Author: Henri Robert (Progressive Democrat) & Andrew Taramykin (Progressive Democrat)
In January 2020, U.S. News reported that the perceived trustworthiness of the United States around the world had fallen by more than 50% since 2016. The decline, which was the steepest of any country evaluated in the Best Countries Index, reflects more than just a global wariness of the administration of President Donald J. Trump. Now, perhaps more so than any time since before the Second World War, there is significant disagreement among voters and in Washington about the United States’ role in world affairs.
In the post-war era, American foreign policy was entirely focused on the Cold War, particularly the policy of containment and enforcement of the Truman Doctrine. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the consensus was dedicated towards expanding and protecting the liberal hegemony the West had won. A decade later, after the attacks of September 11, 2001, a global War on Terror was declared, and Republicans and Democrats again rode into battle side-by-side.
Yet even foreign policy, typically a bastion of bipartisanship (if not for any other reason than the fact that most voters don’t particularly care about it), has become increasingly controversial in the Trump era. War fatigue and skepticism of free trade have grown on both the right-wing of the Republican Party and the left-wing of the Democratic Party, leading to a much more disjointed view in Washington than Americans are used to, and one that notably doesn’t fall down clean party lines.
With a historic election fast approaching, foreign policy is on the ballot. With Donald Trump, the vanguard of a new “America First” nationalism, facing off against Joe Biden, a three-decade veteran of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and two-term vice president, the 2020 election will likely have unprecedented ramifications on the role the United States plays in international affairs, potentially for generations to come.
Keeping America First
“America First” was a sentiment originally championed by the isolationist America First Committee in the 1940s that went dormant the moment America became a superpower, if not earlier. However, under the Trump administration, this principle has returned and became the mantra of US foreign policy for the past four years. Throughout his rhetoric, especially in his presidential inaugural address and commencement speech to West Point graduates, President Trump pushes the notion that the United States is overextended across the globe and its involvement justifies a downsizing. US industries were being exploited by foreign countries, and US soldiers were acting as the “policemen of the world.” His words did carry considerable merit. US companies offshore American work to countries with more lax regulations, and Chinese firms have a track record of being accused of stealing intellectual property in addition to other predatory economic practices. The US had also long utilized incredibly taxing and exploitative hegemonic and militaristic policies under the name of “preserving the global liberal order.” US military assets blanket the globe and American meddling has destabilized countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, particularly Afghanistan.
Trump additionally gave Americans a sense of “independence” from the international order. He was the biggest critic of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for being too dependent on US financial support. Member states often allocated defense spending that was under the NATO recommended 2% of the GDP, and the US makes up the difference with its exorbitant financial dedication to the organization. Threats to NATO’s security do exist such as global terrorism and Russian encroachment, but European member states are the primary guarantor of their own security. Thus their share of defense spending must represent that reality in the eyes of the Trump administration. This sentiment is also echoed in Trump’s criticism of the United Nations in which the US pays around 28% of the UN Peacekeeping budget and is the main financial backer of a multitude of UN functions. Although the warranting behind a higher proportion of US dollars entering these organizations can be traced to hegemonic interests, it still stands to how US foreign policy has ignored the changing views Americans had on the subject, and Trump was the product of that reality.
Thus it is no surprise Trump was able to win the 2016 Presidential Election. Compounding American frustration and apathy for foreign policy made them susceptible to an outsider promoting a disruption in conventional American doctrine and promising a policy that will put “America[ns] First” over the abstract principles of elitist foreign policy insiders. Someone was going to represent the interests of the cynical and politician-wary American populace, and that was Donald J. Trump.
Scrutinizing the Foreign Policy Reformist
Trump’s foreign policy in practice has been quite… inconsistent. In the short span of four years, Trump did what past presidents failed to do yet committed many blunders in the process. Firstly and most notably, Trump was the first president to ever directly confront China for its aggressive economic leveraging and other exploitative practices. Robert Blackwill notes that Trump correctly discerned the interests of Chinese leadership and how they are utilizing debt traps, military presence, market leverage, and other means to rapidly gain influence over the Asian continent and beyond. However in the same vein, Trump limited the US economic counterweight by scrapping US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP’s reduced trade barriers had given the US better access to Asian markets and a chance for the nations of the region to shift away from dependence from China. Without a strong multilateral regional group led by the US, China can continue to dominate the region at a rate the US will struggle to compete with. It is not as if the US is completely powerless to stop unimpeded Chinese influence. The US still maintains strategic partnerships with regional actors such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India. Military partnerships with these nations help check Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea and establish a degree of US presence in the region. The US also took steps to compete with Chinese AI innovation, combat meddling Chinese firms, and counterweight the Belt and Road Initiative with its own program (although it is a far cry from the scale of the BRI).
