A couple of months ago, I was sitting in a café in Bangkok when a British gentleman sitting next to me asked to borrow my lighter. From my accent, he could tell I was an American, and as we talked, he asked me what I do for a living. When I told him I was a political scientist doing research in American politics, he asked — like so many people I have encountered living abroad — “how can you explain Trump?”
I was quick to remind him about Brexit and the seemingly global revolt against politics as usual. He did not hesitate a moment: “but this is really different.” He reminded me that, for all the similar threads between the two campaigns, the leaders of the Brexit campaign were experienced and educated politicians.
Donald Trump is the first major party presidential candidate since Dwight Eisenhower to lack experience in electoral politics. But then again, Eisenhower led the D-Day invasions and commanded Allied forces during the Second World War. Trump’s most recent public experience was his reality television program, The Apprentice.
Indeed, it is impossible to understate the extent to which the candidacy of Donald Trump is sui generis. My interaction in that Bangkok café has repeated itself time and time again, from pubs in Warsaw to cafes in my home of four years, Abu Dhabi. As a professor specializing in American politics, I am frequently asked to explain this election cycle. Increasingly, I have found myself at a loss.
In my American politics classroom at New York University Abu Dhabi, I cannot couch the 2016 election cycle in the standard political science literature. My students, drawn from all corners of the globe, are equally perplexed and, perhaps more telling, uncertain about what the outcome of this election cycle will mean for the United States’ role in the world — and the Gulf, more specifically.
That uncertainty has itself become a focal point my conversations with students, academics, pundits, and political observers across the globe. Here in the Middle East, that uncertainty presents a number of unique challenges that have policy makers and casual observers alike furiously biting their nails. The bloody civil war in Syria rages on, as does the conflict in Yemen. ISIS continues to destabilize Iraq, Syria, and the increasingly fragile Lebanon. The Taliban is making inroads in the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
Moreover, concerns about Iran’s political ambitions and nuclear program dominate the concerns of Gulf policymakers. At a time when a steady hand is most desperately needed, America is otherwise preoccupied with one of the most tumultuous and unpredictable election cycles in generations. To many people in the Gulf region, the United States’ role in regional affairs appears to be in a precarious limbo.
The fact that this election is perceived abroad as dangerously volatile is not just bad for our allies; it is bad for America. A large part of our ability to command the attention and respect of our partner’s across the globe derives from the nature of our political system.
Sure, our two political parties have differing policy visions. At the same time, we have a strong tradition of the party losing the election step aside and encourage the country to get behind the victor. Rarely have our political differences translated into personal animosity and even hatred.
It is this system and its harmonious byproducts that we have leveraged in selling our political system to countries across the globe — most recently, Iraq and Afghanistan. After this election cycle, with polarization at all time highs, one candidate threatening to jail the other if elected, and an increasing likelihood that the losing side will contest the election results, what moral high ground can we claim? Why should anyone on the planet — especially our non-democratic friends — believe that our system is something to imitate?
Regardless of which candidate proves victorious in next week’s electoral contest, it is of the utmost importance for the president-elect to quickly reassure our allies in the Gulf and beyond that the United States will remain a steadfast partner in global affairs. Nowhere is this sort of assurance more necessary than in the Middle East.
This region is essential for countless geopolitical reasons, ranging from energy, to trade, and — perhaps most crucially — the global war against terrorism. In order to tackle the continuing threats posed by ISIS and the entire gamut of terrorist organizations, the United States must maintain our commitments with regional partners.
While both Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump have clearly different policy objectives, it seems unmistakable that maintaining healthy global alliances — especially in a region as strategically valuable as the Middle East — is of critical importance to whichever candidate enters the White House in January.
In short, while uncertainty is an unavoidable aspect of life, minimizing our allies’ fears of its deleterious downside is, without a doubt, fundamental to our national interest. Indeed, irrespective of differences on policy, assuaging the concerns of our friends is the best way of ensuring a robust victory against our mutual enemies.
Adam Ramey, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Political Science at NYU Abu Dhabi