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With the United States engulfed in multiple major domestic crises, it’s no surprise that foreign policy has been something of an afterthought during the presidential campaign. The combined weight of the coronavirus pandemic, the resulting economic collapse and the racial justice movement have pushed international issues off the front page — and to the back of voters’ minds. Just 57 percent of voters say foreign policy is very important in their decision this year, down from 75 percent in 2016.
Despite its decline in perceived importance, a president’s role in foreign policy may be even more critical than in domestic matters. Presidents have enormous leeway to make unilateral decisions on international matters without depending on congressional approval, which can often stymie their at-home policy agendas.
During his four years in office, President Trump has used the power of the office to make a series of bold, frequently controversial, moves. He pulled the United States out of international alliances, engaged in a trade war with China, scrapped the Iran nuclear deal, made diplomatic overtures to North Korea, imposed strict immigration policies and pledged to withdraw American troops from the Middle East.
Joe Biden has ample foreign policy experience of his own. He served as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee during his time in the Senate and took a central role on a number of international issues while serving as Barack Obama’s vice president.
Why there’s debate
Unsurprisingly, experts say the result of the 2020 election will make a major difference in U.S. foreign policy over the next four years. Trump’s guiding principle during his first term has been “America first,” a worldview that prioritizes U.S. interests and rejects the need for cooperation with other nations. A second Trump term would likely mean more of the same. Biden’s foreign policy vision runs directly counter to Trump’s approach. Biden has pledged to restore international alliances, like the Paris climate agreement, and build stronger bonds with U.S. allies. “‘America first’ has made America alone,” he said.
Substantively, Biden’s approach would mean deescalation of tensions with Iran with the goal of signing another nuclear deal, a more collaborative international response to the coronavirus, fewer tariffs, less strict immigration policies and a stronger stance against authoritarian regimes like those in North Korea and Russia. Perhaps the most significant divide between the two candidates is on climate change. Trump has consistently doubted climate science. Biden, in contrast, has vowed to make the U.S. a global leader in efforts to curb emissions, both at home and abroad.
Though the differences between the two candidates are vast, there are some areas in which Trump and Biden would pursue similar strategies, experts say. Trump’s adversarial approach to China has been one of the central elements of his foreign policy throughout his presidency. Biden would almost certainly take a less aggressive tone, but his public comments suggest he shares Trump’s view of China as an adversary that must be kept in check. Trump and Biden also generally agree on the need to reduce U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The guiding principle of Biden’s foreign policy would be international cooperation
“In many ways, Joe Biden is a known quantity when it comes to foreign policy. He believes in American leadership, the liberal international order, democracy, alliances, treaties, and climate change. He will seek to undo much of what President Donald Trump has wrought — he will quickly rejoin the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, he will try to revive the Iran nuclear deal, and he will work with other nations on combating COVID-19.” — Thomas Wright, Brookings
Biden’s foreign policy would be more consistent and predictable
“The world according to President Trump is one of ‘America First’ nationalism, ditching international agreements that he believes give the U.S. a raw deal. It is transactional, disruptive and unilateralist. It is also personal and erratic, shaped by his gut feelings and relationships with leaders, and driven by his Twitter feed. The world according to Joe Biden is a much more traditional take on America’s role and interests, grounded in international institutions established after World War Two, and based on shared Western democratic values.” — Barbara Plett Usher, BBC
America will become even more isolationist during a second Trump term
“Trump ran against the Washington foreign policy establishment in 2016 and is doing it again in 2020, attacking the previous bipartisan consensus that the United States has a unique duty to lead a global world order based on the advancement of freedom, human rights and the rule of law.” — Josh Rogin, Washington Post
Under Trump, the U.S. will continue to go it alone in its coronavirus response
“In a second Trump term, foreign countries can expect no coordination on the global economic recovery, the development of a vaccine, the repair of international institutions, or aid for those that were destabilized by the crisis. Openness — in terms of travel and trade — will not return to what passed for normal before the coronavirus. Every nation will have to fend for itself.” — Thomas Wright, The Atlantic
Both would work to end the wars in the Middle East
“Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan. Trump wants to leave Afghanistan. And Biden also wants to leave Afghanistan. So expect the Biden team to look for ways to maintain peace talks with the Taliban, who, under Trump, have agreed to a deal that is still being implemented.” — Nahal Toosi, Politico
Biden’s trade policies would largely echo Trump’s agenda
“If Democratic candidate Joe Biden becomes president next January, mending U.S. trade relations won’t be anywhere near the top of his to-do list. … Don’t expect a Biden-led United States to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership in Asia, restart talks on a new agreement with the European Union, or pursue trade deals elsewhere anytime soon — if ever.” — Edward Alden, Foreign Policy
Both candidates would continue Trump’s hardline approach to China
“The Trump Administration has pursued a go-it-alone policy of using economic pain to bring Beijing to the negotiating table. … Biden’s own approach to China, as outlined in his public comments so far, sounds like a Trump-lite trade policy with a side of wishful thinking that Beijing can still be coaxed back to better behavior by a concerted scolding by Washington and its allies.” — Kimberlyn Dozier, Time
Biden would make climate change a central part of his foreign policy
“[U.S.] success in the climate fight will ultimately be measured not by how much it reduces its own emissions, but the extent to which it is able to organize and influence other countries to pool their resources and do the same. If he wins the election and he’s willing to use it, Joe Biden will have extraordinary power to reorient American global leadership around the great challenge of our time.” — David Roberts, Vox
Biden would undo much of Trump’s immigration agenda
“In contrast to Trump, Biden says that the best way to reduce illegal immigration to the U.S. is to fight the root causes, such as violence and poverty in countries to the south — problems that have only deepened because climate change is destroying crops and the coronavirus crisis is depleting economies.” — Tracy Wilkinson, Molly O’Toole, Los Angeles Times
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