(Un)United States of America
America’s turmoil over the past four years and this messy election are a lesson in how to dismantle a functioning democracy in a few easy steps. This is an important warning for Nepal and countries in the region which are grappling with making their own electoral systems free and fair, and deliver accountability.
Foreign policy experts say that the chaos that has followed this election is more reminiscent of the banana republics to which America used to lecture about freedom, democracy and human rights.
America has projected hard power through its global military might, but also its value system through technology and US cultural products. But four years of Trump has cost America this moral high ground globally.
“The US is divided like never before. This will have far-reaching consequences for the rest of the world and for South Asia that looks up to the United States as a beacon of democracy with proper separation of powers and moral authority to guide other countries on matters of electoral politics,” says Nishchal Pandey, Director of the Centre for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu. “Despite his poor handling of the pandemic and several erroneous decisions, President Trump has shown that his policies were admired by a substantial chunk of the population.”
Indeed, the US election results so far prove how little facts matter even in a democracy in which the media has been relentlessly investigating Donald Trump’s wrongdoings. Even if Joe Biden wins, the results have shown that Trumpist disenchantment with the establishment is strong and he has managed to successfully convince his base that the ‘liberal press’ is out to get him with ‘fake news’.
Pandey adds that US voters have repeatedly shown that very few understand how electoral colleges work, and why the popular vote does not determine the winner.
He told Nepali Times: “It is high time that the US introspects on the shortcomings of how its elections are conducted because its democracy instead of becoming an element of its soft power is becoming a travesty of sorts to telecast live all over the world.”
For many Nepalis there is a strong sense of irony about an America that has been supporting human rights, inclusion and democracy in the country's post-conflict transition. Many remember former US president Jimmy Carter’s multiple visits to observe elections here. It seems the services of his Carter Centre are now required more in his own home state of Georgia where the race is neck-to-neck, and there is deep disagreement about counting methods.
A possible Biden victory may also be good news to those applying for H-1B visas who were barred from entry into America by Trump in June, which would affect up to 50,000 Indian professionals, and some Nepalis. A US court subsequently overturned the decision last month. Trump also banned the US Diversity Visa (DV) lottery, and interviews for 2021 winners were suspended, citing Covid-19. Applications, however, have reopened for 2022. Many undocumented Nepalis in the US were also affected by Trump trying to end the Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
On Wednesday, even as Americans were voting, the United States formally left the Paris Climate Agreement signed in 2015. In the past four years, Trump has delayed action on the climate emergency, and overturned other environmental legislation, appointed an oil lobbyist to head the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). Biden has said he would get the US back into the Paris accord the day after he is inaugurated, if elected.
Four more years of Trump would unleash so much damage to the Planet, environmentalists say, that it would take decades to undo. Nepal's Himalayan mountains, which are already melting rapidly, will bear the direct impact of accelerated climate heating -- endangering the water supply to millions of people living downstream in India and Bangladesh as well.
Geopolitically, the only difference for Nepal between Trump or Biden would be that at least Biden knows where Nepal is, and will not pronounce it “Nipple”. Neither president is going to stomach China extending its military, economic and political clout in Asia – even though Biden’s approach may be less aggressive.
Last week in New Delhi, American and Indian foreign and defence officials signed a Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) pact seen by many as a military alliance aimed at containing China. A Biden presidency would likely give continuity to this strategic alliance that has caught Asian countries like Nepal in a bind. Biden will also likely stay the course on the Indo-Pacific strategy and QUAD naval exercises in the Indian Ocean this week.
“It appears that Biden will largely follow the Trump approach to China and therefore to the Indo-Pacific in as much as this is a structural feature of current international politics and therefore has garnered bipartisan support in the United States,” says Bhaskar Koirala of the Nepal Institute of International and Strategic Studies. “Under a Biden administration, the US can be expected to play an increasing role as an off-shore balancer in Asia.”
For Nepal, a Biden administration may place a greater emphasis on development and programs such as the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) infrastructure project as a counter to China’s BRI (Belt Road Initiative).
Koirala adds: "Biden may have a more general foreign policy objective to ensure that Nepal is stable politically and that it retains its independent identity."
Kunda Dixit is the former editor and publisher of Nepali Times. He is the author of 'Dateline Earth: Journalism As If the Planet Mattered' and 'A People War' trilogy of the Nepal conflict. He has a Masters in Journalism from Columbia University and is Visiting Faculty at New York University (Abu Dhabi Campus).