Foreign Policy

Trump, COVID-19 and the way forward for the worldwide order

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Editor's Note: We make some of our coverage of coronavirus pandemics free to non-subscribers. You can read these articles here and subscribe to our newsletter here.

The COVID-19 pandemic, the diagnosis of US President Donald Trump and the upcoming US elections add to the uncertainty in an already difficult international system. Growing populism, a potential great power conflict between the United States and China, climate change, large numbers of refugees fleeing violence and poverty, and increasing pressures on globalization are just some of the many challenges the world faces each year 2021 and beyond.

Against this background, how do experts see the development of international relations over the next five years? To find out, the College of William & Mary Teaching, Research, and International Policy project, in collaboration with the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance at Princeton University, surveyed international relations scholars at US and European universities in August.

The experts are generally pessimistic about global trends over the next five years, predicting a decline in the number of democracies and trade and investment opportunities as well as a dramatic increase in civil wars, human rights violations and the collapse of state institutions.

At the same time, the gloom of their predictions hinges on the likelihood of scientists believing Trump will be re-elected as president in November. Experts predicting Trump's re-election also believe that a war with China is more realistic, that the United States will be far more likely to withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO), and that it will be much more difficult for immigrants to enter the United States.

In contrast, beliefs about when the COVID-19 pandemic will end have little impact on how scientists believe the system will evolve over the next five years. Coronavirus optimists and coronavirus pessimists make similar predictions about the future of war, globalization, democracy and immigration.

Overall, the survey results suggest that the experts believe that shocks can come and go on the international system, but a stable global order will be the result of political decisions. And if the American people choose Trump again, these experts believe that he will make decisions that threaten the established order, increase the prospects for mass violence, and increase the cost of international trade.

We asked international relations scientists to look into the future and use a number of key results to predict how the world will look in 2025 compared to 2019. For example, one question was: “According to V-Dem, at the end of 2019 there were 87 democracies worldwide. Do you expect that number to increase or decrease by 2025? ”57 percent of respondents expected the number of democracies to decrease worldwide in the next five years.

Overall, IR scientists are grim about global results for the next few years, although their pessimism varies by topic. Civil and political freedoms, democracy and state failure are more of a concern than trends in the number of civil wars and terrorist attacks. In other words, the experts are very pessimistic about the future of liberalism and political stability, but not so pessimistic about the prospects for an increase in mass violence.

Another series of questions asked the scientists to predict the likelihood of a series of events over the next five years. In view of the upcoming US elections, opinions about future US foreign policy behavior were of particular concern.

Trump has had aggressive policies towards China on trade and other issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, for example, he called the coronavirus "the China virus" and stated, "The United Nations must hold China accountable for its actions." Scientists have long feared that Beijing's emerging power would lead to a war between the United States and China, and those who give Trump the highest chance of winning next month's presidential election are likely to expect war with China in the years to come.

All respondents were asked how likely (on a scale of 0 to 100) Trump would be re-elected as president. About half of the scientists gave it a 20 to 40 percent chance, which is close to several predictions based on data of public opinion. Still, almost 30 percent of scientists believe that his choice is between 40 and 60 percent. A small group (less than 10 percent) believe his chances are greater than 60 percent, while a similarly large group believes Trump's chances of re-election are less than 20 percent.

The experts were then asked how likely there was a war between the United States and China in the next five years. The results are impressive. The group that rates Trump's chances of reelection highest believe that war is about twice as likely as the group that rates his chances lowest.

There were similar effects on predictions of future wars between the United States and unspecified other countries. The higher Trump’s election prospects, the higher US military spending will be in five years.

But scientists who think Trump will win re-election more likely no longer predict civil war, fragile states, or terrorism on average. So they're not darker overall. Instead, they reserve their fears for the outcomes that Trump is most likely to directly affect. Similarly, it was no more or less likely that scientists who were more pessimistic about the duration of the pandemic were pessimistic about war and peace in the years to come.

The Trump administration not only has antagonistic relationships with countries like China, but also with organizations like the WTO, which is the anchor of the global trading system. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that experts believe that the United States is much more likely to leave the WTO in the next five years if they also believe that Trump will win the upcoming elections. The differences are big and significant. Scientists who believe Trump has a 40 percent or better chance of winning re-election also believe there is a one in three chance that the United States will exit the WTO. Meanwhile, fewer than one in five scientists who think Trump's chances of winning are less than 40 percent believe that the US will leave the WTO.

Scientists who believe Trump is more likely to win also thought the likelihood of an OECD country defaulting, decreasing reliance on global supply chains, and losing some of its stature to a global dollar in the next five years was also believed Reserve currency. However, there was no difference in perceptions of the future importance of the World Bank and the IMF (two international organizations that haven't received as much trouble from the Trump administration as many others in the past four years). On security issues, the optimism or pessimism of COVID-19 does not appear to affect predictions about globalization or economic governance over the next five years.

Another electoral problem is immigration, and this is where US scholars differ widely in how they view the future of immigration, depending on their beliefs about Trump's election prospects. These large disparities persist between opinions on high-skilled immigration, low-skilled immigration, and student visas, although scholars overall are more optimistic about high-skilled immigration.

International relations scholars are sometimes reluctant to overemphasize individual leadership as the explanation for results in international affairs, but our results suggest that their predictions of what the world will look like depend heavily on who they think is among the people Elections in November will emerge victorious. This does not seem to reflect the underlying propensity for darkness and doom; Rather, scholars clearly distinguish issues on which the Trump administration has signaled its intention (WTO, immigration, China) from issues that are less directly related to Trump, such as IMF, democratization and civil wars.

In short, who will be president after November, according to experts, matters to the future of the world order, even if the current pandemic doesn't. Individual leaders make decisions that shape the international system, but these international relations experts don't believe Trump will make decisions that will help build a stable order.

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