in Spain) led to the death of more than 50 million people around the globe while the death toll of World War I, during 1914-1918, was around 20 million. However, the collective memory of those two successive major crises in the early 20th century is mostly of World War I as a transformative event in the global order—notwithstanding that US President Woodrow Wilson famously contracted the flu at that time. Notably, Wilson failed in his efforts to persuade the US Congress to endorse the League of Nations, which was a product of World War I, but the mood in Washington among isolationists was already skeptical of this international organization. Moreover, a study released by the Federal Reserve in 2007 showed that although the economic effects of the flu pandemic were “short-term,” they had “a permanent influence on the atoms of human society—individuals.” The current economic recession is not the consequence of structural problems, as it was with the 2008 financial crisis, but a result of an involuntary pause in economic activities. While the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak might be limited in the long term, the challenge for Trump is that the election in November will most probably be held amid a pandemic still in progress.

While the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak might be limited in the long term, the challenge for Trump is that the election in November will most probably be held amid a pandemic still in progress.

The Political and Economic Impact of the Coronavirus

Because national economies and foreign policies are linked inextricably, it is paramount to examine the political and economic impact of this public health crisis. This context will shed light on the extent that foreign policy might be relevant in the US political discourse and the presidential election in 2020.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the expectation was that Trump would be heading toward a second term with a historically low unemployment rate and solid gains on Wall Street. This made the economy a strong suit for the sitting president and nearly not an issue on the campaign trail. Now, in the second quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate is estimated to reach 23 percent and the federal government has embarked on a massive intervention to prevent a financial crisis. The Federal Reserve lowered the interest rate to zero percent and the total amount of congressional appropriations to address the impact of the coronavirus is nearly $3 trillion. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projected that the US debt could reach 117 percent of GDP by 2025, exceeding the 106 percent record set in 1946 after World War II. The US debt-to-GDP ratio more than doubled, to 79 percent, in 2019, two years after Trump took office, and the budget deficit has now quadrupled to nearly $4 trillion since the coronavirus outbreak. However, the United States will not necessarily face a debt crisis since the lockdown is not expected to last for an extended period of time.

However, these numbers should matter because they are directly or indirectly reinforcing three pre-coronavirus trends in the Trump presidency: an authoritarian inclination of the commander-in-chief; an increasingly isolationist US foreign policy; and a growing partisan divide between Republicans and Democrats.

Worried about how the economic crash could impact his hopes for a second term, Trump is conveying a public posture that echoes authoritarian governments. This is where officials suppress or contradict medical experts and employ sympathetic media outlets (like Fox News in the US case) to launch media campaigns against those who disagree with how they are handling the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, Trump’s behavior also mirrors that of other conservative governments; an example is the turmoil in Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro joined a protest run by right-wing groups who were angry about coronavirus lockdowns and calling for a military coup. In a similar fashion, Trump approved calls by his supporters to “liberate” three states where governors disagreed with him on opening the economy, which they believed would be premature. (Incidentally, this contradicted the federal guidelines on social distancing that were to remain in place until April 30.) The display of arms by these groups recalls similar actions by groups in the Arab world that are seen as operating outside the control of the state such as Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units.

Worried about how the economic crash could impact his hopes for a second term, Trump is conveying a public posture that echoes authoritarian governments.

President Trump also floated the idea of militarizing the US-Canada border to monitor the crossing of Canadian citizens during the pandemic, a plan that did not go into effect. Biden and the Democrats will most likely make Trump’s authoritarian inclinations at home and abroad a central foreign policy theme in the presidential election. The more Trump feels that economic woes are hurting his chances, the more he will be tempted to say or do extraordinary things to rally his base and deflect the blame.

