ANALYSIS | What a Biden or Trump election means for multilateralism

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A composite image of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump at the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020.
A composite image of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and President Donald Trump at the first presidential debate in Cleveland, Ohio, on September 29, 2020.
Jim Watson, Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

If Donald Trump wins the US election, there will be fewer global engagements, but if Joe Biden wins, it will be a different story, writes Bob Wekesa.

The debate between unilateralism and multilateralism has been a major point of discussion during the 2020 edition of the US elections. This is because, under President Donald Trump's self-declared "America First" policy, the US has exited several multilateral arrangements.

It is clear that if Trump is re-elected, an inward-looking America will intensify the agenda of building the US as a global power. This will mean less and less global engagements especially at the world governing body, the United Nations. Would other nations embrace this approach? Not at all!

It is indeed the reason that many countries are critical of America's withdrawal from global institutions and agendas that President Donald Trump attracts more negative than positive sentiment around the world. The interesting point to note is that Trump won't fall over himself to garner positive sentiment in Africa and elsewhere in the world.   

On the other hand, if the Democratic Party candidate Joe Biden wins, America will likely return to global engagement.

Foreign policy 

If anything, Biden's political career over the years has been forged in foreign policy. Apart from his serving as vice president for a decade - a position that lends itself to foreign policy work - he served as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years. In fact, if Biden wins, the question African strategists should ask themselves is: who will be the next Secretary of State and what are his or her positions on Africa?

A caveat is however necessary; ideological, economic and health concerns are so rife in the US that even a Biden administration would have enough on its plate domestically. The issues that would keep Biden busy at home and prevent his foreign engagement are numerous and include managing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic; attempting to address the polarised class and racial divisions and inequalities; and managing an economy facing a recession. These will likely slow the US engagement with the rest of the world, Africa included.

READ | Francis Kornegay: Trump or Biden? What's in store for US-SA relations post election 2020

Another point to note is that some aspects of official US engagements with Africa will likely remain the same whether Trump or Biden wins. Programmes delivered under the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), scholarship programmes and the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), to name but three, will remain unaffected regardless who is elected.

Clearly, the number of global issues for which unilateralism or multilateralism can be discussed with regards to a Trump or a Biden presidency are many. Two of the issues, however, stand out: climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.

Climate change 

In many respects, the departure from the point of view of global politics will be climate change related engagements. It will be recalled that Trump made good his threat to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement in 2017, despite calls by world leaders for him to halt the decision. In his second term, Trump would consolidate this withdrawal position.

Climate related challenges have ravaged the world in recent times, leading to far reaching ramifications. Consider just one consequence - the desertification in the Sahel region of Africa which, has, in turn, led to perilous crossings across the Mediterranean into Europe.

Increasingly, climate change issues are tied to other dynamics including health and economy. Africa has had more than its fair share of these challenges. For this reason, it can be expected that Africans would not favour a Trump administration.  

Trump has made his arguments against the US involvement in the Paris agreement known. A key point in his pulling out the US has been that America was made to pay a bigger price than other countries such as China and India which are said to contribute a lot to environmental pollution. Scientists and environmental activists have not only disagreed with Trump, but made climate related issues a major point of contention in this election.    

It is a foregone conclusion that Joe Biden would return the US to the UN with regards to matters of climate change.

Toward this end, Biden has crafted the Clean Energy Revolution which is also being referred to as the Green New Deal. This will be a sure way of returning the US to the Paris Agreement probably through a fresh round of negotiations. One notes that the Biden proposal is one that incorporates climate mitigation strategies with renewable energy solutions.

This is a strategy calculated at both managing environmental events, while engaging in economically sound livelihood and wealth production activities. More importantly, it includes elements of the US rallying the rest of the world to climate change mitigation action, in other words, the return of the US to the global stage.   

Covid-19 pandemic

While climate change will be a longer term multilateral issue, battling the pandemic is a more centre-forward matter. As with the Paris climate agreement, it can be expected that Trump would maintain the US' withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year.

In the case of Africa, the Trump administration resorted to pandemic related assistance through its diplomatic infrastructure including the USAID. This can be read as part of Trump's plan to singularly strengthen US institutions. Indeed, a quick look at the donations to Africa from the US shows that they are quite substantial. 

READ | John Stremlau: A Biden win would be good for Africa

Biden is on record saying he would restore the US to the WHO while addressing the mishaps with this global body over the pandemic.

This would be appreciated by Africans, not least because the current director of the WHO is an Ethiopian diplomat, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

It will be recalled that when Trump raised the crescendo of attacks on the WHO under the broader anti-Chinese rubric, African leaders such as African Union chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and Rwanda's Paul Kagame came to the defence. As an economically weak region, Africa benefits quite a lot from the US' monetary and technical support for the WHO.


At any rate, Biden's support for a global approach to the search for Covid-19 vaccines would be attractive to the African continent. The levels of scientific wherewithal on the continent, mean they will be on the receiving rather than productive end of vaccine development.

With just a week to go, it would appear that citizens of the world would vote for Biden rather than Trump.

However, the 2016 elections, when it appeared that former secretary of state Hillary Clinton would win, showed us the value of being cautious. For, if Trump ends up winning again - despite the opinion polls and personal sentiment - Africa would have to find a way of working with him.

- Dr Bob Wekesa is Research and Partnership Director, African Centre for the Study of the US, Wits University. 

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