2020 US Elections

The 2020 US elections seen from around the world of sustainability

With a clearer picture of the results, how have countries across the world reacted to the 2020 US elections? What expectations face president-elect Biden?

Earth-shattering, epoch-defining, the most important in a generation. The 2020 United States presidential elections have been described by commentators from across the political spectrum as a defining moment for the country. But looking beyond, the same can be said for other nations too. In the wake of Joe Biden‘s, we gather reactions from around the world to get a sense of how different regions have been impacted by this unprecedented electoral cycle. In particular, how it has affected core issues in the sphere of social, environmental and economic sustainability such as human rights, cooperation, natural resource protection and climate change, which see local and global dynamics inextricably intertwined.

Reactions to the US elections from around the world
The 2020 US elections being watched in Beijing, China © Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

2020 US elections, reactions from the world

Asia Pacific

by Mara Budgen in Tokyo, Japan

US-China rivalry will shape the 21st century,” reads a headline in the Financial Times. This balance is at an especially delicate juncture: incumbent President Donald Trump has taken a brash approach to Beijing with policies such as a trade war and sanctions over human rights abuses, but support for a tougher stance on the Asian superpower is bipartisan. Relations are likely to remain tense even under a Biden administration, though a shift towards cooperation on key issues such as climate change and the coronavirus pandemic could be seen.

The heat of the contest is felt especially in Asia Pacific, as relations with both China and the US are key for Japan, the Koreas and Southeast Asia. Plus, fears tied to fragile regional equilibriums are real; not limited to trade and economic issues but including the threat of military escalation over disputes in the South China Sea and North Korea.

Japanese foreign exchange trader monitors US elections
A Japanese foreign exchange trader monitoring the results of the US elections © Carl Court/Getty Images

While Japan in particular has been relatively successful in cosying up to Trump – with former prime minister Shinzo Abe being the first world leader to meet the then neo-president four years ago – in general, Asia Pacific nations have seen the key geopolitical role they assumed under Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy fade, even though the incumbent president’s administration remained supportive, overall, of bilateral and multilateral ties. Excluding rejecting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, of course.

Under Biden, it believed relations will return to a more conventional and predictable way of doing things, generally preferred by diplomats. Democratic nations in the region will likely be galvanised by his commitment to defending political liberties and human rights, as well as reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 – a goal shared by Japan and South Korea. And regional players could potentially benefit from manufacturing jobs shifting away from China, a priority Biden shares with his predecessor, and towards them.

A second Trump term, on the other hand, would have seen an escalation of an erratic and unpredictable foreign policy, and especially the international rivalry that will shape generations to come.

Kim Jong Un impersonator at Trump rally in Las Vegas
Impersonators dressed as Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a Trump campaign rally in Las Vegas in February 2020 © Mario Tama/Getty Images

East Africa

by Godfrey Olukya in Kampala, Uganda

Most Africans have been pro-Biden and wished Trump a big defeat in the elections. Why? When the incumbent became president four years ago, many media outlets quoted him saying in his maiden speech that he wouldn’t tolerate African dictators or leaders who have overstayed their time in power. These comments excited many opposition political parties and organisations.

But Trump hasn’t lived up to their expectations with respect to his stance towards even a single dictator or long-serving president in Africa. In Egypt, whose president president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi Trump reportedly called his “favourite dictator“, state-owned weekly Al Ahram wrote that: “No matter the outcome, USA could descend into unrest and could lead to its diminished status on world stage”.

It isn’t surprising that Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power for over thirty years, at one time referred to Trump as “the best president in the world”. “To most politically oppressed Africans, Trump has been an embarrassment. He’s been sharing beds with African dictators,’’ says Francis Mwana Mbooka, an opposition politician in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and Donald Trum
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi meets with Donald Trump © by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Throughout his leadership, the Republican candidate has failed to come up with any outstanding policy meant to benefit local people on the continent. There were even times in which he ridiculed Africans, fuelling negative sentiments towards him. In addition, many Africans have in the past used all possible means (legal and illegal) to migrate to the US for greener pastures, but Trump has put stringent measures in place measure to curb such movements.

It follows, therefore, that most African citizens supported Biden, while certain ruling parties and governments remained pro-Trump. Under the Democrat, people believe, relations will be normalised compared to the Republican’s more nationalistic and chaotic foreign policy. Overall, what has transpired over the course of this election leaves a lot desired, and many Africans have expressed their fears for American democracy, reacting with shock when Trump refused to commit to handing over power in the event of losing.

“This election has exposed the fiction that the USA is the world’s leading democracy,’’ according to pastor Solomon Male, a renowned Ugandan religious leader. He believes that what happened over the course of the campaign and behaviour on the part of the candidates, especially Trump, would be normal if it took place in Africa but is ridiculous in the context of the mighty champion of democratic values.

Bobi Wine confirmed as a candidate in next year's elections in Uganda
On the very day of the US elections, 3 November, opposition politician Bobi Wine was arrested after being confirmed as a candidate in next year’s elections in Uganda © Luke Dray/Getty Images

Southern Africa

by Mike Mwenda in Lusaka, Zambia

Africans are skeptical whether the next American president will produce fundamental and functional changes in US foreign policy towards the continent, including in areas such as the Sustainable Development Goals and climate change.

