The last days of America

An authoritarian century has started

Whatever the outcome of the 3rd November election, the US hegemony has ended and a new era in international relations begun, writes Chris Ogden.

Much appears to be at stake in the upcoming US Presidential Election.  For liberals, a second Trump term would represent an ever-growing threat to American democracy, to objectivity in the country’s justice system and to equality for its citizens.  For Republicans, a Biden victory would usher in a radical left that would reduce economic growth, inspire mass protest and stop the white racial dominance of American institutions and daily life.  As a result, both Biden and Trump claim that they are fighting “a battle for America’s soul”.

Beyond the domestic consequences of the November 3rd vote, the US election has serious ramifications which will impact upon the US’s place on the global stage.  In international relations, great powers – the world’s most influential and powerful countries – owe their status not only to considerable economic and military strength but also the recognition of their peers.  In this way, international politics is as much about perceptions as it is about material factors, with the confluence of these elements conferring global dominance.  If such positive perceptions sour, so too then can a country’s effective status in the world.

Combined with a less than stellar and somewhat dismissive response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and despite continued economic and military capabilities, the US - in terms of how it is broadly perceived in global affairs– is in decline.  This decline marks the definitive end point of US hegemony in world affairs, and the true heralding of a multipolar international system where US leadership will need to openly compete with China, Russia, India and the European Union for legitimacy.  The death throes of the American Century, and of its western-centric world order, will also enable the emergence of an Asian Century and of a new eastern-centric world order.

Arguably the most damaging to global perceptions would be civil unrest within the US. Given that - regardless of the outcome - the sitting President remains in the White House until January, there are fears that supporters of both candidates will clash in the streets.  Such worries largely centre upon Republican voters, who may be egged on by a candidate who looks unlikely to concede defeat even if he loses, and appears to give little concern for the political and social consequences that such an action may bring.  Notably, his niece has stated that the President will go “farther than you can possibly imagine” to stay in power.  Observers also argue that violence may be unleashed even if President Trump is re-elected, as his supporters will see his second term victory as “open season to go after people that have been opponents of Trump”.

The US’s heavily armed population - in a highly fractious and divisive political environment that has already seen substantial rhetorical and physical clashes between right and left wing groups –only adds to a volatile mix, which has the major potential to unexpectedly explode.  Such a phenomenon acts in combination with the US’s heavily militarised police forces, who are “looking like they are patrolling a hostile nation”.  Notably, in 2018 there were 120 guns for every 100 citizens in the US, the world’s highest before second placed Yemen (where ownership is 53 guns per 100), and which accounts for 46% of global gun ownership (despite the US having 4% of the global population).  In the last six months, gun and ammunition sales have been booming, driven by fears of both civil unrest and coronavirus, whilst gun deaths in 2017 were at their highest since 1968.

Great powers are also designated as such by their ability to provide stable and competent leadership, coupled with the peaceful transfer of power between different leaders.  In these regards, the Trump Presidency has been characterised by a sustained psychological barrage of instability that has bounced from crisis to crisis, and from shock to shock.  Such behaviour has neither benefitted the US domestically nor enhanced international affairs.  Any dispute over the outcome of the election will only underscore these shortfalls, and further act to seriously diminish how the country is regarded on the wider world stage.  If Trump is re-elected, such trends will only accelerate at a rate that exceeds his first term.

Questions abound concerning not only the eventual outcome of the nationwide vote but also whether or not it will be carried out in a transparent and open manner.  Here, concerns have been raised ranging from potential voter intimidation at the ballot boxes and issues concerning the collation and counting of mail-in ballots, to prospective weeks of litigation to decide the outcome and the refusal of the sitting leader to accept the result.  When magnified by the ambiguity and complexity of the US electoral college system, all of these issues point to protracted confusion and mass chaos in the aftermath of the election.

More intrinsically, and regardless of the outcome in November, the very conduct of the election – in particular the aggressive, conflict-ridden first presidential debate – can be regarded by autocratic regimes as an advertisement for a flawed and schismatic political system.  From such perspectives, the US’s democratic political basis does not aid the creation of stability or certainty, and has been damaging to US legitimacy, its position in the world and the wider political relevance of democracy as the universal form of politics.  Restoring such credibility will be a herculean task for any successor to President Trump, whereby international respect and status can be quickly lost but take a long time to build.

Such US election issues - in conjunction with their ongoing consequences - also diminish universal democracy as the major political pillar of the post-Second World War US-led western world order.  Following on from the failed invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and the 2008 global financial crisis (which respectively delegitimised US military and economic power), the foundations upon which the main pillars of the current western world order is built look to be at best evermore shaky and at worst irrevocably damaged.  If the result of the US election is unclear, it will further open up a political void on the global stage, which due to Covid-19 is providing US opponents are taking advantage of.

Such a self-evident weakening will also open up strategic opportunities for other – in particular authoritarian-minded – countries to further emerge, challenge and threaten the US.  These countries will all be able to use the latest US election as evidence of a failed, diminished and illegitimate form of power, and project themselves as stable alternatives.  If President Trump wins a second term, and continues his open questioning of civil liberties, attacks on the mainstream media, and side-lining of major bureaucratic bodies, such a trend will only be augmented.  Given the political proclivities of China, Russia and increasingly India, such a victory would usher in a fully authoritarian era in global affairs. 

Chris Ogden is Senior Lecturer / Associate Professor in Asian Security at the School of International Relations, University of St Andrews.  His latest book Great Power Attributes: A Compendium of Historical Data (Edinburgh: Fifth Hammer) is available for free here.


Latest Releases
Join the conversation