The final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was, as many have observed, in another universe to the first.
With less shouting and more substance, there was finally some room to observe the starkly different future the two candidates are offering for the United States and the world.
While it’s doubtful the debate would have swayed big numbers of any genuinely undecided American voters, for the rest of the world there was plenty to take in.
The shape of a future Biden administration, in particular, became clearer. Given the polls (for what they’re worth) suggest a Biden win is far more likely at this stage, this was a revealing 90 minutes.
Revealing moments for a global audience
President Trump has an unmatched ability to control the news agenda. His tweets, tirades and tantrums dominate the daily coverage and Biden has been mostly happy to play the small target and let this election contest play out as a referendum on Trump.
In the Nashville debate, however, the President clearly took the advice to back off the heckling and interruptions and allow some scrutiny of Biden’s plans. This created the occasional awkward moment for the former Vice President as he conceded previous policy mistakes here and there and defended his son’s business dealings.
Still, Biden largely made the most of the newfound breathing room in this debate to articulate a very different approach to Trump on everything from the managing the pandemic, to the economy and immigration.
For an international audience though, the most revealing moments were in relation to the great global challenges of climate change and a rising China.
We have a pretty good idea what another four years of Trump would mean on both fronts: little action on climate change and growing hostility with Beijing.
Biden’s positions may not have been necessarily new, but when articulated on such a big stage on the eve of an election, they carried extra weight. These were statements to a big global audience, for which he will be held accountable if indeed he wins.
Moral obligations and existential threats
Biden described the challenge of climate change as an “existential threat”. He echoed former prime minister Kevin Rudd in describing humanity’s “moral obligation” to tackle it.
The former VP defended an ongoing reliance on “fracking” (gas) as a transition fuel, but on the road to an ambitious goal. Indeed, he suggested his policy was “to get to ultimately a complete zero emissions by 2025”.
This sounded like an even more ambitious target than the Greens. But it was most likely a stumble. Biden’s policy is in fact a goal of “net-zero by 2050”, with “milestone targets” laid out no later than 2025.
Either way, Biden is promising far more ambition on climate change than Trump, or indeed the Morrison Government in Australia.
Biden wants to “lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets” and vows to “fully integrate climate change into our foreign policy and national security strategies, as well as our approach to trade”. That signals potential trade sanctions for climate laggards.
Just as climate change caused tension in the relationship between Tony Abbott and Barack Obama (who used a G20 visit to Australia to highlight damage to the Great Barrier Reef), it could create some awkwardness between Scott Morrison and Joe Biden, should he win.
A US administration fully re-committed to the Paris Agreement and using its clout to pressure others to lift their game would alter the dynamics of the climate debate once again in Australia.
The China question
On China, it appears hostilities between the world’s two great powers will continue to grow regardless of who wins the White House. Far from signalling a more conciliatory approach than Trump, Biden lumped China’s Xi Jinping in with the leaders of North Korea and Russia as “thugs”.
US election 2020
Follow the twists and turns as Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off in the race for the White House.
He wants to apply even more pressure on China and flagged a collective effort rallying America’s “friends” to ensure Beijing either plays by international trade rules or “pays the price”.
This suggests a continuation of the escalating trade and strategic tensions between the US and China and more pressure on Australia to follow the US line. This won’t make life an easier for the Morrison Government in balancing Australia’s trade and security interests between these two great powers.
Both Malcolm Turnbull and Morrison have shown a willingness to harden Australia’s position on Chinese interference and influence, but they have not gone quite as far as the Trump administration would like in aggravating Beijing.
Whoever wins the White House, Australia will continue to set its own course in managing the increasingly difficult China relationship.
There’s an enormous amount at stake in this election. The Nashville debate fortunately shed a little more light on what it means for our part of the world.
David Speers is the host of Insiders, which airs on ABC TV at 9am on Sunday or on iview.