A UNFCCC report points to increasing evidence that climate change is contributing to higher temperatures in Southern Africa, threatening human health and safety, food and water security and socio-economic development. The region is warming at twice the global rate according to a recent study by NGO Save the Children, and many countries have been buffeted by multiple shocks, including Mozambique, which recorded two record tropical cyclones in the same season: Kenneth and Idai were the strongest cyclones ever to hit the African continent, and also affected parts of Zimbabwe and Malawi in March 2019. Furthermore, the report highlights that dozens of Eastern and Southern African states are experiencing ongoing weather-induced emergencies coupled with an acute hunger crisis.

Cyclone Idai devastates Mozambique
Cyclone Idai caused devastation across Mozambique © Andrew Renneisen/Getty Images

Africa lacks adequate resources to mitigate and adapt to global warming and has already endured the effects of Trump’s climate change denialism, resulting in the USA formally withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The incumbent announced the move in June 2017, but UN regulations meant that his decision only took effect a day after the election. Therefore, the United States is the only country on Earth to have left the accord that aims to keep global temperatures rises in check.

However, Biden has pledged to rejoin the agreement immediately after being sworn into office. Thus, Trump’s legacy of denialism – which leads us to question whether he even knows what climate change is – will be relegated to the past.


by Patrick Bracelli in London, UK

Perspectives from the United Kingdom and Europe regarding the US elections seem, perhaps unsurprisingly, to diverge. Trump’s nationalist and exceptionalist approach found much more common ground with Brexiteers than it did with the European community, with US-EU relations deteriorating considerably over the past four years.

Faced with the looming spectre of a no-deal Brexit, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson had been pinning his hopes on Trump’s re-election, with a view to continuing trade talks with the transatlantic ally. In fact, it was reported that Johnson had been delaying key decisions on Brexit until after the result of the US election was confirmed.

Whereas Trump has repeatedly expressed strong pro-Brexit sentiment, Biden has treated it as a political mistake and is much less likely to prioritise a UK trade deal in the first few months of his presidency. However, the shift away from parochialism and isolationism that might arise from a Biden win could help the UK emerge from a long period of single-issue focus, allowing its citizens and policymakers to devote more attention to other social and environmental concerns.

Rather than accelerating trade negotiations with the UK, a Biden administration is more likely focus on rebuilding a strong relationship with the EU, especially since cooperation with it is crucial to achieving climate objectives. Biden wants the US to reprise its role as a global leader: while the EU has set 2050 as its deadline for climate neutrality, and even China aims to do the same by 2060, the US will need to follow suit if it is to be taken seriously on the world stage.

A second Trump term, on the other hand, would have made such a decision extremely unlikely and cause US-EU relations to deteriorate further. It would also have emboldened populist and far-right leaders in the Old Continent and cause further losses for European citizens and businesses.

Democrats Abroad campaign in London
A campaigner in London urging US citizens living abroad to vote in the elections © Leon Neal/Getty Images

South America 

by Laura Brown in São Paulo, Brazil

The US election will invariably influence South American policies and foreign affairs. Relations with the country remain vital for both domestic and international politics – in particular on issues such as migration, trade, climate change and human rights – but have been strained given Trump’s opposition to immigration from the region and intervention during Venezuela’s political uprising against Nicolas Maduro’s left-wing regime in 2019. The latter country, in fact, is already facing trade bans and sanctions that have dramatically worsened the recession it is facing.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has made it clear that his top foreign affairs priority is to forge deeper ties with the United States. With Trump in particular, he has shared a very similar approach to areas like the environment, climate change, human rights and Covid-19.

Under Biden, relations could be more tense, particularly concerning environmental and human rights issues; the Democrat is likely to pressure Brazil over protecting the Amazon rainforest and increase regulations on Brazilian agricultural exports that heavily impact the environment, and over which the two countries compete strongly. Brazilian Vice-President Hamilton Mourão has already responded to Biden’s plea to change environmental laws in favour of protecting the Amazon by stating that the country won’t change course, regardless of the results of the election.

Jair Bolsonaro meets Donald Trump
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro meets Donald Trump in the White House © Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images

On the other hand, if  Trump had been re-elected, strong relations would have continued between Trump and Bolsonaro. The two countries have already signed a military cooperation agreement and are committed to working together to promote private sector development in the Amazon.

While Biden foreign policy advisors are unlikely to support many of Bolsonaro’s policies, questions will arise regarding the shape of relations between South America and the United States – whose main strategic concern remains containing Beijing’s growing influence. Regardless of the winner of the elections, for example, the US will continue to have an active interest in the bidding process to build 5G telecommunications infrastructure (competing with Chinese giant Huawei), which in Brazil is scheduled to kick off in 2021. Either way, these election results have been key to configuring the tone for the next chapter of US-South America relations.

