THE policies of the United States, even domestic ones, tend to have global implications. A travel ban on Muslims, deportation of illegal immigrants and the building of the US-Mexico wall have invoked responses from around the world. Thus, despite the raging Covid-19 pandemic, the upcoming US presidential election attracts attention as its outcome matters at home and abroad. Some ongoing issues could be affected by the outcome of this election.

One, the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. The US hit an unfortunate milestone on July 23 as Covid-19 infections reportedly hit four million figures with over 143,000 fatalities. In the US, public health and the management of the pandemic come under state purview albeit with assistance from the federal government.

Each state has to decide on lockdown measures, standard operating procedures, provision of protective gear, as well as medical care. Without clear direction and leadership from the White House, it is difficult to mount a comprehensive and cohesive strategy, which inevitably leads to failure in containing the pandemic. In a global pandemic, as long as a single person, let alone a nation, is infected, then the entire world remains vulnerable.

Two, the America First attitude. During his election campaign, Trump pledged to “make America great again” by protecting American jobs and industries, reducing taxes, restricting immigration and engaging in “smart trade”.

Trump’s trade policy is likely to have the biggest impact globally. In January 2017, he signed an executive order to withdraw American participation from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and sought to renegotiate the North America Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada.

Trump favours bilateral agreements, using tariff as a tool to negotiate better deals. Trump’s trade dealing with China is contentious, resulting in tit-for-tat retaliations and possibility of a trade war.

TPPA member countries encompass 40 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product. Thus, quitting it was regrettable as it has the potential to grow into a de facto world trade agreement or perhaps provide the impetus to kick-start the stalled World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade talks.

Three, the ongoing containment of China. The notion of China containment policy began a decade ago with the announcement of Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy, coupled with the US push for TPPA, which excludes China.

Trump’s China policy did not start on the right foot as he publicised a phone conversation with the president of Taiwan in February 2017, a break from the normal practice. He openly questioned the one-China policy. The following year, tension escalated further as Trump announced a sweeping tariff on Chinese import as a response to theft allegations of US technology and intellectual property by China. China’s retaliation resulted in tit-for-tat responses that have evolved into a trade war and naval grandstanding in the South China Sea.

Trump is not likely to ease his anti-China rhetoric as it is a good diversion tactic from domestic woes.

Four, the lack of trust in multilateral organisations. Throughout his term, Trump has withdrawn the US membership from three United Nations’ organisations: the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (2017), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (2018) and World Health Organisation (2020).

In December last year, the US blocked appointments of two judges to the WTO dispute settlement court, rendering the court functions non-operational. Trump’s reasoning is the court’s perceived bias against the US and the judges had overstepped their mandates.

Trump’s quarrel with WHO stems from his conviction that the organisation is pro-China. While the US dues to WHO’s operational funding ranged between US$107 million and US$119 million annually, it typically contributes four to five times more. More than 70 per cent of the contributions are voluntary and earmarked for WHO health projects in Africa and other vulnerable areas. Thus, the withdrawal will affect these countries.

Side-stepping WTO and WHO has negative impacts on global health and economic conditions, an added challenge to countries trying to navigate their way through controlling the pandemic and restarting economies.

The latest polls suggest that Trump trails fellow candidate Joe Biden. But a Biden victory is not guaranteed, as the incumbent president’s position is usually stronger than what the polls state. The more pressing question is how much change can we expect? Should he win, Biden would likely prioritise managing Covid-19 and the economy. Ultimately, the impact of US policies on the world hinges on which policies continue under the next president.

This article was first appeared in New Straits Times on 28 July 2020.

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