The political disarray in the United States has continued even after the elections. President Donald Trump has not as yet recognised that Joe Biden has beaten him. Defying convention he has not made a concession speech. Instead, he has pressed ahead with legal challenges on the vote in the states where he was initially leading but where Biden overtook him and was declared the winner by the TV networks on November 7. Trump and his supporters have insisted that there was electoral fraud. The chances of Trump getting court decisions that will lead to turning the election result in his favour are practically non-existent but both he and a significant section of the Republican party leadership are willing to let the country and the world be in a degree of uncertainty and confusion. This reflects the deep divisions in US polity and society.
On his part Biden has declared himself as the winner and has begun to conduct himself as the President-elect. He gave a victory speech on the night of November 7 where his substance and tone were completely different from that which the US and the world have come to expect from Trump. He was smooth and conciliatory in his approach and projected himself as the President of the entire American people not only those who had voted for him. He focussed on the COVID-19 pandemic and declared “Our work begins with getting covid under control. We cannot restore the economy, restore our vitality or relish life’s most precious moments …unless we get this virus under control”. He also referred to climate change which is relevant to the US and the planet. His message to the international community was brief but meaningful. He said “I believe at our best America is a beacon for the globe. And we lead not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example”.
The example that the US has held out to the world through this election is anything but exemplary. That the world’s most powerful country which is important for the stability of the international system should be in a period of post-election strife is a cause for global concern. While Biden is pressing ahead as President-elect and appointed a task force of health professionals, including two doctors of Indian origin, to effectively handle the COVID-19 pandemic the current administration is conducting itself as if the election result is not known and, in the end, Trump may be declared as winner.
This is illustrated by the approach of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who is acting as if it is business as usual. Earlier this week he announced his plan to travel to many countries including France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, Qatar, UAE and Saudi Arabia. When asked about the State Department’s cooperation with the Biden team to ensure a smooth transition Pompeo said “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration”. Having said this categorically Pompeo went to say “The world should have every confidence that the transition necessary to make sure that the State Department is functional today, successful today and successful with a president who’s in office on January 20 a minute afternoon will also be successful”.
Clearly, the latter remark constitutes a retreat from the first but it is not enough to clear the confusion for the countries that Pompeo proposes to visit. How would they treat him? As the Secretary of State of an outgoing administration and hence lame-duck or of a second Trump one? This will be particularly relevant for most of these countries have sent congratulatory messages to Biden on his victory. Indeed, French President Macron has personally spoked to Biden too. It would be proper for Pompeo not to interact with his peers as if all is normal in the US. That would be in keeping with diplomatic convention. But then Trump and his administration have consistently flouted conventions. In doing so though Pompeo will cause great embarrassment to his hosts and himself. Certainly, professional US diplomats would still advise Pompeo against undertaking this extensive travel until the confusion of the elections was cleared but would he take their views into account?
All brave talk of conservative elements in the US that the post-election scene is in keeping with normal democratic and legal traditions the fact is that currently situation in the US puts it in the same category as a country struggling to establish a democratic system. Afghanistan comes to mind. The Presidential election held in September 2019 led to months of uncertainty because of charges of fraud. Finally, the country’s election commission dubiously declared President Ashraf Ghani as the winner. This decision was rejected by his main rival Dr Abdullah. Both Ghani and Abdullah held almost simultaneous oath taking ceremonies. It was only through protracted negotiations that Abdullah backed off but not without making Ghani agree to making him the head of the negotiating process with the Taliban. It will not come to simultaneous oath taking ceremonies in the US but what is taking place currently does not bring credit to the American political class, especially to its Republican section.
There is no doubt though that Biden will prevail and be sworn in as the 46th US President but the US system’s reputation has been damaged. Not only will Biden have therefore to heal the soul of America—that is the objective he has set before himself—but also its international image.