As the American people make their way to the polls on Election Day, we take a final look at how the world might be different depending on whether Trump or Biden wins, and what this might mean for Hungary.
If Trump is reelected, the U.S. will keep withdrawing from the international scene, and the world order as we know it will continue its decline, Zoltán Fehér, a researcher at Tuft University’s Fletcher School focusing on American foreign policy writes in his article for Azonnali. According to Fehér, based on what Trump has said during his campaign and his foreign policy to date, the central tenets of his approach to international relations are isolation, withdrawal from armed conflicts, armament, and more attention to China.
Firstly, Trump is famous for his “America first” policy, attempting to put the U.S. front and center in any and all foreign policy decisions. This has largely meant a break with the country’s approach to international relations since the end of the Cold War, and relinquishing America’s position as a global leader in favor of pursuing the country’s own interests directly. So far, this has entailed withdrawing or starting the withdrawal process from the following:
- Trans-Pacific Partnership
- Paris Agreement
- UN Human Rights Council
- Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (with Russia)
- Optional Protocol to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations
- Universal Postal Union
- Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights (with Iran)
He has also loosened ties with NATO, and threatened to withdraw from the WTO. Most analysts believe that however unpredictable Trump’s policies may be, he will likely broadly continue this trend into his second term if reelected.
Secondly, not only is he withdrawing from diplomatic institutions and agreements, but he is also attempting to end armed conflicts. Trump, like Obama before him, promised to withdraw all troops from Syria, and more broadly, end America’s “never-ending wars.” Although he did not quite accomplish this, he has made some progress. While he did more than happily utilize the U.S. military’s expansive toolkit for warlike conduct in the Middle East, he is the first U.S. president in decades to not start a war.
Thirdly, like Clinton and Bush before him, Trump places great emphasis on U.S. armed forces, their continued modernization, and power of deterrence, Fehér writes. Although it may seem contradictory that he is attempting to withdraw from conflict as well as arm the military, it could well be that since war is expensive, he sees deterrence as a more favorable option. Moreover, spending more on the military may have little to do with international issues, and more with the U.S. labor market, popularity among voters, and the interests and influence of the military-industrial complex.
Collectively, foreign policy expert Walter Russel Mead calls Trump’s approach to foreign policy “jacksonian” after President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), which a large portion of the American populace supports, Fehér highlights. In essence, this entails upsetting the liberal international order that emerged after the fall of the USSR.
Fourthly, Fehér notes that Trump is the first U.S. president to treat China not as a strategic partner, but as a competitor, and rightly so. China has consistently ignored intellectual property rights, forced foreign companies into partnerships in exchange for gaining access to the Chinese market, and contorted that market in favor of selected domestic corporations. On the back of manufactured success achieved domestically, some Chinese companies have recently started to gain ground globally, often buying themselves into international ccorporations and ventures – a march to dominance partly built on breaking the law, partly on disregarding international norms, and partly, like it or not, on ingenuity. However we slice it, as the President likes to say, China does not play by the rules.
Thus, Trump has begun a war long in the making, and only avoidable through surrender. Too late? Maybe. Necessary? Absolutely. As to whether that war has to be waged through trade or via other means is a different question entirely.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden himself would take up Trump’s adversarial attitude towards China, albeit perhaps in a more civilized manner, and using different methods. According to Fehér, Biden will not continue Trump’s trade war, because it is upsetting the global system of free trade constructed by and for the U.S. Nevertheless, he will have to be tough on China, especially given Republicans’ insinuations of association between Biden and Beijing through his son Hunter.
Apart from this issue, Fehér sums up Biden’s approach to the international scene in three words: elitist, internationalist, and liberal. In his interpretation, elitist means believing that foreign policy should be lead by established professionals in the field, and not popular opinion. Fehér posits that Biden is a member of the American political elite which has been directing the United States for decades, and which has mostly followed the so-called liberal internationalist or liberal-interventionist strategy. It is therefore likely that this will be the central idea behind Biden’s foreign policy.
Fact The foundations of liberal-interventionism were established by presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. This strategy focuses on spreading the ideals of democracy, human rights, and free trade, if need be even via the use of force. Its tenets have been central to U.S. foreign policy through to the Obama administration, thus Biden’s vice presidency. Many consider it responsible for some of the country’s worst foreign policy failures, notably to do with the Middle East.
Given this proclivity towards internationalism, it is not surprising that many experts believe Biden will reverse Trump’s policy of isolation from the rest of the world, and reenter many of the treaties and organizations the President has quit. He will no doubt attempt to reoccupy the power vacuum the U.S. itself has left over the past couple of years, and turn the country once again into a global leader; into America, first.
However, Biden has expressed his intention to renegotiate many of the terms of these agreements, placing more emphasis on the interests of the U.S. In analyst Júlia Lakatos’s words, like Trump before him, Biden has realized that there is a great exigency among the U.S. electorate to have the political elite consider that they have their own needs. As the President certainly seems to have noticed, when it comes to foreign policy, the American people may indeed want to know what they get out of it, and not in an abstract sense, but in concrete terms. If they seem to get nothing, they don’t want in, regardless of the nuanced complexities of international diplomacy.
