Why would the government of China — a country that President Donald Trump has hit with tariffs and sanctions, blamed for the coronavirus pandemic, and labeled as the greatest threat to American security — reportedly be rooting for Trump's re-election in 2020?
Perhaps because Chinese officials realize what former National Security Adviser John Bolton's recent tell-all book underscores: The damage Trump is doing to US power and the global democratic community outweighs any harm he is doing to Beijing. Another four years of Trump will magnify that damage, so the 2020 election is taking on historic importance in determining the shape of the modern world.
American presidential elections always matter, but elections that fundamentally shift the trajectory of global affairs are relatively rare. The 1860 election was, of course, one such episode: Abraham Lincoln's victory brought on the Civil War while also empowering a leader who was singularly well equipped to win it. That victory, in turn, ensured that a united, democratic America entered the 20th century as a world power.
The 1940 election was another hinge in history: In securing a third term, Franklin Roosevelt also secured, sooner or later, America's entry into World War II. The 1980 election perhaps qualifies as a third: Had Ronald Reagan not become president, the Cold War might not have ended as quickly or decisively as it did.
The 2020 election is likely to loom large in future histories of global order in the 21st century.
In November, the world is likely to find itself in a more precarious position than at any time since the late 1940s. A lethal second wave (or extended first wave) of Covid-19 might well be underway, causing hundreds of thousands of additional deaths and again putting economies and societies under excruciating pressure. The US will be further into its spiraling competition with China, which has used the chaos created by the coronavirus to ramp up aggression toward its neighbors and the West.
It's reminiscent of the fragile period just after World War II, when nature (in the form of a terribly harsh European winter) and geopolitics (in the form of an expansionist Soviet Union) combined to put the world's hopes for stability, prosperity and peace in serious danger.
Add to this today the disarray within America's alliances and the democratic world. Not since the Iraq War have political relations between the US and its key European allies been nearly so toxic. In the Asia-Pacific, alliances with South Korea and the Philippines have been fraying. The international trade system is faltering under the quiet but effective assault of the Trump administration against the World Trade Organization; institutions such as the G-7 are rudderless. Even when the democratic world can agree on the challenges it faces, such as avoiding technological dependence on China, meaningful responses have been painfully slow to materialize.
A second Trump presidency will not just make all of these problems worse, it could entrench them in ways that will be terribly difficult to undo.
Trump's administration has shown virtually no capacity for effective management of Covid-19 within America's borders, let alone for the global leadership Washington has typically exercised in crises of this magnitude. Trump can take credit for changing the national conversation about China more sharply than any president since Richard Nixon — who moved the relationship from containment to engagement, whereas Trump has now done the opposite. But what Beijing seems to realize is that there is little hope for the US to maintain an effective China strategy so long as he is in charge.
There are two reasons for this. The first is that strategy for a long-term competition with China demands a degree of discipline and steadiness that Trump is manifestly incapable of providing. The second is that another Trump term is sure to further divide and demoralize the coalition of states that will be required to meet this and other dangers to the international order.
Four more years of Trump will place additional pressure on fragile alliances that he has already shown a talent for undermining. Those alliances may not collapse outright, but they will be further hollowed out from within. A second term will also prevent the formation of a united economic front against China: Trump will presumably continue his omnidirectional approach to trade disputes, as the continued erosion of the WTO makes it harder for other nations to hold China to account for its unfair practices.
Meanwhile, Trump will continue to empower the forces of illiberalism within NATO and other US alliances — a development Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin can only approve of — while pitting "good" allies like Poland against "bad" allies like Germany. And if Bolton's book is any guide, the US will find it difficult to wage a principled campaign against an aggressive dictatorship as long as its president professes admiration for the system of internment camps China has erected in Xinjiang and looks to Xi for help against his Democratic rivals.
Yes, Trump's policies are imposing costs on Beijing. But they are also exacting a heavy price — in lost time, weakened unity, needless chaos — on the world Beijing confronts.
In this regard, the most damaging aspect of a second term would be the signal it sends to the world. Every democracy is entitled to a certain amount of electoral lunacy, and most US allies can bring themselves to write off a single Trump term as an aberration. But if Trump is re-elected, then the conclusion must be that America has made a strategic choice — not to relinquish the privileges that come with great power, but to relinquish the responsibility for competent leadership. The US will be telling its closest friends that this — the diplomatic pettiness, the exhausting outrages, the endless policy upheaval — is the best they can expect.
We can't be certain what a Joe Biden presidency would bring, of course. A new administration would face all the same structural challenges that the current one confronts. But the reason the 2020 election is likely to prove so consequential is that we already know what is on offer from the Trump administration.
"There is a great deal of ruin in a nation," Adam Smith observed in response to a forecast of Britain's decline — and perhaps in a great nation's foreign policy, as well. But there isn't an infinite amount of ruin that a superpower can inflict on itself and the world it built before the consequences start to become very real, indeed.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Most recently, he is the co-author of "The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.