US Politics

President Biden can’t afford to throw out Trump’s foreign policy playbook

BY Gabriel Gavin | tweet GabrielCSGavin   /  16 October 2020

Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been controversial, erratic and, in many cases, a success. From his predecessor, Barack Obama, he inherited growing conflicts across Asia and the Middle East. But, four years on, none of these once-imminent threats have bubbled over into crisis.

Now, President Trump’s re-election campaign is in trouble. His Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, has a ten-point lead, driven by the collapse of Trump’s support among African-Americans, women and college-educated voters. As America prepares to make its decision on 3 November, few elections in living memory have had such wide-ranging consequences for conflicts, countries and people across the globe.

By all accounts, Biden is the archetype of an American statesman. A stalwart of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his world view was defined by the expansion of NATO into the gulf left by the fall of the Soviet Union, and by the intervention in Yugoslavia. After accepting the Democratic nomination for President, he set out his vision for the challenges facing America in the world – corruption, autocracy and a decline of America’s reputation. Above all, he decried how Trump has neglected and alienated the country’s major allies in Europe.

It is undoubtedly true that Trump cuts an isolated, even toxic, figure on the world stage. More often than not, geopolitical partners like Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel barely hide their contempt for the President, signalling their distaste to voters back home. And under his leadership America has not just walked away from its leadership role – in many cases it has ceded it altogether. While Armenia and Azerbaijan face off over the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Turkey fuelling the instability, it is Russia and not the US that has stepped in to play the role of peacemaker.

That said, where Donald Trump’s administration has focused its attention on a conflict, it has generally been with positive results. The highly-publicised wooing of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may not have led to the country opening to the world, but it averted a potential nuclear conflict and has precipitated an unprecedented, if cautious and very much incomplete, thaw in relations with the South.

Trump’s personal relationship, his closeness, with Kim, and his perceived legitimisation of the regime drew no end of criticism in Washington. The approach was anathema for subscribers to the orthodox doctrine of American foreign policy, which sees the regime as a fundamental threat, and tends towards hawkishness, economic blockades and attempts at regime change.

However, the President’s indifference to the politics of East Asia meant he was uninterested in pursuing that course of action– one which would inevitably have further destabilised the region. His purely pragmatic, transactional game plan might have overlooked human rights abuses and other historic red lines, but by doing so it avoided derailing talks over what were previously held to be irresolvable issues.

It is unlikely that Joe Biden would have made the same call. In his vision for American foreign policy, he singles out advancing human rights overseas as a key priority. Likewise, his aides have indicated that, if elected, he would refuse to meet with Kim unless “preconditions” are met. There is no doubt that, had this been the approach taken to previous talks, they would have failed to gain any traction at all.

Speaking at a talk hosted by Reaction earlier this week, historian Niall Ferguson pointed to Biden’s record of “hawkishness” in his foreign policy. He also emphasised how Biden is likely to see geopolitical issues in value-based terms, putting a great premium on countries’ adherence to American norms in politics, economics and diplomacy. But in a world where the spread of liberal democracy has lost momentum, this is likely to hit hurdles when negotiating with countries like North Korea.

The same is true when it comes to other countries with which the US must carefully manage its relations. Under Trump, ties with Russia and China have continued to decline to dangerous levels. But there are concerns that things are likely to deteriorate still further with Joe Biden in the White House. The Democratic candidate has repeatedly singled out Moscow as an opponent and any hopes of more constructive relations seem to be off the cards. His instinctive desire for multilateral coalitions would likely see him turn to Europe to put pressure on Beijing, forcing nations to choose between their economic prospects and a spat with Washington.

The Trump administration’s most stunning foreign policy achievement was the news that it had, in effect, brokered the so-called Abraham Accords – the normalisation of relations between Israel and Bahrain and the UAE. Acknowledging the fact of Israel’s existence, and paving the way for constructive regional partnerships, has made the Middle East materially safer while also making a path to peace clearer. Trump’s decision to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, while controversial at the time, has also started to erase the question mark over Israel’s legitimacy. The message is clear – there is nothing to be gained from trying to overturn the status quo.

This approach has never been one put forward by Democratic presidents, who have always shrunk from the risk of alienating other nations in the region. Democrats, led by Former US Secretary of State John Kerry, had repeatedly indicated that Israel would never be able to achieve peace with its neighbours without substantial concessions over Palestinian statehood. While in some cases that might hold true, Trump has decisively shown that the conflict can be de-escalated without waiting for goals that Israel simply won’t accept at this stage.

The architect of the peace plan was Trump’s son in law and Middle East point-man Jared Kushner, who has repeatedly been singled out as an undeserving, inexperienced appointment, a case of nepotism writ large on the world stage. Instead of this, however, he can be credited with a foreign policy win that decades of highly-esteemed American diplomats simply hadn’t imagined to be possible. This remarkable feat is probably only possible because Trump had effectively handed him a blank cheque and was unafraid of the international outcry and isolation of the US that such an approach might cause.

Undoubtedly, all of this amounts to a different model of American leadership – but, if he is elected in November, Joe Biden would be short-sighted to write it off.

Remarkably, these issues have scarcely come up during the Presidential campaign. While America continues its costly military engagements in the Middle East, and the war of words between the White House and Beijing rages on, it appears that voters simply aren’t interested. Recent polling shows that foreign policy is seen as less of a priority than coronavirus, the Supreme Court, healthcare and violent crime. As a result, it has largely been overlooked, not receiving a single mention in the Vice-Presidential debate last week.

While Americans may not be judging their next President on foreign policy, the world undoubtedly will. Donald Trump’s global affairs playbook might be unpredictable, but the effects it has had are undeniable. If elected, Joe Biden could do worse than study it.


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