The most controversial of Trump’s confrontation with China has indisputably been the trade war. On paper, the reasons to initiate a trade war are quite valid, primarily being to balance the economic relationship between the two countries. However, two major blunders happened during the trade war. Firstly, the US continues to push Europe away. In an effort to overhaul many of the current economic relationships the US has, Trump has set his focus on entering a trade standoff with the European Union. Alienating the EU has two dangerous outcomes, one being the loss of a key economic partner in order to put pressure on China, and the other being that the EU might turn to China if it loses all faith in a favorable relationship with the US. Secondly, the trade war gained little at a high cost. While the US gained some concessions from China, it had failed to bring in any groundbreaking gains at the cost needed to bring China to negotiate. With the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions to trillions of dollars, borderline lip-service from China is arguably not an adequate concession. Thus it can be interpreted that Trump had correctly diagnosed the issue but could not create an effective treatment.
Other “America First ” issues have been inconsistently addressed by the Trump administration. In order to bring his promise of ending the “never ending wars” across the globe, Trump plans to continue withdrawing troops from Iraq. This comes with the caveat that US presence will still persist in the Middle East to an extent to continue combatting terrorism. In regards to NATO, accounts from top officials allege that Trump will withdraw the US from NATO if reelected. Besides his critical rhetoric, Trump has also planned to remove almost 12,000 troops from Germany in an attempt to “retaliate” against lack of German financial contributions to NATO, although this has attracted bipartisan opposition. Lastly, concerning the UN, Trump is working to pull out of the World Health Organization’s efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 due to WHO “working for the interests of China.” Trump may be an effective critic of the shortcomings of the global order, but his moves to severely reduce US participation in international affairs create a strange impression. Instead of the US putting itself in an advantageous position, it is easily being placed in isolation.
Perhaps it is ironic that the candidate who opposes nationalism is the one whose campaign promises to restore his country’s position as a superpower, but such is the case of Joseph R. Biden Jr. A former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a two-term vice president, Biden boasts the most impressive foreign policy credentials of any presidential-hopeful since George H.W. Bush.
His foremost priority appears to be the revival of the liberal world order. Existentially challenged throughout the 2010s by social tension and the lingering economic uncertainty of the Financial Crisis, the United States was not the only Western democracy gripped by right-wing populism, global skepticism, and antiestablishmentarianism. Yet as the nation remains in a precarious sociopolitical position, and the economy reckons with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, Biden has campaigned on the idea of revitalizing American leadership and strengthening ties to other democracies.
His platform states a need to “lead not just with the example of power, but the power of our example,” which entails a series of domestic initiatives, including education and criminal justice reform, voting rights and electoral security, and ending Trump’s immigration policies, including opening up to refugees, ending family separation, and lifting the travel ban.
Abroad, Biden proposes a “Summit for Democracy,” with the similar aim of rejuvenating liberal democratic ideals among America’s allies. He also promotes a “foreign policy for the middle class,” which includes rebuilding the middle class at home, investing in American innovation, and cooperating with fellow democracies on free trade. In the realm of security, Biden again doubles down on rebuilding alliances, and simultaneously advocates for investment in the military and the use of diplomacy over force. In the Middle East, he calls for withdrawal from Afghanistan and a cessation of support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen. Biden also promises to not only to re-enter the Paris Climate Accord, but to convene with other world leaders to establish more ambitious environmental goals, including net-zero emissions by 2050.
