Photo courtesy of NBC News

The result of the US presidential election of 2020 has far reaching consequences not only for the United States but also globally. Within the US, the outcome will surely benefit African American people, the Muslim population and the recent and prospective immigrants from Latin America and other developing countries. These segments of the population will have greater social and economic security than under President Donald Trump. Even the poor among the white population, although they mostly voted for Trump, will gain from the financial reforms, reduced unemployment and other social benefits directed towards the disadvantaged.

Both immediately and in the long term, there will be substantial gains from the better handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and greater reliance on medical and scientific expertise in respect of environmental issues such as climate change. Many parts of the US have been battered by storms and forest fires. The new administration will understand the relationship between these disasters and environmental policy. There will be more and better investment as well as international cooperation in dealing with these issues. The US will re-join international initiatives such as the Paris Agreement on the climate change that it had abandoned. The US also withdrew from institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and UNESCO and announced its intent to withdraw from the World Health Organization. The Biden team has already signaled that it will take a much more multilateral approach to foreign policy.

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is now often tied to the interests of the government in power at any given point; in the past, it had a much more “Third-Worldist” vision of its foreign policy priorities. For instance, there was a time when the Palestinian issue would have been of major importance to Sri Lanka and the fact that Trump’s administration has been the most militantly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian one in US history would have been important in opposing its foreign policy. However, in view of the rising anti-Muslim agitation now prevalent in Sri Lanka, this issue has not been a major factor.

For Sri Lanka it is of more direct significance that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will give greater emphasis, both domestic and international, to cooperation on human rights issues. The US may re-join UNHRC and re-engage in policy issues, some of which are relevant to Sri Lanka. In particular, the US played a lead role in UNHCR initiatives relating to the welfare of ethnic minorities and the alleged large scale killing of civilians, especially in the latter part of the civil war. The Trump administration had no interest in these issues while the current Sri Lankan government has no intention of making progress and complying with UNHCR requirements. The Sri Lankan government and some of its people may have preferred Trump’s re-election.

But from the perspective of those pushing human rights, the Biden administration gives hope of renewed progress although, because of changed circumstances, the options are of limited scope. The changed circumstances include the change of government in Sri Lanka to one that is unreceptive to the UNHCR, as well as the increasing role of China in the South Asian region. China has pledged to back Sri Lanka against the UNHCR or any other foreign agency on this issue while the Biden administration may be reluctant to push hard because of ill effects to its bilateral relations with China, where it has other priorities.

It can be argued that every US Presidential election is unique but the 2020 US election is unique in more ways than usual. The issues at stake in regard to race, gender, immigration, human rights and a range of foreign policy issues are of unprecedented magnitude. Many difficult-to-reverse changes have taken place under the four years of the Trump presidency. Four more years would have taken these changes further and made them virtually irreversible. The character and image of the nation and its place in world affairs would have been transformed. Because of the lead role of the US in international affairs, there would have a major and lasting impact globally. The change of presidency has made it possible to undo some of these changes.

How far the American government goes from just reversing Trump’s policies to pushing forward in a progressive direction depends on the character of the Biden administration. If key roles are given to people such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Stacey Abrams, far reaching changes are more likely internationally and domestically. However, substantial changes are difficult without control of the Senate. This would require that Democrats win both of the run-off races for the Senate elections in Georgia that are due a few weeks from now.