The US 2020 Presidential Election and Foreign Policy Ramifications

Policymakers around the globe are closely following the 2020 US presidential election and foreign policy trends that will unfold as a result. US interventionism, our role in development work around the world, efforts to support democracy and citizen movements, intervention in fragile and conflict-affected countries, and many other crucial areas of global policy will be affected by the US presidential race and election outcome. We recently spoke with Lauren Van Metre, lecturer in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, about what international policymakers are likely focusing on as the election draws near.

Dr. Van Metre’s areas of expertise include conflict resolution, violent extremism, and resilience to violent conflict. She has served as the Acting Vice President and head of the Center for Applied Research at the US Institute of Peace (USIP), at the State Department as deputy office director for Kosovo peace implementation, and at the Defense Department where she organized the first-ever Defense Ministerial of the Americas and South Balkans Defense Ministerial.

Dr. Van Metre, as we were talking you raised the question of whether or not the US would return, after the next election, to becoming a champion for multilateralism. How does that posture in a cooperative alliance contrast with our country’s recent approach to interventionism?

Interventionism is one of the key areas global policymakers are watching with respect to the US elections. Under the Obama administration, there was a steady, well-articulated retreat on interventionism as a stated goal. We saw this with the Afghanistan drawdowns and the hard line on involvement in Syria.

Trump’s retreat, however, hasn’t been predictable, and in some ways, it has undermined other US policy goals. For example, the US abandonment of the Kurds in northern Syria effectively sanctioned Turkey’s assault and operations in the region. That dramatically undermined related US foreign policy objectives around maintaining sound alliances and engaging in other proxy interventions. 

Yet, at the same time, under the Trump administration, one of the most interesting and impactful policies around interventionism has emerged. It could significantly change how the US intervenes in fragile and conflict-affected states in the future. 

What have some of the ramifications of the Stabilization Assistance Review been?

The Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) began at the end of the Obama administration and carried through the beginning of the Trump administration. It was an extremely innovative, non-partisan, interagency review of all US interventions for the last 20 years. There were three significant lessons learned from this review which will influence US interventions in the future.

The primary lesson learned was that the US should, in the future, intervene with a very light footprint that respects where that country and culture are during the initial stabilization period when violence has ended. That’s now paramount. So, no longer will you see mass infusions of funding, a focus on institution building, or massive infrastructure projects to rebuild societies. We learned that large-scale interventions, over the long-term, actually undermined the strategic goals of the intervention by injecting corruption into the mix. Often these interventions would end up undermining the legitimacy of the national government in the eyes of its citizens. 

The second important idea that came out of the SAR was that stabilizing a country is an inherently political process. It’s not a technical process. It’s not about rebuilding courts, setting up schools, or arming and training a national defense force. It really is about managing politics so that you break those exclusionary processes that often emerge post-conflict. These are circumstances where the armed actors themselves control the political arena, and in many respects, continue to wage war politically in ways that are similar to the violent conflict. The SAR suggests that, from now on, the primary political goal for any intervention for the US is inclusive governance.

The final remarkable finding from this study is a very strong, tight emphasis on learning from evidence. In the past, many of our interventions were politically motivated. They were also managed with outdated mechanisms around budget and funding that were intended to show success in six months or a year. Now, success and programming are going to be based on the evidence that these programs are succeeding over the long-term.

I expect that this type of interventionism — a light footprint, evidence-based, and focused on political processes — will continue regardless of a Trump or Biden administration.

How has the Global Fragility Act formalized a US response to the Stabilization Assistance Review?

The SAR was mandated by Congress, introduced by the interagency under the Trump administration, and has resulted in a pretty remarkable piece of legislation, the Global Fragility Act (GFA) that was signed into law in December of 2019. This legislation has the potential to fundamentally change the way the US intervenes globally. 

The GFA outlines a 10-year funding commitment in five to eight countries that are seeing a rise in violence or violent extremism or are in the process of recovering from violence. Congress is breaking the pattern in terms of a multi-year political and funding commitment. The GFA demands a strategy that the interagency will report against, so no more ad hoc responses and programming around intervention. Most importantly to me, with an organization (NDI) that works in these countries, it is based primarily on local partnerships and on the political will of the government to reform. 

What can you tell us about the international response to the Global Fragility Act?

When you look at what’s called The New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, signed in Busan back in 2011 by a collection of conflict-affected countries, there was an international agreement that we would do development assistance differently in conflict-affected states. It was resolved that the conflict-affected states themselves, would, in alliance with each other, set out the goals, and measures for success in fragile states. The Global Fragility Act in many ways is in the spirit of the New Deal, responding to conflict country priorities, and their pleas to intervene differently.

I think the other interesting aspect of the GFA is that it does push back against China and Russia. If you look at Chinese and Russian policy in fragile and conflict-affected states in the last five to ten years, both of them have certainly institutionalized new models of interventionism that directly compete with the US. 

China’s model is around development assistance and non-interference. So, unlike the US, China puts no political conditions on its assistance in fragile, conflict-affected states. Which, in many ways, has allowed kleptocratic regimes to remain in power and maintain that fusion between political and economic interests, which sustain those regimes, hidden. As China provides its development assistance, in many ways, it’s strengthening those kleptocratic powers. 

Russia, on the other hand, if you look at its activities in Mozambique, look at its activities in DRC, has been in many ways, been promoting its oligarchic power system externally. My personal take on this situation is that Russia, internally, has run out of the ability to generate economic growth that allows Putin to continue to buy off the oligarchic system that sustains him. So what he’s doing is allowing oligarchs, through private security forces, to create and maintain a presence in fragile, conflict-affected states, which allows him to tap into natural resources like oil as a way to sustain those networks back home. 

The Global Fragility Act is a very interesting model that sits in stark juxtaposition to both China and Russia and their activities internationally. It is shifting US intervention away from the end of violence. If you look at our typical interventions, say for example in Colombia, they have been about managing the violence, getting them from the ceasefire to the peace agreement, and then rebuilding. However, the GFA puts a lot of emphasis on prevention and getting into before the violence consumes a country. That shift to a preventative approach and a decidedly different kind of intervention that focuses on political inclusion are two ways that US interventionism is going to impact what we do in the future.

Keep Exploring the Issues and Ways You Can Make a Difference

What do you think of Dr. Van Metre’s take on the future of US intervention and how a continuation of the Trump administration or a change with a Biden administration will impact these policies? Join the discussion on Twitter. In the next installment of this series on the upcoming presidential election and foreign policy implications, Dr. Van Metre will examine the future of US counterterrorism efforts, the prevention of violent extremism, and how the election could impact policy in these areas.


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