The greatest threat to America retaining its power in the world is not the war in Ukraine, the Middle East conflict, or the defense of Taiwan, but Trump’s return to power.
This is not how it was supposed to be. After winning the White House in the fall of 2020, Joe Biden sought to phase out the United States’ engagement in the international arena. By doing so, he wanted to better deal with America’s domestic situation on the one hand, and the growing rivalry with China, on the other. This is why he pulled American troops from Afghanistan under controversial circumstances and limited U.S. involvement in Iraq to a minimum. He returned to talks with Iran on halting the nuclear program; he even met with Vladimir Putin to work out a way to deal with mutual relations.
Yet events beyond Washington’s control made Biden a war president, as The Economist put it. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 forced the U.S. into a growing commitment to Kyiv. Hamas’s attack on Israel on Oct. 7 forced Biden to do the same thing in the Middle East. In turn, Xi Jinping may use the current situation to seize Taiwan, which the U.S. cannot allow to happen if it wants to maintain its credibility with its allies in Southeast Asia and remain the dominant power in the Pacific.
Can America afford to play on these three fronts simultaneously?
Although Biden sought to avoid this situation, he prepared for it, nonetheless. In Europe, he restored good relations with leading EU countries, primarily Germany. Consequently, America can now shift some of the burden of supporting Ukraine onto its allies. Although the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed to live up to expectations, Russian society and the country’s economy are finding it increasingly difficult to bear the brunt of this conflict. Half a million people are said to have been killed or wounded, and that’s separate from other costs incurred by the conflict. Time is on America’s side.
Almost a month after Hamas attacked Israel, the U.S. seems to be effectively preventing the spread of war throughout the Middle East. Iran has not pushed Hezbollah into a large-scale offensive against the Jewish state partly because of America’s power of deterrence (two U.S. aircraft carriers are operating on the east side of the Mediterranean), and partly because of the hopes for normalizing relations with the U.S.
We can’t rule out the fact that Biden has convinced Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from the radical pacification of the Gaza Strip. However, the political vision of lasting peace in Israel remains vague.
The change in economic dynamics in relations with China seems to be America’s greatest success. Until a few years ago, China’s national income was predicted to soon surpass America’s national income. Today, economists are concentrating on China’s rapidly declining growth and the country’s huge problems, for example, in the real estate market. To a greater extent than in Europe, Biden has also been able to revive a network of alliances such as AUKUS (Australia, Great Britain, and the U.S.), and Quad (U.S., Australia, Japan, and India). This, along with the unpredictable difficulties that Putin has faced in Ukraine for the past two years, means that Xi will not likely be able to seize Taiwan anytime soon.
But it is on the fourth front, the domestic front, that Biden’s risk of defeat is the greatest. Continuing his predecessor’s protectionist trade policy, the president has supplemented it with huge state subsidies that have encompassed green technologies and the production of top-quality semiconductors. Biden hoped that a better standard of living would pull a large part of Americans away from Trump’s nationalist populism.
Opinion polls don’t confirm this, however. They indicate a very even battle between the billionaire and the current president in the hypothetical clash next November. What’s more, Trump has retained far-reaching control over the Republican Party, which is paralyzing the work of the House of Representatives. Without unblocking that impasse, further U.S. aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan will be impossible.
A USA Today opinion poll indicates that protectionist sentiments are growing within the U.S. Although 58% of Americans favor military aid for Israel (35% are against it), many fewer Americans support similar aid for Ukraine (51% are in favor and 43% are against), and Taiwan. (43% are in favor, and 39% are against.) Even more interesting, 47% of respondents think that the White House should focus on domestic affairs, while 46% support global engagement. Republican isolationism, which in the interwar period greatly contributed to Hitler’s seizure of power, is returning with renewed force because of Trump. Will President Biden be able to stop it?