The Foreign Policy Choice this November
Neither Trump nor Biden is a reliable realist on foreign policy, but neither one has the standard record of a hawk, either.
Grappling with a pandemic, recession, and nationwide protests, most Americans are understandably focused on their own country as they prepare to vote. Foreign policy ranked a distant sixth among the top concerns of registered voters, according to an August survey by the Pew Research Center. In the wake of President Trump’s hospitalization for COVID-19, it is unclear whether the American people will even have the chance to see the two presidential candidates debate foreign policy face-to-face. Few seem to care.
Yet the coming decade will likely be as pivotal for America abroad as it promises to be at home. China is soon to pass the United States economically and is flexing its muscles all over the world, from Himalayan peaks to Silicon Valley startups. The Middle East remains aflame, while America’s southern neighbors simmer. To paraphrase Trotsky: Americans may not be interested in foreign policy, but foreign policy is interested in Americans.
Presidential administrations set America’s foreign policy agenda, regardless of whether they end up with a “doctrine” to their name. The Constitution gives the president wide latitude in his conduct of foreign policy, even in the face of a divided Congress. Rhetorically, Donald Trump and Joe Biden offer starkly different visions of the world and America’s place in it. Biden promises restoration, while Trump offers further disruption. But talk is cheap. How are Trump and Biden likely to tackle America’s foreign policy challenges in 2021 and beyond?
The seminal moment of the 2016 Republican primary may well have been the South Carolina debate, where Trump decisively repudiated the previously sacrosanct Bush legacy. A decade after the darkest days of the Iraq war—and long after most of the country had recognized the invasion for the unadulterated disaster it was—Trump finally broke the GOP’s vow of silence on the subject. Calling Iraq “a big fat mistake” and reminding voters that the Twin Towers fell on Bush’s watch, Trump was attacked by the Bush dynasty’s last entrant and a succession of fawning epigones like Marco Rubio. The audience booed him but Trump cruised to an easy victory in the critical Palmetto State primary and established his bona fides as a man who would break with his party’s intellectually bankrupt foreign policy establishment.
Against Hillary Clinton, Trump’s forever war apostasy may have been equally salient. A pair of academics, Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen, have persuasively argued that a “casualty gap” explains Trump’s excess votes over Mitt Romney in the key states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. At a minimum, it seems clear that Trump neutralized the foreign policy credentials of Clinton, a former senator and secretary of state.
Yet Trump’s record since then is decidedly mixed. Supporters will note that he is the first president in 40 years not to get the United States into a new war. But he also hasn’t ended any of the interventions he inherited. Indeed, there are more U.S. servicemen in the Persian Gulf now than when Trump took office. U.S. soldiers still defend dusty outposts from the Levant to the Hindu Kush and occasionally find themselves in combat. America has also sponsored and enabled one of the region’s nastiest conflicts, the disastrous Saudi-led campaign in Yemen. Most recently, Trump helped ratify an emerging entente by midwifing the Israeli-Emirati Abraham Accords. Regardless of the latest tweet, a few thousand U.S. troops are still likely to be in Afghanistan in January.
Trump’s Iran policy, a dangerous seesaw between bellicosity and restraint, has been the most concerning element of the administration’s Middle East agenda. Despite walking away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal, subsequently attempting to strangle Iran through economic warfare, and incinerating Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Major General Qassem Soleimani, Trump has repeatedly stepped back when on the brink of war.
The president openly pines for a “better deal” with the theocracy, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued Iran a list of preconditions that amount to surrender. When faced with non-lethal sabotage of oil tankers, the downing of an American drone, and even an unprecedented attack on Saudi oil refineries, Trump declined to strike the Islamic Republic. His defenders argue that he has cannily gone where others wouldn’t, cowing the Iranians and setting the conditions for an American drawdown in the region. More terrestrial thinkers, unaccustomed to this 10-dimensional chess, might retort that those who play with fire tend to get burned.
Trump’s greatest virtue with regard to the world’s most volatile region has been his instinctive realism. He has grasped that it is neither 1938 nor 1979, and that a continued American security guarantee for oil now mostly flowing east (albeit to both American friends and foes) is unnecessary. His willingness to accept the stark facts on the ground and negotiate with the Taliban comes from the same place. Trump has yet to show either the conviction or the competence needed to extricate American forces from the Middle East morass he regularly denounces.
What of Biden? Is he a committed forever warrior, as eager as Hillary to plant American flags in the back of beyond? His nearly 50-year career indicates otherwise. Biden voted against the first Iraq war and for the second one, regretting both votes. He opposed both the Iraq and Afghan surges, and though he dutifully carried water for the Obama administration at the time, Biden maintains that he opposed the Libyan intervention that has left that country broken and still at war. He pledges to return the United States to a nuclear deal with Iran, although that is likely to be far more easily said than done.
Biden’s long Middle East record, like Trump’s shorter one, is at best a mixed bag. Like Trump, he is free of the most dangerous American impulse, crusading. Biden’s judgment may be questionable but he seems to recognize the clear limits of what American bombs can accomplish. Nation building is not high on his agenda. In 2010, Biden told Afghanistan envoy Richard Holbrooke, that late, lionized legate of the liberal internationalists: “I’m not sending my boy [Biden’s late son Beau] back there to risk his life on behalf of women’s rights.” Last year, he stood his ground when CBS News’ Margaret Brennan questioned him about the exchange. Speaking with uncharacteristic clarity, the former vice president explained:
What I meant was there’s a thousand places we could go to deal with injustice. I can think of 10 countries where women and or children and or people are being – are being persecuted or being hurt. But the idea of us going to be able to use our armed forces to solve every single internal problem that exists throughout the world is not within our capacity. The question is is America’s vital self-interest at stake or the vital self-interest of one of our allies at stake?
Biden’s preferred Middle East military policy of counterterrorism amounts to a reluctant acceptance of low intensity attrition warfare, with little end in sight. But hubris, at least, is absent. As the University of Birmingham’s Patrick Porter noted recently, “There is a prudent Biden who occasionally peers through the fog.”
Both men fail the best current foreign policy litmus test: Syria. The counter-ISIS campaign in Syria spanned both the Obama and Trump administrations. The Islamic State’s last sanctuary, Baghouz, fell in March 2019. Yet U.S. troops remain in Syria today, ostensibly to keep Syria’s meager oil supplies from the hands of jihadist dead-enders. Syria is shattered and U.S. troops are bystanders for the closing act of a civil war—with Russian and Turkish forces also uncomfortably close. Both Trump and Biden have committed to this most irrational of campaigns, maintaining an ineffectual Syrian expedition that is an invitation to a future crisis. For good measure, both men support the Caesar Act sanctions, the latest attempt to induce Syrian regime change by other means—actual Syrians be damned.
China has been President Trump’s signature foreign policy issue and the place where he has made the most consequential impact on America’s trajectory. Repudiating both the unthinking bipartisan free trade consensus and the even more utopian belief that prosperity would beget liberalism in the People’s Republic, Trump put China front and center upon assuming the presidency. He reoriented the Department of Defense on great power competition, initiated a trade war, and strengthened American relations with traditionally neutral India. In attempting to marshal the world against Huawei’s 5G rollout, the Trump administration is trying at the eleventh hour to prevent what author and analyst David Goldman has described as a looming “digital Pearl Harbor.” Even the president’s critics will concede that he has accelerated America’s turn away from China, provoking an extremely belated recognition of China’s growing power and challenge to American hegemony.
Biden, who went to China in 1979 as part of the first congressional delegation to visit after normalization, can claim no such clarity. As a senator and vice president, he sat firmly in the bipartisan consensus on China: the PRC was largely a responsible partner, increasingly critical to the U.S. economy but not to be feared, let alone provoked. Speaking at Sichuan University in 2011, Biden gently chided his hosts on intellectual property theft and human rights but embraced the ethos of “Chimerica”: the world’s two biggest economies bound together in a mostly benign mutual interdependence.
He is singing a very different tune now. Both in advertisements and in person, Biden argues that it is Trump who is weak on China. He unabashedly asserts that “China is an authoritarian dictatorship.” It seems unlikely that a Biden administration would pursue a Russia-style reset with China, button or no. The consensus has shifted, thanks both to Trump and to China’s increasingly aggressive actions on a myriad of issues, a “wolf warrior diplomacy” that appears to be self-defeating. Biden’s closest advisors readily admit their own errors in ignoring or even enabling China’s rise.
Biden would seek to reenergize the fraying “liberal international order” and attempt to use existing multilateral institutions and non-governmental organizations to constrain China. Trump scoffs at these and has instead leaned on Japan, Australia, India, and even Europe as partners in containing and confronting China.
Neither Trump nor Biden is likely to have the stomach for meaningful economic decoupling and an end to the Chimerica bind that has defined the global economy for the past three decades. One man hangs his hat on the stock market above all other metrics of presidential success while the other blithely promised Wall Street that “nothing will fundamentally change” with him in the White House. Even absent the distracting corruption of their scions, neither man seems willing to confront big business in order to hamstring China.
The proposed TikTok deal is the latest evidence. Should Oracle (or Walmart, or some other American goliath) gain a partnership with the social media phenomenon, there is scant evidence that the new U.S.-based entity would have control over TikTok’s all-important algorithm, never mind control over parent company ByteDance. While India has banned the app, America’s TikTok response has been transparent theater.
Biden purports to take a hard line on Big Tech, dismissing some of its executives as “little creeps.” His anger toward Facebook, increasingly the bete noire of Democrats, seems real enough. But Biden spent eight years in the Obama administration, where Google may as well have kept an office. Many of his future staffers have taken the revolving door to Silicon Valley and back. Biden’s willingness to give Big Tech any kind of ultimatum is an open question.
Europe and Russia
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization celebrated its 70th birthday last spring, an occasion marked with at least as much consternation as pride. President Trump has frequently made the alliance his whipping boy, lambasting the Europeans as free riders on American security. Though his math may be fuzzy, the president’s basic critique goes back as far as the Kennedy administration. Having begun his term openly questioning Article 5’s vague collective security guarantee, Trump is ending it by pulling thousands of U.S. troops out of Germany.
Yet Trump is not the main cause of the alliance’s increasing irrelevance. The President has certainly been loath to offer the requisite rote paeans to the alliance. But on his watch NATO has maintained its zombie inertia (adding security clients Montenegro and Northern Macedonia) even as its internal fissures and seeming obsolescence become ever more apparent.
French President Emmanuel Macron was condemned for describing NATO as “brain dead” a year ago. Today, France confronts NATO ally Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and in Libya, the British are discussing cutting their paltry land forces yet again, and three U.S. senators are threatening to crush a German Baltic port for attempting to spurn American “freedom gas” in favor of the much closer Russian supply. Efforts to drag fence-sitting Europeans into an American confrontation with China continue apace. Brain dead might be an understatement.
Neither Trump’s seeming fondness for Vladimir Putin nor the sordid machinations in Ukraine should obscure the administration’s actual Russia policy, which has been more hawkish than that of its predecessor. At the behest of one hawkish national security advisor after another, the United States has shipped Javelin anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainians and withdrawn from accords like the Open Skies Treaty.
In the face of Trump’s halfhearted attacks on the alliance, Biden promises a full restoration of NATO prerogatives. Enamored of quaint references to “the Free World,” he seems eager to return to the status quo ante in Europe. Biden also has a curious and perhaps revealing tic: he often invokes Vladimir Putin as the final word on Trump, whether speaking to Washington policy wonks or a New Hampshire union hall. Biden seems to view Russia as an outright enemy, in contrast to the Chinese competitor. Russia is one area where Biden’s advisors and surrogates seldom equivocate.