Second, the pandemic is increasing Trump’s isolationist inclination as, once again, he has rescinded the US leadership amid a global crisis. The Trump Administration frustrated Canadian officials by blocking shipments of masks to the United States to ensure their availability for domestic consumption, while accepting an offer of medical supplies from Russian President Vladimir Putin—which apparently came from a government sovereign wealth fund that has been under US sanctions since 2015. In his address to the nation on March 11, the US president blamed the European Union for not restricting travel from China, hence “new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.” Yet, Trump also played down US intelligence warnings about the coronavirus since January and announced the ban on travel from the Schengen area without notifying the European Union beforehand. Moreover, while urging to reopen the US economy, Trump reinforced his clampdown on immigration by suspending the issuance of some green cards for 60 days and stipulating that immigrants in the United States must have legal status to receive coronavirus-related public assistance.

Trump missed an opportunity to reassert American global leadership during the G-20 summit last month. He has offered to help North Korea in the handling of COVID-19 cases but showed no similar sympathy to allies in Europe and elsewhere. This US withdrawal from global leadership may continue in 2020 and beyond, pending the election results in November.

What is also contributing to this US self-isolation is the deepening political divide in the country. The pandemic is triggering a constitutional crisis around the powers of the presidency versus governors of states as the debate grows about the timing and extent of gradually easing lockdown measures. This will be partially impacted by how Europe and China experiment with similar attempts to reopen public places and services, taking into consideration that the United States has become the country with the most reported cases of the coronavirus. Trump will clearly continue to be consumed by these domestic challenges unless another global crisis emerges.

New Game Changer: The Global Oil Crisis

Initially, Trump hoped for low oil prices in 2020 to appease US consumers in an election year; however, he should have been careful what he wished for. On March 6, Russia and Saudi Arabia began an oil price war that appeared to be targeting the United States, first and foremost, because in September 2018 the country had become the world’s largest producer of crude oil. This was two and a half years after the US Congress, in January 2016, lifted a four-decade ban on US oil exports. The collapse in global oil prices in 2014-2016 and the US entrance to the oil exporters club paved the way for the Russian-Saudi oil alliance at the end of 2016. As the United States overtook competitors to become the main oil exporter, Russia and Saudi Arabia differed on who should initiate oil production cuts while the United States produced oil with no restrictions. Now, with the latest wave of an oil price meltdown that resulted from the fall in the global demand for oil, the coronavirus has accelerated the structural changes in the global oil market.

The major casualty in the process was the US oil sector, which forced Trump, 25 days after the oil price war began, to intervene in a mediation between Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). This led to an OPEC+ deal that was not able to prevent US crude to fall to negative value for the first time in history, as stockpiles overwhelmed storage facilities. With no consensus in Washington on a federal bailout to oil companies, small domestic oil businesses will most likely go bankrupt. There may also be a gradual consolidation in the oil sector that leaves the major US energy corporations in the market. In addition, the US shale revolution seems to be at a turning point as America’s energy dependence faces risks.

The US shale revolution seems to be at a turning point as America’s energy dependence faces risks.

These emerging dynamics are crucial for US foreign policy, most notably as the Trump Administration will have to walk a fine line in dealing with China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The most direct consequence of the coronavirus is most probably the intensification of the US-China rivalry, thus reinforcing Trump’s already difficult relations with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping following their bitter trade war. Trump, who has called the pandemic the “Chinese virus” (before backtracking), is under pressure by his own Republican Party to take aggressive measures against Beijing. As the world gradually inches toward new ways of living and working, Trump will have to balance between two demands inside his party: one that feeds the popular narrative of criticizing China and one that looks at the benefits of trading with Beijing, most notably by exporting US oil.

Moreover, the coronavirus might relieve Trump from previous scandals such as colluding with Russia and pressuring the Ukrainian authorities to investigate his Democratic rival Joe Biden. But with Russia sending medical equipment to the United States, Trump seems to be drawing closer to Putin. The two have signed a noteworthy joint statement with him on April 25 commemorating the 75th anniversary of a World War II meeting of US and Soviet troops at the Elbe River in 1945.

