Americans were casting votes in the presidential elections. But a world away, Iran unveiled a new long-range ballistic missile launching system. As polls were closing in the US, Israel began its largest drive to demolish Palestinian homes in the West Bank in more than a decade. And as vote-counting dragged on Wednesday morning, Ethiopia surged thousands of troops into a rebellious region.
The coming rough, messy period after the US general election will be traumatising for Americans and transfix the world. But until Donald Trump secures re-election or Joe Biden is sworn in on 20 January, analysts worry that autocrats, revanchists, repressors and aggressors across the world will exploit a rare window to settle scores, redraw maps and create new facts on the ground.
There are already signs of countries taking some advantage of power vacuum and distractions created by the disarray in the world’s leading economic and military power.
The high-profile US campaign was likely one consideration in what appears to be Azerbaijan’s unprecedented offensive to take back the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, the result of a war sparked in late September with neighbouring Armenia.
While tensions between Ethiopia’s government and rebels have been mounting for months, the quick escalation of violence this week has shocked many observers and threatens to destabilise the entire horn of Africa. Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation, on Wednesday declared a six-month state of emergency.
“There are many conflicts where things could get much worse if they think the US isn’t paying attention,” says Robert Malley, a former official of the administration of Barack Obama who is now president and CEO of the Crisis Group, a conflict resolution advocacy organisation. “It’s not that the US and others do not care what happens so much as just not paying as much attention.”
Another worry is that should Trump be defeated, he could spend the 70 or so days until his successor takes over to make some bold foreign policy moves that Biden would likely resist, such as ramping up military pressure on Iran.
Conversely, the lame-duck period also makes it easier to consider controversial moves that would be rejected by a president’s political base, as when Ronald Reagan in 1988 launched talks with the Palestinian leaders or Bill Clinton unveiled a Middle East peace plan in December of 2000.
While the US has largely faded as an influential voice on human rights concerns, risk management analysts, campaigners and conflict monitors are also worried about potentially increased abuses against activists and protesters during a US interregnum when the world is distracted.
With the coronavirus pandemic and economic troubles, 2020 has been a banner year for public protests against corruption and abuse, with people across the world seething with anger at elites. Autocrats may see the interregnum as an ideal moment to crush dissent, likely calculating that they can get away with more than usual without provoking international backlashes.
“There is a clear opportunity to take advantage of a period of uncertainty,” says Torbjorn Soltvedt, one of several analysts at the Verisk Maplecroft risk management consultancy who participated in a conference call with The Independent.
“Leaders might think this is a good time to make some moves,” says Andrew Strohlein, of Human Rights Watch. “They may feel that it’s easier to get away with crimes.”
Algeria, for example, has been facing a months-long protest movement against the entrenched military-backed elite. It has seen an intensification of repression, with arrests of journalists and opposition figures that could intensify during a period of time when the world is focused on the leadership dispute in the US. Nigeria is facing protests against police violence in which security forces have allegedly killed dozens of people.
“You have these highly volatile countries where the authorities have few options but to use the stick and they know that the US and the world are focused elsewhere,” says Anthony Skinner, of Verisk Maplecroft.
Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko has come under tremendous international and domestic pressure by a popular protest movement following disputed elections. He may see a Washington in chaos, and a Europe focused on instability within its top military ally and trading partner, as a chance to strike hard against his enemies.
“In this period, who knows what’s going to happen,” says Timothy Ash, an economist analysing markets in eastern Europe and the Middle East at Bluebay Asset Management. “Lukashaneko would look to use the fact that the US is distracted to clear demonstrations.”
Among the biggest areas of risk are the former Soviet countries, where Russian president Vladimir Putin has for years been seeking to roll back the influence of rival western powers. Analysts cited the disputes over election results in Georgia and constitutional changes in Ukraine where the Kremlin could push for outcomes in its favour.
Turkey under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan may also seek to seize the initiative in the eastern Mediterranean, where it is locked in a dispute with Greece and Cyprus over drilling rights and hegemony over waterways, or Libya, where it is backing one side in a civil war that has drawn in the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Ankara and a potential Biden administration could also clash over the status of Kurdish rebels in Iraq and Syria, and Turkey may consider increasing pressure on the militants in any interim period.
“Turkey is looking to seize the initiative,” says Ash. “It’s all about building leverage in future negotiations with the US.”
Iran, too, may see the coming weeks as a chance to ramp up its nuclear technology programme, or test controversial weapons. Already Iran’s oil export figures have jumped from 500,000 barrels per day for much of 2020 to 1.5 million barrels in recent weeks, suggesting China and other countries are ignoring strict US sanctions on countries purchasing Iranian energy.
“Iran must want to test the waters,” says Soltvedt. “If they want to obtain some weapons systems and bolster armed groups, this would be a good opportunity.”
There will be limits to what moves world leaders will be able to take, based on whether they calculate Trump or Biden or the international community will punish them later. Any moves taken by countries with intense geopolitical interests in Washington’s stances – such as Turkey, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and China – will likely be made to influence future haggling with any administration in the White House, whether Trump or Biden.
North Korea and Afghanistan’s Taliban, for example, could ramp up provocative moves and create new realities on the ground in order to prepare the stage for a possible reset with either Trump or Biden, neither of whom will likely be eager to face an international crisis after what is shaping up to be a bruising domestic political brawl.
“The ultimate aim is to come to some kind of understanding,” says Soltvedt.
US interregnums have been volatile even when there is a decisive victor. In the days before Obama took over from George W Bush in 2009, Israel launched a war in the Gaza Strip in what was then seen as an attempt to tie the hands of a future administration seen as less friendly to Israeli interests than his predecessor. A chaotic situation in Washington could lead to even more gambits by world leaders.
“If you have a more contested election with uncertainty dragging out for months, that will create opportunities for pushing the envelope,” says Daragh McDowell, of Verisk Maplecroft.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies