The Nov. 3 presidential election will not turn on questions of foreign policy, but international issues will impact every American going forward.
President Trump came into office with no foreign policy experience unless one counts negotiating deals for hotels and golf courses in foreign lands. He surrounded himself with a group of individuals, some with long experience such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, who were to act as the “adults in the room.” Some found that comforting; others unsettling.
In the past three and a half years, the administration has gone through two acting and two confirmed Secretaries of state, three acting and two confirmed secretaries of defense, two acting and four appointed national security advisors and three acting and two confirmed directors of national intelligence. Nearly a quarter of the political positions in the Department of State remain unfilled.
Despite the chaotic nature of the administration, there have been some successes. There is an updated North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA/USMCA), a tenuous deal in Afghanistan, the recent decision by the United Arab Emirates to recognize Israel and a pause in nuclear and intercontinental missile tests by North Korea.
And, the president has touted the killing of two malevolent actors in the Mideast: ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iranian Republican Guard commander Qasem Soleimani.
On the other side of the ledger, the Middle East peace plan has not gained traction and “maximum pressure” has not forced Iran to the bargaining table and has strained relations with allies. Nicholas Maduro remains firmly in control in Venezuela. Negotiations with North Korea collapsed. Russia is still causing a good deal of trouble in Ukraine and Syria — and the president was impeached over his dealings with Ukraine.
On perhaps the most consequential challenges — relations with China and Russia — the grade has to be seen as incomplete. The president is loath to criticize Russia — or other autocrats — and while there was a limited trade deal with China, the benefits have not materialized and Americans are still being hurt by the tariff war. Moreover, relations with China are spiraling downward with several potential flashpoints creating instability. Much of the blame can be attributed to China’s more aggressive posture, but the administration’s rhetoric has not helped.
“America First” is no real guide to the administration’s actions, which have been almost completely transactional. Whether one calls it “hardball” or “bullying” the Trump administration has damaged relations with close allies and America’s standing in the world has been diminished. Tone matters and bluster is not a foreign policy.
What might one expect in a second Trump term? The President has not laid out an agenda — there is no Republican Party platform — but some fear there will be more efforts to bring American troops home, regardless of the consequences; perhaps abandoning another major arms control agreement — the New START treaty; the possibility of stepping away from NATO; and more confrontation and chaos. That is why a collection of 70 Republican national security officials have published an open letter in The Wall Street Journal arguing that a second Trump term would be dangerous and that Vice President Biden would be a safer pair of hands.
What might the foreign policy of a Biden administration look like? At the Biden campaign website, one cannot help but notice that of two dozen policy issues highlighted, only one covers foreign policy and national security issues and even that leans on the importance of domestic policy, arguing that America needs to be strong at home in order to lead and be strong abroad.
Biden says the pandemic would be Job One on Day One, including coordinating the response with allies. The former vice president has pledged to immediately take the U.S. back into the Paris climate accord and to push for stronger measures from the international community, something that would definitely not happen under a Trump administration. It would probably seek to rejoin the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), because it was always as much a political document as an economic one and Biden will want it to gain leverage against China. Harder, would be putting the Iran nuclear deal back together and get Iran to reverse its violations of the agreement. To make it politically doable, Biden would have to get much more from Iran.
First and foremost, a Biden administration promises to repair the damage done to America’s relationship with allies, to its alliances and the post-World War II institutions that have underpinned America’s influence in the world. It would pursue arms control, extending New START at a minimum. Human rights would be given a more prominent place.
I still recall sitting across from Biden some 35 years ago at a dinner on the North Shore. Someone asked him if we could trust the Soviets in concluding an arms control agreement and he reached across the table and grabbed the man by the lapels, looked him in the eye and said: “Trust? When you are dealing with an SOB you don’t trust; you go to your lawyer and say ‘get me a nice, tight contract’.” Early in his career, Biden was considered a hawk. With nearly 50 years of experience, he is more wary of American interventions now. He is, today, more moderate and cautious.
That caution would be balanced by a seasoned group of Democratic foreign policy professionals — Tony Blinken, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, Jake Sullivan, Mike and Tom Donilon and Nick Burns, among others — several of whom have advocated using American power and influence to advance democracy and human rights. However, this is not December 1991 when the USSR imploded or even January 2005 when President Bush pledged to use his political capital to advance democracy around the world. The international environment has become much more complicated.
Unpredictability can be a foreign policy tool, but American voters have to decide if unpredictability, as practiced by this president, has truly advanced America’s interests. The differences between the incumbent and the challenger are stark. Foreign policy is no different.
Keith Peterson, of Lake Barrington, served 29 years as a press and cultural officer for the United States Information Agency and Department of State. He was chief editorial writer of the Daily Herald 1984-86.