These new dynamics had prompted the White House to halt plans to form an oil alliance with Riyadh; this was before Trump threatened to stop the import of Saudi crude oil to the United States as a leverage to end the Saudi-Russia oil feud. The current oil detente between Washington, Moscow, and Riyadh means that competition over the Asian markets will resume as soon as the global economy is restored to its previous strength. Hence, Trump is expected to keep Putin and MbS at arm’s length, which would provide Biden a window of opportunity to increase his criticism. Democrats see energy efficiency and climate change as priorities, thus they are less interested in pursuing oil alliances.

The Middle East and the US Election

The topical presence of the Middle East in the US election remains limited as economic and public health concerns take center stage. However, issues with three Middle Eastern countries could potentially come up in the political discourse during the period leading to the November elections: Israel, Iran, and Turkey. Trump and Biden are on opposite sides of the spectrum on all three.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems confident that Trump would endorse Israel’s plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank by July, a move that resulted from the unity government between Netanyahu and his centrist rival Benny Gantz. When the White House released its Middle East plan in January, the expectation was that any annexation should be temporarily delayed until after the Israeli elections in March. Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, said at that time that “we need an Israeli government in place to move forward.” Hence, Trump is expected to endorse this annexation, which serves his narrative that the Republican Party is now the major US supporter of Israel. This move would put Biden in a difficult spot since endorsing this annexation would anger the left wing of the Democratic Party, whose support he desperately needs in November. Biden will most likely take some distance and adopt the line of the former presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who noted that it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to decide final status issues.

When it comes to Iran, the Trump Administration seems relentless in maintaining pressure on the Iranian regime in the period leading to the presidential election. On April 22, Trump directed the Navy to “shoot down and destroy” Iranian gunboats that “harass” US ships; this was after a provocative encounter between the two sides in the Persian Gulf. While it seems improbable, any confrontation between Washington and Tehran before November would dominate the presidential debates while raising doubts about Trump’s ability to avert dragging the United States into a war. Biden will undoubtedly defend the nuclear deal with Iran as one of former President Barack Obama’s main foreign policy legacies. Incidentally, the Trump Administration is seeking to invoke a provision in the Iran nuclear agreement to extend an arms embargo on the Islamic Republic. This could precipitate a diplomatic showdown with Russia at the United Nations Security Council as Moscow is eager to sell weapons to Tehran.

Turkey is also becoming a partisan issue, given Trump’s close relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Indeed, the White House pushed against imposing US sanctions on Ankara after Turkey acquired the Russian-made S-400 missile system and was more keen to give in to Turkish pressure in Syria. On April 24, and in a direct rebuke to Turkish authorities, Biden pledged that if elected, he would “support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide.” Biden will also maintain his criticism of Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops from Syria in 2019, which allowed the Turkish incursion. The former vice president said then that Trump “sold out” the Kurds in Syria.

US attention to Middle Eastern conflicts, both in policy-making and campaigning, is expected to be limited in 2020. 

Nevertheless, US attention to Middle Eastern conflicts, both in policy-making and campaigning, is expected to be limited in 2020. The US-Russian-Saudi oil dance will make Trump less invested in advancing a peace process in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, where conflicts will most likely persist. Arab issues are currently nonexistent in the 2020 election considerations—unless the post-coronavirus period triggers unrest in some parts of the Arab world during the coming months.

The expectation in 2020 is that the United States will be looking inward. It will ultimately either stay the course, with Trump’s reelection, or pave the way for a political transition, with Biden’s victory. For his part, the former vice president has also displayed a lack of leadership during this public health crisis and kept a relatively low profile to weather the storm. The coronavirus could make US global leadership a major issue in the presidential campaigns as more Americans realize that their country’s current commander-in-chief has fallen short in comforting a troubled nation—as well as the world—during a pressing pandemic. Trump and Biden are offering two stark choices this November and, indeed, the stakes for US foreign policy cannot be higher.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here