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Fast Thinking

November 5, 2020

FAST THINKING: The US election’s implications for allies and adversaries

By Atlantic Council

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We don’t yet know the winner of the US presidential race—and, with the count so close and the prospect of contested results, we might not for some time, but the world is already drawing lessons from the outcome. So what are the likely takeaways in foreign capitals right now?


  • Barry Pavel: Former US national security official and director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, weighing in from Washington, DC
  • Erica Borghard: Senior director on the US Cyberspace Solarium Commission and Atlantic Council resident senior fellow, weighing in from New York
  • Will Wechsler: Former deputy assistant secretary of defense and director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs, weighing in from Washington, DC
  • Anna Wieslander: Chair of the Institute for Security and Development Policy and Atlantic Council director for Northern Europe, weighing in from Stockholm

The near-term danger

  • We appear to be headed, Barry notes, for “a period of sustained contestation in US domestic politics,” which brings “a heightened danger that China and Russia try to take advantage of what they might perceive as US distraction and complete focus on internal affairs.” With the United States already facing “a raging pandemic, a throttled economy, and ongoing cyberattacks and information operations in the US homeland,” this could, in fact, shape up to “be the most dangerous transition period in US history.”
  • This isn’t just conjecture, he adds. Look at what China and Russia are already up to: “It is not a coincidence that Chinese aircraft incursions into Taiwanese airspace peaked in October and that Chinese leadership rhetoric about bringing Taiwan under China’s formal control sooner rather than later increased this year. Russia almost certainly will take this opportunity to sow greater disinformation on social media in the US and to conduct continued offensive cyber operations to hack US election-related systems and processes.”
  • Barry’s advice for the US government? “Send public and private deterrence messages to the Russian and Chinese regimes, send messages of reassurance to US allies under threat in Europe and the Indo-Pacific, ensure that US military forces demonstrate a high degree of readiness to sustain deterrence of Russian and Chinese aggression near potential flashpoints, and strengthen our homeland security vigilance and processes.”

What that danger could actually look like

Erica spins through the hypothetical scenarios in the event of contested election results:

  • China or Russia could seek to strengthen control over contested territorial claims, creating new facts on the ground or at sea.”
  • Iran could take actions against forward-deployed US personnel and assets in Iraq and the broader region, or even American citizens overseas, perhaps seeing a chance to retaliate against the US for the killing of Qasem Soleimani.”
  • North Korea could perceive an opportunity to conduct another set of missile tests.”
  • Russia, Iran, and other adversaries “could ramp up information operations to create additional chaos and undermine the process for ascertaining the outcome” of the 2020 election in the United States, or “conduct cyber operations against, for instance, critical infrastructure to test the government’s responsiveness.”

The longer-term assessments of allies

  • Will worries that US adversaries and allies alike will interpret the election results, however they ultimately shake out, as portending a United States “increasingly focused inward” on the “deep divisions in American society,” with political dysfunction continuing to undermine its foreign policy and leadership in the world. 
  • The results will have consequences for America’s global standing, he adds: “For some foreign observers, especially many policymakers in Europe, America’s moral leadership has suffered a serious blow. These officials saw the Trump presidency as being incompatible with what they knew and admired about American values and the liberal world order that the United States created,” and “they will not be able to explain away the fact that millions of Americans voted the same way a second time, denying any such repudiation” of the 2016 election result. Even if Joe Biden “eventually emerges victorious, these foreign policymakers are likely to rethink some of their fundamental assumptions about the United States going forward.”  

The view from Europe

  • Anna reports that the election results have shocked many Europeans, who weren’t really prepared for the possibility of a second Trump term. “Is it possible for such a deeply divided country to forge consensus and lead globally?” she asks. 
  • Such questions in many European capitals, she notes, have revived “the debate on the need for Europe to take its destiny in its own hands and invest more in its security and strategic autonomy.” That debate, she says, “is necessary regardless of which candidate wins in the end” since “it will prepare Europe to be a more equal partner to the US in global affairs, which is the preferred track, but also to stand more steadily on its own feet when necessary.”

Further reading

Related Experts: Barry Pavel, Erica Borghard, William F. Wechsler, and Anna Wieslander

Image: Yegor Aleyev/TASS via Reuters