November 4, 2020

IntelBrief: The Stakes are High in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

(AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

Bottom Line Up Front:

  • For the most part, the 2020 election season has been devoid of an in-depth discussion on foreign policy by the presidential candidates.
  • The Trump Doctrine largely consists of a ‘go-it-alone’ approach to world affairs which has alienated longtime allies and emboldened dictators.
  • The most glaring difference between Trump and Biden is the two candidates’ respective approaches to unilateralism versus multilateralism.
  • Even the foreign policy ‘wins’ touted by the Trump administration have been oversold and a byproduct of a transactional approach to U.S. policy.

For the most part, the 2020 election season has been devoid of an in-depth discussion on foreign policy. Perhaps this is rather unsurprising, given the litany of domestic issues the United States is currently dealing with, from the coronavirus to the aftermath of the George Floyd protests and demands for racial justice, coupled with mounting socio-economic grievances. As the United States continues to sort out the results from Election Day, the stakes are high, both domestically and in terms of the U.S. role in the world, where a Biden administration would take a radically different approach to international affairs than the incumbent, President Trump. An objective analysis of both candidates’ foreign policy reveals some important differences. As a foreign policy traditionalist, Biden has pledged to work in restoring the post- World War II multilateral status quo, by recommitting Washington to its role as a convener of nations, embracing the necessity to restore American soft power. Toward the top of the list would be efforts to repair Trans-Atlantic relations, which have reached a nadir under Trump.

The Trump Doctrine, to the extent that a coherent foreign policy vision has been articulated, largely consists of a ‘go-it-alone’ approach to world affairs. ‘America First’ has been the Trump administration’s slogan on everything from its reasoning for withdrawing from agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Paris Climate Accord, to its public disagreements with longtime allies like Germany and South Korea. Meanwhile, President Trump’s refusal to confront dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping has made the United States weaker and less respected in the world. Moreover, the Trump administration’s inability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic has been a global embarrassment and a glaring example of an absence of U.S. global leadership on one of the most pressing issues of our time. The United States accounts for four percent of the world’s population, but approximately 20 percent of global deaths related to the pandemic, with 221,000 Americans dead to date and still no clear strategy for how to mitigate the fallout from the novel coronavirus.

The most glaring difference between a Trump administration and a Biden administration is the two candidates’ respective approaches to unilateralism versus multilateralism as a guiding approach to international relations. It is also the area where a Biden administration could begin making progress almost immediately, in repairing frayed alliances and reengaging with international institutions. As referenced above, the Trump administration has largely chosen the former, marginalizing longtime allies and withdrawing from a number of international agreements and institutions, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.N. Human Rights Council, while threatening to withdraw from NATO. Trump abrogated the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. The U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA left Washington with limited options, leading to an overreliance on sanctions and pushing Tehran closer to both Moscow and Beijing. More consequently, Iran has continued moving ahead with its nuclear program, signaling the ineffectiveness of the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign. Another significant difference would be a refocus on human rights, with former Vice President Biden already committing to ending U.S. support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen, which the candidate laid out in an essay explaining his foreign policy vision in Foreign Affairs earlier this year. 

The most significant challenge for either candidate over the next four years will be figuring out the U.S. relationship with China. Under the Trump administration, the relationship has deteriorated and disagreements over trade, technology, and the handling of the coronavirus have placed Washington and Beijing on a collision course. The United States needs to stand up to China, but also find areas to cooperate, a nuanced approach which will require a combination of carrots and sticks. The Trump administration has indeed enjoyed some tactical successes, including the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But for the most part, even the foreign policy ‘wins’ touted by the Administration, including so-called ‘normalization’ deals between Israel and several Arab states, have been oversold and largely a byproduct of a transactional approach to U.S. policy. Under the current Administration the United States has failed to lead through values and principles, which for the past several years have been cast aside and sold to the highest bidder. U.S. foreign policy needs a critical reset. As the past four years have demonstrated, disengagement from the international community has left the United States weaker and more isolated. Accordingly, Washington is less able to play a stabilizing role in world affairs while engaging with multilateral stakeholders to tackle global challenges, from the COVID-19 pandemic and mass migration to nuclear proliferation and climate change.