Will Trump or Biden bring peace to the world: Two simple calculations

Posted in: Democracy and voter preference, Global politics, Political ideologies, US politics

Timo Kivimäki is Professor of International Relations in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.

The US electoral system preserves a two-party system in which the main developments in political ideologies take place within parties, rather than in electoral competitions between parties.

Whenever a new movement challenges the two parties it only contributes to the party that is further away from the movement’s ideologies. After all, the movement competes for votes with the party that is closer to the movements’ ideology. In a US approach to global governance, this electoral system means that viable alternatives to both Democratic and Republican politics cannot surface.

Comparing Donald Trump and Joe Biden is simple if we assume that developments during Biden’s vice presidency can be used as his “track-record”. This way we can reconstruct two rough policy lines: Trump’s policy of primacy of national interests in global security policies, and the more moralistic interventionistic line of Obama-Biden presidency.

The latter assumes the opportunities America has in intervening in atrocity crimes by dictators and terrorists, while the former assumes that each country puts its own interest first and has less interest and ability to change the priorities of other countries.

Reviewing the statistics from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program’s Georeferenced Event Database, one can see that the number of fatalities in US wars increased from 2008 to 2016 by 496%. During Obama and Biden terms, American forces intervened against dictators and terrorists in Yemen (2009), Libya (2011 & 2016), Mali (2013) Syria (2014) and Iraq (2014), while campaigns in Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan were intensified. During the Trump presidency, the number of fatalities in American conflicts has declined from 2016 to 2019 by 44%, and no new countries were intervened. This way it seems very much that moralistic interventionism kills people it aims at protecting.[1]

At the same time, Trump’s policy has undermined multilateral representative institutions like the UN in the global effort at tackling global humanitarian problems like violence. Can this be a problem for world peace? Once again, we can resort to simple calculations, this time focusing on the entire post-cold war period.

To compare US unilateral protective interventions with UN peacekeeping interventions, we can look at the average annual levels of fatalities three years before, during, and three years after interventions. This way, we can perhaps get a rough idea of whether Trump’s refusal to support global efforts costs lives, as he continues US wars out of national interest.

Even though the US protective “humanitarian” intervention initially increased fatalities in Kosovo/Yugoslavia, it did bring fatalities down after the intervention. However, in all the other US post-Cold War humanitarian interventions – in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Mali and Syria – fatalities were higher both during and after the protective humanitarian intervention, or the intervention continues and the conflict produces higher levels of fatalities than the situation US intervened into.

We cannot know what would have happened in these countries had the US not intervened, but the fact that all these operations failed to protect seems to suggest that unilateral humanitarian interventions rarely succeed to protect people from violent deaths. At the same time, the UN failed this way only in four countries (Rwanda, Syria, Mali and the Central African Republic) of the 30 countries it conducted peacekeeping operations in during the post-Cold War period.

Of the cases where intervention has ended, we can see that countries intervened by the US are left with many times greater numbers of fatalities after the intervention than before it. At the same time, in UN interventions countries were left on average with 60% lower levels of fatalities. With the exception of the case of Rwanda, all the UN failures were cases where UN peacekeeping was eclipsed by a simultaneous unilateral great power intervention in the country UN was operating in.[2] Thus, Trump’s policy of weakening the UN also increases conflict fatalities and reduces chances of global peace.

As the ideas of US leadership in world politics and multilateralism without representativeness are shared by both parties, the electoral system cannot cater for the emergence of a better alternative for global peace. The US electoral system makes it difficult for the emergence of an alternative that could understand that humanitarian order must be enforced by the entire humanity, not by one of the partisan nations, and that democracy can only be supported in the world by means and agency that are democratic and representative. US coercive leadership over people who have not elected it to lead cannot promote peaceful democracy in the world. On the contrary, it promotes violent resistance.

[1] I have explained why this is the case in my book Failure to Protect (Edward Elgar, 2019).

[2] I have explained UN success in saving lives in my new book Protecting the Global Civilian from Violence: UN discourses and practices in fragile countries (London, Routledge 2021).

This post is part of on an ongoing series on the United States Presidential election, 2020. View more

Posted in: Democracy and voter preference, Global politics, Political ideologies, US politics


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