Notably, Biden does not challenge Trump’s assertion that China is the most important rival of the United States, marking a significant shift from the position he once took as a U.S. senator. Formerly an advocate of integrating China into world affairs, Biden now leads a Democratic Party that recognizes Beijing as an adversary, a sign that foreign policy consensus is by no means irreparably damaged. In fact, the former vice president has even accused his Republican opponent of being too soft on Xi Jinping on the “phase one” trade deal and on Communist Party repression of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. However, he differs from Trump in his approach to China. He has called Trump’s protectionist trade policies “erratic and self-defeating,” and plans to resist China by enhancing cooperation between liberal democracies.
(Actually) Building Back Better
Biden’s foreign policy is fairly sound by conventional measures. Such is to be expected from a man who, for better or worse, is a member of the old guard of the foreign policy establishment. However, although Vice President Biden’s status as a blue blood is his greatest strength in a global arena that craves stability, it will also pose two key challenges to him as the nation’s chief diplomat.
The first is that Biden’s administration will have to meet the moment. Looking at his foreign policy program, it is clear that he would like to rectify every erratic decision made by his predecessor. The result is a bit of a laundry list of policies to overturn, patterns to reverse, and broken partnerships to restore. Unfortunately for Joe Biden, Rome was not built in a day, and just as American leadership was built up over time, it will take time for a future President Biden to rebuild the United States’ role in the liberal order.
Furthermore, it is worth noting that one of the most unique abnormalities of Donald Trump’s presidency is his antipathy towards his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama. If Joe Biden is elected on the promise to “restore the soul of the nation,” he must resist the temptation to focus on simply undoing everything the past administration did. Doing so will set a dangerous precedent where commanders-in-chief, Republican or Democratic, spend more time looking over their shoulders than towards the future. It would behoove President Joe Biden to make himself more than just the sequel to the Obama administration; he cannot be committed to resetting the world to what it was in 2016. Too much has changed since then. If Joe Biden is elected President of the United States, he will need to be a leader for a new era, not the final act of an old one.
The second key challenge Biden will face as head of state will be finding focus in a moment of national chaos. Even if Democrats gain full control of Congress and the White House (as they did in 1976, 1992, and 2008), the constraints of the Beltway will force the new administration to pick and choose its battles, and with the United States facing an unprecedented confluence of crises, those priorities will likely be domestic ones. His campaign seems to already understand this; as mentioned earlier, they list a number of domestic initiatives under their foreign policy agenda, with the stated purpose of strengthening democracy.
There may be wisdom in such an approach. Disillusionment with the very establishment he was a part of is what led many voters to Donald Trump in the first place; therefore, a Biden administration that fails to address the issues that led to Trump’s election will fail to ensure long-term stability for the liberal order, both at home and abroad. As president, Joe Biden will need to be committed to policies that improve life at home, especially for middle- and working-class Americans.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of climate disasters, and a surge in racial justice protests across the country, there is more than enough to keep a president busy on the homefront. Yet each of these issues has international ramifications, giving Joe Biden a unique opportunity to craft a foreign policy agenda that reflects his domestic plans, rather than encompassing a separate set of priorities. Former World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick argues that “a combined program offers an incumbent President Biden a cohesive strategy, rather than a long roster of individual items.” This program would allow the administration to focus on COVID-19 response (both in public health and economic recovery), combating climate change, addressing systemic inequality, reforming criminal justice, expanding healthcare access, and promoting American industry and jobs through investment, innovation, and free trade. Doing so would not only help public trust in government, but would bring the United States’s goals back in line with those of its allies. “A Biden administration can succeed,” Zoellick writes, “if it makes domestic and foreign policies two sides of the same coin.”
Thus as the 2020 Election becomes the forefront of the world’s attention, America has a choice. Voters can reelect the ultimate critic of the global order, who will utilize a nationalist attitude to confront any state that attempts to put the US in a disadvantageous position. His unconventionality might bring some unique upside to American foreign policy that has faced existential crises in the past decades, but it comes at the risk of reckless gambles for rewards of varying value. On the other hand, there is the stalwart defender of the “liberal order” who desires to bring back proactive American leadership of global democracy. His platform introduces new ideas to address the new problems, but how effective will it be in a world increasingly wary of American leadership? Will he make a new American foreign policy or will he be too focused on turning back the clock to bring back the era of before the 45th president?
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