Paul Poast is faculty affiliate of The Pearson Institute and an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago. His research, writing, and teaching focus on international politics and security. In this interview with Easternlink Features Editor Uddipana Goswami, he discusses the upcoming US elections and how its outcome is likely to impact the shifts that are occurring in international relations in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Goswami : Prof Poast, thank you for taking the time out to respond to our questions, especially at a time when we are all living under a global health crisis. The pandemic which caused this is only a few months old, but already we are witnessing immense shifts in the political economy of security and alliance politics, two areas of scholarship you specialize in. Could you outline some of these for our readers ?
Poast : COVID19 has impacted global political alignments and influence in a complex way, but it’s useful to consider how it is influencing the relative standing of China and the United States in the world. On the one hand, COVID19 has presented China with an opportunity to position itself as an alternative to US leadership. This could eventually allow China to offer new international institutions, such as a Chinese-led International Health Organization, that exclude the United States. However, I should stress that this is simply an “opportunity”. For instance, though the Chinese government sought to publicize its efforts to distribute medical supplies and assistance following the global spread of COVID19, recently, pushback and backlash have emerged against those efforts. Still, the pandemic has made it clear that the future will be marked by competition between the US and China for global leadership. On the other hand, COVID19 has reinforced the centrality of the US Federal Reserve and the US dollar to the global economy. Central banks around the world are turning to the Federal Reserve for financial assistance. Individuals, financial institutions, and governments around the world are seeking dollar denominated assets, such as US Treasuries, as a safe-haven. This suggests that the relative standing of the United States, at least financially, is as strong as ever.
Goswami : In your estimation, what implications do these shifts have for globalization as we know and live it? I am especially keen to know your views on how you feel the non-western world is going to respond to these changes.
Poast : The second trend I highlighted above – the entrenching of the Federal Reserve and the US dollar at the center of the global economy – suggests that much of globalization for the foreseeable future will look the same as it has in the past: a process by which the economies around the world become more deeply connected with the US economy. However, that is only in reference to the financial side of globalization. There is also the trade side With trade, the prospects are grim. Globalization has produced undercurrents of a protectionist backlash the world over. COVID19 reinforces that trend. Countries around the world have been raising barriers to trade and literally building walls on their borders, and COVID19 has brought those protectionist impulses to the fore. When combined with the failure of the Doha Round of the WTO negotiations, there are reasons to be concerned about the future of a global trade system.
Goswami : Do you think these changes in power relations among the world’s many nations will lead to tectonic shifts in internal governance? How would these changes, in their turn, impact external relations?
Poast : There has been much written lately about the interwar period (the period between the end of World War I and the start of World War II). The disruptions caused by World War I (and, it should be noted, the Spanish Flu of 1918) led to a host of changes within countries. Most concerning was the rise of fascism in Europe and the first “American First” movement in the United States. The lesson for today is that global disruptions have the potential to create a desire within countries to pull back from the world. This can be seen in support for trade and travel restrictions, and also in rising xenophobia. That desire to “retrench”, in turn, can empower groups that have a more nationalistic platform. We’re seeing this most markedly in Hungary, where the Fidesz party granted President Orban immense executive power for the purpose of addressing the coronavirus. This is meaningful, as now Hungary is fully recognized as the first non-democracy in the European Union. Would Orban give up these powers following the crisis? Probably not. Similarly, given that populism and nationalism were on the rise prior to COVID19, there is little reason to think that they will revert after the pandemic.
Goswami : I’d like to know your projections for the upcoming US elections. Just as shifts are occurring internationally, domestically too, the country is bracing for changes in the political landscape come November. I would like you to weigh in on the possible outcomes and how you feel these outcomes could impact the US’s position in the world order.
Poast : Prior to COVID19, I would have predicted Trump’s reelection. This is simply based on “structural factors” (incumbency advantage; strength of the US economy). The economic struggles, however, change that. Now I think the election favors Biden. But how will a “Biden Presidency” influence US standing in the world? First, perceptions will immediately change. Recall that Barak Obama was given a Nobel Peace prize following his election largely because he was not George W Bush. Had anything fundamentally changed at that point? Not really. Similarly, a President Biden will immediately alter perceptions of the US (should Biden then prepare for a trip to Oslo?)But to what extent will it lead to actual policy changes vis-à-vis the rest of the world? That will largely depend on the composition of the US House and Senate. For example, Biden might wish to sign a new environmental accord like the 2015 Paris Agreement. But depending on the composition of the House and Senate, such an agreement will likely suffer the same fate as the 1998 Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement: non-ratification and eventual demise.