Both Trump’s incoherence and Biden’s intransigence on NATO and Russia promise to be a hindrance to a sound American grand strategy. One can regard Putin as the opportunistic gangster he is while still seeking a modus vivendi that benefits America. Both Biden and Trump are wisely seeking an extension of New START and a broader nuclear framework with Russia. Both candidates would be wiser still to consistently seek to create daylight between Russia and China. The junior and senior partner are now reversed, but just as in the Cold War, a Russia—China alliance would be a grave challenge to the United States. Preventing this axis from solidifying should be among the foremost goals of American statecraft.
Even more than America’s failed wars in the Greater Middle East, immigration was critical to Trump’s primary and general election success in 2016. The Republican base’s fury about unstaunched illegal immigration paved the way for Trump’s triumph. The Wall would go up and all would be well.
Four years later, the Wall remains unbuilt and a broader Latin America policy is missing in action. Despite the supposed centrality of immigration to American economic equality, national security, and even culture, Trump’s State Department has all but ignored Latin America. It has cracked down on unfriendly regimes, renewing sanctions on Cuba and making a shambolic attempt at regime change in Venezuela. Meanwhile, the authoritarianism of friendly governments in Brazil and El Salvador is ignored.
The result of this neglect is a festering problem, if not a ticking time bomb. Latin America’s trajectory looks bad: corruption and violence remain endemic while climate change is affecting crop yields and promising further chaos. COVID has become the fourth horseman, casting millions of newly middle-class Central and South Americans back into poverty and worsening inequality in the most unequal continent on earth.
The supposed Soros-funded migrant caravan menace of the 2018 midterms was an ugly chimera, and judging by the election’s results, not a very convincing one. But the migration issue is very real. Fifty percent of residents of the Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—fear that they will be murdered in the next year. The world’s 10 most violent cities are all in Latin America, half of them in Mexico. El Salvador is the most violent country on earth.
There are currently five million Venezuelan refugees, a total second only to Syria’s. As COVID continues and climate change advances, a tidal wave of refugees flooding America’s southern border is not a fringe nativist nightmare; it is an increasingly safe bet.
Guided by a leadership that considers the very idea of a border wall “immoral,” there is no indication that the Democrats have become any more serious about border security since 2016. But Biden can credibly claim to offer a far more comprehensive vision for Latin America than his opponent. In 2009, Latin America was one of those leftover issues that tend to land in an American vice president’s lap. Biden steered the Obama administration’s Central America Strategy, an attempt to address the root causes of the region’s dysfunction: poverty, corruption, and violent crime. Biden advisors now speak of an additional wrinkle: attempting to reshore some supply chains from China to Latin America, thereby securing key production vulnerabilities from China while also promoting economic growth in the region.
Biden’s focus on root causes may prove inadequate in the face of potentially catastrophic climate change and Latin America’s longstanding man-made woes. It at least promises long-overdue attention to the region. Paired with robust border security, a renewed Central America Strategy could offer the United States some hope of managing a future refugee crisis. Yet it appears that American voters can’t get both security and strategy.
For advocates of American foreign policy realism and non-interventionism, neither Trump nor Biden offers a satisfying choice. One talks the talk but neither consistently walks the walk. Whether possessing four or 40 years of foreign policy experience, neither septuagenarian is apt to reorient America’s role in the world, regardless of what the voters want.
Of course, maybe Trump or Biden will surprise us. Perhaps a true America First administration is about to break through the neoconservative topsoil next spring, or a Biden Doctrine of surprising realism is in the offing. In the meantime, American voters should be clear-eyed about the foreign policy records of their presidential options and the limits of the choice at hand.
Gil Barndollar is a Senior Research Fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Center for the Study of Statesmanship.