So while Biden may be elitist, he appears to want to negotiate between the will of the people as expressed by the people themselves, and the will of the people as filtered through expert opinion. To what extent this is possible is a question we will quickly get answers to if he is elected.
Biden’s vision of foreign policy is also unquestionably liberal. Free trade, human rights, and democratic values all belong to a broader liberal framework of political thought that spreads along with American influence. These ideals do not, however, agree so well with political realities in some countries. A return to liberal internationalism may mean that U.S. relations with certain nations, like Russia, India, Turkey, and of course, Hungary, become more strained than they are now given Trump’s affection for “autocratic” leaders and Biden’s complete lack thereof.
The Hungarian Connection
So, how will Hungary’s situation be different depending on whether Trump or Biden emerges victorious, and how would Hungary be better off? According to foreign policy expert Máté Szalai, there are three main facets to this question.
International trade and politics
The first of these is the issue of international trade and politics, where Szalai believes a Biden presidency is ever so slightly more advantageous for Hungary. The reason Biden may be slightly preferable for Hungary in this realm is threefold.
Primarily, Biden supports international institutions and free trade more than Trump, which is beneficial to Hungary due to the country’s size and the structure of its economy. Secondly, Trump is unpredictable, frequently goes back on decisions, and often ignores his advisors. Swift and definitive responses are typically preferable for global partners during crises – although it is important to note that the Obama administration itself was rarely quick or decisive in questions of foreign affairs. Thirdly, Biden does not deny that climate change is a global priority, which is beneficial to humanity as a whole, although what practical implications this would have in his policies remains to be seen.
On the other hand, in Szalai’s view, unpredictability can be an asset, Trump’s transactionalism is beneficial to those in positions of power and easy to understand from a non-Western perspective, and refocusing efforts on competing with China instead of Russia was absolutely necessary for the U.S., and advantageous for Hungary. This is because, like it or not, for the country’s energy security and geopolitical situation, further deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations is not favorable.
Apart from this, according to Szalai, although at first glance the positions of the two candidates on foreign policy and trade seem completely irreconcilable, they, in fact, both give primacy to U.S. interests and look for partners in fighting for them. As mentioned above, Biden would not reverse a lot of Trump’s decisions that were called radical at the time of their birth, such as an embassy in Jerusalem, an adversarial relationship with China, and not accepting the Treaty of Amity with Iran as it was. Altogether, then, the analyst believes that there is little difference for Hungary in terms of the nature of the international environment, no matter which candidate emerges victorious, but Biden is a tiny bit better… perhaps.
Second is the question of European interests. Szalai believes that a Biden presidency is better for Europe. Since Hungary is a member of the EU and the transatlantic community, the success of the EU and NATO is in our interest. Biden’s internationalism and multilateralism makes him clearly more advantageous for Hungary in this regard.
Moreover, while Trump has compared the EU to China, and in a sense views Europe as an economic rival (not incorrectly, as Szalai points out), Biden is more likely to try and cooperate with the EU. Trump has also expressed his dissatisfaction with NATO multiple times and has sought to diminish its importance in U.S. security policy. This can be expected to continue, despite recent hints to the possible reversal of this trend.
Bilateral U.S.-Hungarian relations
Trump, Trump, a thousand times, Trump. As Hungary Today has previously laid out in detail, American-Hungarian relations are much more amicable under Trump than they were under Obama, and than they are expected to be under Biden. As Prime Minister Viktor Orbán put it:
[The Hungarian government roots] for Donald Trump’s victory, because we are well-acquainted with American Democratic governments’ foreign policy built on moral imperialism. We have sampled it before, even if involuntarily. We did not like it, we do not want seconds.”
The government’s relationship with the Democrats, including Biden, is rather strained. The Obama administration avoided bi-lateral contact with the Orbán-led Hungarian government for years as retribution for what they saw as efforts to establish authoritarian rule. Just a couple of weeks ago, Biden expressed his disapproval of what he believes is the rise of totalitarianism in Hungary at his town hall meeting in Philadelphia.
In contrast, Trump and Orbán have an “exceptionally good relationship,” in the Prime Minister’s own words. Trump even invited him for a meeting at the White House, which passed in unusually good spirits. David B. Cornstein, former Ambassador to Hungary who was present at the event, quoted the President telling the Prime Minister:
It’s like we’re twins.”
Indeed, the leaders are of a like mind on many issues. They peddle anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric. They appeal to national pride and focus on national sovereignty and perceived threats to it. They also emphasize the importance of Christian values publicly and purport to support families. Thanks to all this, Hungary’s relationship to the U.S. is perhaps the best it has ever been.
From the perspective of the Hungarian opposition, while it may be exciting to hear the American President criticize the Hungarian government, in a practical sense, having Biden in the White House would simply mean that Hungary’s opportunities would shrink, it would certainly not topple the current government.
Overall, then, which candidate would be better for Hungary depends on what one considers more important, Szalai concludes. Both have their benefits, and both have their drawbacks from our country’s perspective.
Of course, Hungarians do not elect the president, Americans do. Yet we watch, enraptured, this great theater of politics, for the future of billions hinges on the outcome.
Featured photo illustration by MTI/EPA/Branden Camp