A U.S. election that redefines global leadership

With both presidential candidates being doves on America’s role, other nations are stepping up to carry the torch of universal values.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks after a European Union summit Oct. 15 that focused on topics ranging from climate to Africa.

Almost every U.S. presidential election is historic, but the 2020 one is unique in a special way: Both major candidates are foreign-policy doves. Each promises to end overseas wars, push allies to pay more for their defense, and be skeptical of free trade pacts. In other words, three decades after the United States became the world’s sole superpower, an election may see it choose to shed global power.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, for example, wants to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” something President Donald Trump has tried to do for nearly four years. Each has concerns about a proposed trade deal among Pacific nations. And each wants Europe to rely less on American security forces.

To be sure, Mr. Biden would still display classic U.S. leadership on climate change, the pandemic, and a few other global issues. But his reputation in Washington is that of someone who prefers American retrenchment in order to focus on domestic issues, especially with rising concerns about racial justice and poverty. Like Mr. Trump, he reads the polls showing nearly half of Americans want to lower the number of U.S. troops in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

This election is thus historic in reshaping global leadership away from the U.S. and toward other nations. Many of them are already preparing for the task. Japan, for example, is trying to uphold free trade in Asia. More nations are forming regional pacts on security and the environment. Others hope to revive international bodies, such as the World Trade Organization.

More than any other place, Europe has recognized the leadership challenge. Last year, the European Commission decided that the continent must take on a strong “geopolitical” role. This includes setting up a European military force to complement NATO, defining the West’s response to China, setting privacy rules for tech giants, and lifting up African nations to slow migration.

As the U.S. alters its role, “we in Europe and especially in Germany need to take on more responsibility,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told the Financial Times. “I’m guided by the firm conviction that the best win-win situations occur when partnerships of benefit to both sides are put into practice worldwide. This idea is under increasing pressure,” she said. Germany plans to push for reform of global institutions – such as the United Nations and WTO – that the U.S. helped set up.

Here’s why this global shift is so important: Even if the U.S. partially withdraws even more after the election, the drive to reflect universal values in global governance will continue. Like a superpower, the ideals that the U.S. helped implant over the past century are now leading as much as any country or person can.

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