Migrants caravan from Central America to the US
A caravan of Central Americans travelling across Mexico to the US side of the border to ask for asylum in 2018 © David McNew/Getty Images

Central America

by Lise Josefsen Hermann in Tegucigalpa, Honduras

During four years of presidency, Trump visited Latin America only once to attend the G20 summit in Buenos Aires in 2018, while his predecessor Barack Obama paid the region fifteen visits (though he held two terms). Nonetheless, Latin Americans care – or rather worry – very much about relations with the US. For leaders like Bolsonaro and Colombia’s President Iván Duque, who both openly supported Trump during the elections, the incumbent leader is an important point of reference and his loss could bring instability, especially for Brazilian foreign relations.

In Central America, the American dream is strongly alive, prompting thousands every year to travel north in the search for a future outside their home countries struggling with corruption, crime, the impact of climate change, and bad access to education and jobs. “Trump has been really harsh in discriminating against immigrants,” is the sentiment expressed by Honduran and Salvadorans observers following the US elections closely. “We’re worried about our family members up in the US. And we depend on the money they send to us,” they add. The vast majority, therefore, were hoping for a Biden victory.

Cuban supporters of Joe Biden
Cuban supporters of Joe Biden in Miami, Florida, USA © Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In contrast to Trump, the Democratic candidate is expected to support Central American countries economically as a policy response to massive migration from the region. In general, socialist-led nations such as Cuba and Nicaragua are expecting Biden to offer a possible softening of antagonistic relations, with negotiations potentially taking the place of Trump’s strict sanctions regime.

Cuba, in particular, has figured directly in both candidate’s election campaigns. Trump promised to continue his hardline stance, while Biden talked about a “new politics” to reestablish the diplomatic relations initiated by Obama.

A perspective from the world of sustainable finance

by Joslyn Chittilapally in Mumbai, India

One of the biggest revelations following Trump’s win in 2016 was that, after the initial shock of the US intending to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the world stopped looking at the country for leadership on matters related to climate change and sustainable finance.

The EU seems to have taken that place instead with its 2050 net zero emissions target, Green Deal and green recovery packages, new regulations on green taxonomy and international cooperation, especially in supporting developing countries towards a greener transition.

Looking eastwards, Asian countries like China, South Korea and Japan have announced net zero emissions targets, the Philippines has pledged no new coal developments and Thailand will reduce coal to 5 per cent of its energy mix by 2030. India too is continuing to make significant strides in its clean energy transition through ambitious targets.

Even within the US, non-federal actors including states, cities and businesses have been working for years to try to fulfil the original commitments made under the Paris Agreement, without support from the Trump administration. As examples, California is aiming for net zero emissions electricity by 2045 and zero emission vehicles by 2035 for all new cars and passenger trucks; and North Carolina issued a clean energy plan aimed at achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

Interest in environmental, social, governance (ESG) investment is also growing regardless of who sits in the White House, as confirmed by the latest Broadridge Data and Analytics report which found that net flows into US long-term responsible funds quadrupled during 2019 to 20 billion US dollars, accelerating further during the first half of 2020.

World reacts to Trump Paris Agreement withdrawal
Protests against Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement © Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Biden’s win will be game-changing, ensuring that much more large-scale systemic changes would take place given his plans for a two-trillion-dollar Green New Deal, commitment to achieving 100 per cent clean energy and reaching net zero emissions no later than 2050. Together with his promise to re-enter the Paris Agreement, the hope is that he puts in motion stricter regulations, which have been eroded over the past four years.

Trump’s victory wouldn’t have been a huge setback to the world of sustainable finance but would definitely have slowed down the planet’s green transition given that US is the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world. A second term wouldn’t have decreases interest in ESG investing but could have created a regulatory framework discouraging fund managers from investing in such products. A second term would therefore have been far from being in the interests of a sustainable planet.

USA seen from space, NASA
The USA seen from space © NASA/Unsplash

The United States as a global superpower?

As one of the world’s few “superpowers” the United States exercises a decisive influence both on international politics and the internal workings of individual countries. Especially since the end of the Second World War, the US has been guided by the mission of expanding its political, economic, social and cultural reach across the globe. This one state has changed the face of world history, starting with the Bretton Woods Conference that took place in New Hampshire in 1944, when the groundwork was laid for institutions that govern the international order to this day, including the United Nations and World Bank, through decades of Cold War with the Soviet Union, and the cooption as well as coercion of entire regions into adopting a neoliberal capitalist model in the image of the US economy.

Yet its super power has diminished over the decades as new players have gained a greater international role and others have fallen from its orbit. Furthermore, Trump broke many of the schemes adopted by his predecessors, choosing to “make America great again” by focussing more narrowly on national interests (or at least his interpretation of them).

This has steered the country away from its self-declared role as global watchdog of democratic values and individual liberties to a more disengaged foreign policy based on reducing intervention, for example in conflict areas in the Middle East, and boosting American economic protectionism especially in the face of Chinese competition, thus turning the tide on decades of aggressive efforts to export the free market model. Under the soon-to-be (with all probability) Biden presidency, will the Washington veteran be able to mend broken relations while appeasing critics of globalisation at home? The world is watching to see what happens.

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