Trump v. Biden: A Duel of Veterans Over Two Irreconcilable Americas
This article was originally published in French in L’Opinion on January 7, 2024.
The 2024 United States presidential election promises to be particularly challenging for the United States and the world due to the hyperpolarization it exacerbates, the risks of paralysis and even constitutional crisis it could induce, and its international ramifications at a time when geopolitical crises require predictable American leadership.
The scenario of a new Biden-Trump duel once again exposes the United States and its allies to the risk of commitments made by the Democratic administration being called into question, just as Trump has unraveled numerous international agreements sealed by his predecessors. When Biden announced in 2021 that “America [was] back,” European capitals retorted: “For how long?” In so doing, they were questioning the reliability of US leadership and admitting that their relationship with Washington would henceforth evolve according to more uncertain and potentially reversible four-year cycles, making it impossible to forge a long-term relationship of trust.
The very prospect of a Trump re-election is forcing Europe to take seriously the deep-rootedness of Trumpism within American society and to admit that it is not a “parenthesis”. In many respects, Trump's “America first” has rubbed off on Biden's “America is back,” which expects its European allies to align with his priorities and presents them with a fait accompli when it comes to safeguarding US interests.
The likely return of the Biden-Trump duel thus prompts Europeans to question themselves on (1) the state of American democracy and (2) the reliability of its international leadership, and (3) to rethink the terms of the transatlantic partnership.
1. Biden-Trump: An Indicator of the State of American Democracy
Trump dominates this presidential campaign: He is its central figure, and his indictments have strengthened his electoral base and his vindictive rhetoric. He is setting the agenda for a Trumpified Republican Party, and also dominating the Democratic campaign: Biden would not have run again had Trump not been the candidate. Their fates are linked, and each presents the other as a threat to American democracy. Their very bleak vision of the United States’ future should the other win reflects Americans' pessimism about the state of their democracy. More than a third of Americans believe that Biden's 2020 election was illegitimate, and seven out of ten think Trump will not concede if he loses in 2024. The decision by the Colorado Supreme Court and the State of Maine to declare Trump ineligible for the Republican primary fuels the Trumpist narrative of an election "stolen” from the people.
If re-elected, Trump would purge the Justice Department, appointing loyalists to investigate and prosecute his political opponents, including President Biden and his inner circle, and strengthen his control over the Republican Party and federal agencies. His campaign team, led by an armada of lawyers and veterans of his first term (Robert Lighthizer, Russell Vought, Stephen Miller), shares his vision of dismantling the "deep state", pursuing protectionist economic policies, adopting an isolationist approach to foreign policy, and maintaining a hard line on immigration.
While Trump's popularity rating has never been higher, Biden suffers from a double handicap: his age and his economic record, which struggles to convince despite full employment (3.9% unemployment), strong growth (4.9% annualized), inflation down to 2.6%, its lowest in three years, and massive investments (2,000 billion over the next five years in infrastructure, jobs, and industry—the Infrastructure ill, Inflation Reduction Act, Chips Act)—but whose concrete effects have yet to be felt by Americans.
On climate, Trump has pledged to take the United States out of the Paris agreements once again, promising a return to combustion-powered cars and an overhaul of the IRA, including tax breaks and subsidies for electric vehicles. And yet, the Republican states of the “rust belt” are the main beneficiaries of federal aid. Politically, therefore, Trump will not find the support he needs to overhaul the IRA in depth. The shift towards economic nationalism, merging industrial policy with national security, is here to stay.
With the exception of the climate and the alliances in which he has reinvested, Biden has extended and even deepened Trump's policies: on trade issues (refusal to unblock the WTO appellate body, maintaining taxes on Chinese imports, implementing the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada) and strategic issues (withdrawal from Afghanistan, implementing the Abraham Accords in the Middle East, maintaining the US embassy in Jerusalem).
2. Biden-Trump: A Recalibration of American Leadership
With the superimposition of crises and the US involvement in three theaters (Ukraine, Israel/Hamas, and China on the eve of the Taiwanese elections), geopolitics is increasingly invading the daily lives of Americans and will influence the November 5 vote.
Debates over the sustainability of US military aid to Ukraine ($45 billion since 2022) and Europe's insufficient contribution (€27 billion) mark this campaign. Biden or Trump, Europe must prepare for a reduction in US aid to Ukraine. However, the European defense industry has not achieved the expected results: The goal of 1 million rounds of munitions for Kyiv has been met only partially—around 30%. The spread of conflict in the Middle East will prompt the next US administration to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine. Biden is already taking this approach, and Trump is reportedly seeking a "deal" with Putin in exchange for territorial concessions from Ukraine. In any case, Washington's pressure on the Europeans to step up their support for Ukraine will only increase. NATO, meanwhile, will remain a useful organization for Washington, even under Trump, as long as it places China and technological innovation at the heart of its agenda, and the European market benefits the US defense industry.
As for the war between Israel and Hamas, more than two-thirds of Americans disapprove of Biden’s handling of the crisis—especially the young voters who contributed to Biden's victory in 2020. The chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 had already strengthened the perception of Biden as incompetent in international affairs. The regionalization of the conflict in South Lebanon and Yemen, and the growing number of attacks on US military bases in Iraq and Syria, are forcing the Biden administration to beef up its military presence in the Red Sea and step up its diplomatic efforts in the region.
Under the next administration, US leadership will be even more selective and will delegate more under a policy of regional outsourcing of crisis management, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.
Finally, strategic competition with China is the framework structuring all the axes of American domestic and foreign policy, and the subject on which Democrats and Republicans are most aligned is reducing US technological dependence on China (semi-conductors) and curbing China's capacity for innovation (export and investment controls).
With Trump, Washington's pressure on its European allies would likely intensify to align with US policy and "choose" between the United States and China. [A Trump administration] would also impose reciprocal tariffs on all countries that imposed them on the United States.
3. Biden-Trump: An Overhaul of the Transatlantic Relationship
Europe must face up to a threefold reality: "America first" will remain the priority, US international commitments will be fluctuating and transactional, and competition with China will be the main determinant of US policy and [Washington’s] relationship with Europe.
Europe must therefore gain political and strategic autonomy and strengthen its financial and economic tools for geopolitical purposes, as it has begun to do with Ukraine, and in response to Russia and China.
However, the race to sign bilateral agreements with the United States (Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) runs counter to this European imperative in favor of a transactional logic: guaranteeing US security in exchange for the purchase of American weapons.
Our annual Transatlantic Trends survey shows that the Dutch, Lithuanians, and Romanians are leading the way in their desire for greater European autonomy in defense matters. France must seize this opportunity to get its defense industrial cooperation projects (SCAF, MGCS) back on track, and broaden alliances beyond the Franco-German partnership. Germany is already doing this with Italy, Sweden, and Spain for the successor to the Leopard 2 tank, for example. France must rethink its partnership strategy, and create a ripple effect around the development of European defense capabilities.
This is where Europe can be a more credible partner for Washington. The future of the transatlantic link will no longer come from Washington, but from European initiatives.
Translated by Alix Frangeul-Alves and Marco Gerbino.