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US presidential elections: What is more important for Eastern Europe – a victor or a peaceful transition?

Countries in Eastern Europe will closely follow the outcome of the US election in order to understand how the result will affect the transatlantic relationship and US foreign policy towards themselves.

October 31, 2020 - Kennedy Lee - Articles and Commentary

White House in Washington DC. Photo: Diego Cambiaso flickr.com

As the world awaits the results of next Tuesday’s US presidential elections in deep anticipation, one issue has played a surprisingly negligible role in the two presidential debates and conversations among the pundit class – foreign policy. How will US foreign policy look under a likely Biden Administration, and what policies would President Trump pursue if awarded a second term?

It is a shame that a robust discussion on foreign affairs has been missing from elections discourse, especially as it relates to Europe and the post-Soviet space. The United States’ leadership role on the world stage, however, may not hinge on what policies a potential Biden Administration or Trump Administration decides to pursue, but rather the success of the peaceful transition of power and widespread acceptance of election results — no matter what they may be.

Some days it feels like the world has fallen into a chaos unseen since 1945, and the liberal world order has been challenged greatly by events in and leading up to 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the death of more than 1.1 million people globally, an emergent authoritarian China poses the greatest threat to global democratisation and liberalism in decades, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin rushed through a referendum allowing him to stay in power until at least 2036, all while the caretaker of the global order since 1945 — the United States of America — faces domestic social upheaval of its own.

Arguably, nothing is more vital to saving this liberal world order than strong transatlantic relations. These relations, of course, are exceedingly relevant, and it is no secret that many in the European community are rooting for a Biden victory. Many European allies hope that a Biden Administration would focus on strengthening the transatlantic alliance and democracy in the region, along with showing that four years of Trump were just an anti-democratic anomaly — not the new norm.

A strong transatlantic alliance has the potential to play a crucial role in Eastern Europe in the coming months, especially as it relates to Belarus, in the wake of the falsified August 9th presidential elections. Central and Eastern European countries such as Germany, Poland, and Lithuania have taken a vocal stance on the side of Belarusian independence and in support of the citizen protesters. On October 13th, the European Union even imposed sanctions on Lukashenka’s regime, with Germany leading the initiative.

Once again, robust transatlantic relations vitally matter to United States global leadership and its foreign policy. It goes without saying that many people in the global foreign policy establishment believe these relations would be bolstered by a Biden presidency. We must, however, account for the peaceful transition of power as a symbol of functioning US democracy, often considered the world’s “model democracy.”

In light of Lukashenka refusing to leave office after two and a half months of continuous mass protests, the greatest gift the United States can give this democratic movement is the gift of a peaceful transition of power of its own, coupled with widespread acceptance of and faith in election results.

If either President Trump or Vice President Biden refuse to accept the results of an election that is expected to last long after November 3rd, the consequences could be detrimental for the democracy movement worldwide. President Trump has been widely criticised for stating “Well, we’ll see what happens,” when asked if he will commit to a peaceful transition of power. This prompted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, also a Republican, to issue a tweet stating:

“The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.”

It would be remiss of me not to mention another key player in this region, and in Belarus specifically — Russia. One week ago, the FBI held a press conference to disclose information regarding Iranian and Russian interference in the upcoming US presidential elections.

FBI officials stated that both the Russians and Iranians obtained voter contact roles, and that the Iranian regime even sent intimidating emails to voters. Although the Iranian emails intended to damage President Trump, according to the FBI, Putin’s regime looks to harm Biden’s candidacy.

“Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment,’” stated US intelligence officials. Biden has been vocal in criticizing President Trump on the his failure to stand up to the Russian president, going so far as to call Trump “Putin’s puppet” during the first presidential debate.

Putin, as I see it, however, cares less about a Trump victory and more about sowing chaos in American democracy, and consequently, democracy movements worldwide. This is even more relevant in 2020, as democracy and independence movements have come to Russia’s doorstep in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, as well as the anti-Kremlin protests that have lasted in Russia’s far east region of Khabarovsk since July.

The two candidates also drastically differ in their approach to NATO. President Trump, a frequent critic of the alliance, has focused heavily on the “unfair” US monetary contributions to the alliance, asking other members to pay up. Although, the alliance has grown on the president as his first term goes on. “I’ve become a bigger fan of NATO because they have become more flexible,” Trump said at a NATO summit in London in celebration of the alliance’s 70th anniversary in December 2019.

Furthermore, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg publicly stated that Canada and European members of NATO will have increased defense spending by 130 billion US dollars from the beginning of Trump’s term until the present. “This is unprecedented. This is making NATO stronger,” said Stoltenberg at the aforementioned summit.

Vice President Biden has also been critical of some NATO members during the last four years, stating in December 2019 that “rising authoritarianism, even among some NATO members,” was a threat to the alliance. As president, Biden said that he would “prioritise strengthening national democratic institutions in member states that are not living up to NATO’s core values.”

The conversation around transatlantic security, democracy, United States global leadership, and broader foreign policy initiatives has been overshadowed by domestic concerns such as the COVID-19 pandemic, racial disparities, and rebuilding the economy in US presidential elections discourse.

The most important outcome of the elections, however, for Eastern Europe, the post-Soviet space, and the global struggle for democracy more broadly, may not be in who turns out victorious on November 3rd, but rather who doesn’t, and how that man and his supporters decide to react. A commitment to the peaceful transition of power may just be the United States’ greatest gift to the liberal democratic order, and what the world desperately needs in the present moment.

Kennedy Lee is a student in the Comparative Politics of Eurasia Master’s program at the Higher School of Economics in St. Petersburg, Russia. She holds a BA in Russian Language and Civilization and Political Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She currently lives in Washington, DC.

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