The US presidential election is always a cause for consternation, and often alarm, around the world. The US is a global hegemon, with military and economic interests far beyond its borders. But the anxiety is even more pronounced in neighbouring countries, which will have to grapple with the outcome of one of the most divisive elections in generations.
The worry is palpable here in Canada, which has endured a rocky relationship with its southern neighbour and one of its oldest allies. Tensions over the past four years took the form of undiplomatic asides and tweets by US President Donald Trump against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accusing him of being a “phony”, to more serious repercussions such as the fraying of the Nato alliance and the ethos of multilateralism, the acrimonious renegotiation of the Nafta trade deal and ongoing threats and impositions of tariffs and other economic weapons.
But the alarm here has taken on a different tone in recent months because of ongoing civil unrest in the US and the threat of violence in the aftermath of a contested election, given Mr Trump’s repeated refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses and the looming threat of white nationalist groups. The election and the cacophony surrounding it such as the debates and latest controversies receive blow-by-blow coverage from the Canadian national broadcaster, drowning out by its incessant din important stories such as a recent charity group scandal involving the Prime Minister, ballooning coronavirus cases and failures in the response to them.
Prominent commentators and analysts say that Canada must plan for the possibility of serious instability in the US regardless of the outcome of the election, save perhaps for a landslide Joe Biden victory.
The existential angst is understandable, partly because of the damage that four years of Mr Trump has done to the Canada-US alliance and to the national and social fabric down south, and it can be easy to lose perspective amid the daily scandals. But Canadians can do little but watch with a sense of foreboding as election day draws closer, so near and yet so far when every day is an eternity lengthened by every outrage and the Covid-19 pandemic in the background.
That is why countries such as Canada should focus on areas where they can make a difference regardless of the occupant in the White House. Even if Mr Biden were to win, it will take a long time to undo some of the damage that the incumbent wreaked on issues such as environmental treaties, the rules-based international order, decades-old alliances that underwrite global security, and the defence of fundamental human rights.
They can do so by continuing to co-operate in fighting global challenges even as America emerges from or wallows in the throes of nationalist isolation – by continuing to work to develop a vaccine for the coronavirus and ensuring that it is widely available globally beyond the developed world, by continuing to push for adherence to the Paris climate agreement and to supporting other environmental initiatives, by continuing to advocate and mediate in persistent and intractable conflicts such as the ones in Syria and Palestine, by continuing to advocate for humane and sustainable solutions to the global refugee and migration crisis, and by continuing to stand up for the pivotal human rights issues of our times.
Rebuilding these alliances and defending these causes through multilateralism to strengthen the world more generally will do more good than continuing to reel from the despondency and hysteria tearing through the US. And that world will be there when America decides to rejoin it.