IMAGE IS EVERYTHING

Why US elections matter to international community

Its image overseas determined by party holding the presidency and persona of POTUS.

In Summary
  • International economic and commercial relations attract investments and trade with US companies.
  • Positive perceptions also promote tourism in the United States, which generates revenue and jobs.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Image: /REUTERS

Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, once said that a functional democracy requires leadership by those with the greatest ability who were chosen by the people. Since that time, America has steadfastly followed these principles – though with varied outcomes.

Ideally, every other four years, Americans expect their chosen leaders to possess a robust vision for the country, an ability to make bold decisions, and to have good judgment, the aptitude for resolving catastrophes, and the capacity to manage relations with foreign nations. This year’s elections will again test the merits of these values after President Trump’s four-years in office.

This brief comment highlights the importance of the 2020 elections to the international community. More importantly, it examines how America’s external image will most likely change or stay the same with the outcome of this year’s election. To say this is to imply that every election and its outcome send mixed signals and images to the international community.

There is the Republican image and the Democratic image. The former is associated with strong neoliberalist policies of competition and support for big business. To many, Republicans represent the ‘near’ or far-right ideology. The Democratic Party, however, remains pro-welfare state and is considered far or near left in ideology, depending on where one sits or stands. Therefore, America’s image overseas is first determined by the party holding the presidency, and second, by the persona of POTUS.

I focus on the latter to suggest that the temperament of the elected president carries weight on how the party’s ideology is projected, either by persuasion or duress, to the international community. This individual level of analysis resonates with Aristotle’s remarks, that something so minute as a fight between two lovers can ignite war between nation-states. It is also an important lens with which to assess the aftermath of this year’s election, given the rise of populism uniquely linked to the current President’s style and approach to leadership.

Why does the external image of a country matter, and why should it be linked to the presidential election? Foremost, and specifically for the United States, is the question of global power. Since the collapse of the Soviet Communist empire in 1989, the United States has remained the international leader. That leadership carries with it a collective responsibility of a “father figure” who leads by example: superior military-industrial complex, strong economy, adherence to democratic practices, political stability, innovation, and influence.

These attributes can be split into what political scientist Joseph Nye calls ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’. The former suggests the possession of, use of, or showcase of military power. This is not for hegemonic purpose (ie self-interest goals) but for collective good such as intervention in the Syrian War to save lives or to keep peace.

Whoever is elected to the White House this year will shape America’s economic expansionism, its maintenance of global power and leadership, the security of its people and installations worldwide, and the diffusion of its policies and ideals preferably through the use of ‘soft power’.

The latter (‘soft power’ or ‘normative power’) includes the use of its economic largesse, democratic ideals, and technological innovation to spur growth and influence international followership either by practice or in policies. In this, the United States has been successful, albeit in degrees. But recent global dynamics pose greater challenge to the United States’s ability to exert positive image in other countries.

The first is the rise of China as a global competitor. As the world’s second biggest economy, China’s material capabilities present a major challenge to the United States’s leadership since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Beijing’s use of ‘soft power’ strategies is increasingly reaping her global influence, and to Western pundits, this could dislodge the United States from its global leadership position. Whoever occupies the White House on January 21, 2021, will shape how the world views the US versus China. Will Washington remain the father figure or will Beijing displace the White House from that role?

The second reason why image matters is how a global power such as the United States plays the role of ‘politics of belonging’. Through its leadership role, the United States is expected to champion problem-solving for issues affecting the global collective good. Examples include climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and other diseases, conflicts, terrorism, nuclear proliferation and poverty reduction.

Undoubtedly, the US has historically led the world in addressing most of these issues, Today, there are doubts about its role, given the government’s pandemic response, as well as the global climate change deal (the Paris Agreement) that it withdrew from in 2017. Another example is the Trump administration’s declaration to withdraw US support from the World Health Organization amid a global pandemic.

The administration has also taken steps targeting foreign students, such as its July directive to strip foreign students of their visas if they were not enrolled in face-to-face classes during the fall semester amidst the pandemic. Those actions sent a message to the rest of the world that the United States may no longer welcome foreign students.

Perhaps even more important is how favourable perceptions by foreign countries benefit the United States. International economic and commercial relations attract investments and trade with US companies. Positive perceptions also promote tourism in the United States, which generates revenue and jobs. Finally, Americans are probably more secure from foreign threats when international perceptions of the US are more favourable.

Whether or not these international perceptions are important to the American voters as they go to the polls in November remains to be seen. My own experience living abroad suggests that foreign views of the US centre on the presidency.

Whoever is elected to the White House this year will shape America’s economic expansionism, its maintenance of global power and leadership, the security of its people and installations worldwide, and the diffusion of its policies and ideals preferably through the use of ‘soft power’.

Professor of Political Science, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, US. [email protected]