Under a Trump-Biden Administration, America can Save the World
One of the best things to happen in the recent history of US foreign policy is the chronological happenstance of two back-to-back four-year administrations of Donald Trump and Joe Biden, rather than an eight-year administration of either.
While both Trump and Biden were swept into offices by electorates primarily concerned with domestic issues, it is foreign policy where the impacts of this eight year period – 2017 to 2025 – may be most profound for the consequences of the 21st century. And it is in the combination of these two divergent administrations that we may see a viable American foreign policy for the 21st century, one that may pare itself together like clothes sloshing around a washing machine.
Each president has offered something to bear: Trump offered vision, but only rogue tactics, while Biden, building on 50 years of political service, is likely to be more traditional and disciplined in his deployment of foreign policy tactics alongside our allies, but offers little new vision.
The Trump administration changed our foreign policy forever. Among his successes from the perspectives of American and western interests were, existentially, shifting course to a hard charging repudiation of unfair tactics and building the case for a new kind of “cold war” against the nationalist and expansionist ambitions of China. As China’s leadership has shifted over the last few decades from conciliatory to autocratic, this was an overdue reform.
Similarly, the Trump Administration brought fresh eyes to the Middle East, insightfully recognizing the pragmatic shared interests across the entire GCC and Israel. As opposed to the primary administration’s focus on reconciling with Iran, the Trump administration saw greater opportunity in overcoming entrenched cultural differences among nations by helping them recognize their pragmatic alliances, which in the current case has led to a thawing of relations between the UAE, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, all because they recognize Iran as a shared enemy.
The Trump Administration also fought hard to re-frame our national ambitions in global trade from those oriented toward greatest international efficiency – and thus substantial trade imbalances – toward those that seek to build resiliency into the American economy by seeking to reduce trade deficits with the rest of the world. This will reduce our dependence on the international economy in certain industries, a critical move evidenced firsthand by the PPE production debacle at the outset of COVID-19.
In doing so, the Administration also sought to crack down on countries that “cheat”, bringing a businesslike negotiating spirit to international diplomacy. This was evident in its dealings with China firsthand, and also in its long-overdue efforts to pressure European nations to take a greater role in their own military defense spending, including paying their dues for NATO.
From a vision perspective, these moves together were important breaks from our predictably drab allies, and as such they were moves the Biden administration unlikely would have had the confidence to pursue on its own. They brought American foreign policy up to date for a 21st-century that will likely see US-China relations more closely resemble those of the US and the Soviet Union in the second half of the 20th century with a “digital Berlin Wall” separating two spheres of the world within a global battle for cultural and economic influence. Middle East relations meanwhile will look profoundly different as those countries diversify their economies and the need for a regional coalition to squeeze Iran and Turkey will become more critical than dragging along the outdated culture-rooted conflict between the GCC and Israel.
Pragmatically, however, different foreign policy tools may be needed to fully realize the fruits of this new 21st-century foreign policy world order. While the Trump administration has been bold, it has not been collaborative. While it has prioritized bilateral as opposed to multilateral trade deals and shirked international organizations like the UN because they are imperfect, both principled moves, in doing so the administration has also flirted dangerously with a spirit of isolationism that risks permanently compromising the multilateral coalition that will ultimately be needed to triumph in a 21st-century cultural cold war. Leaving the UN is good political fodder at home, but it reduces America’s influence long-term. America must be visionary, but it must also wield the tools to carry influence.
While Joe Biden’s personal sentiments toward foreign policy likely reflect a vision of the world that is no longer current, it likely won’t matter as he is likely to be forced to adopt many of the Trump administration’s more visionary stances – toward China, the Middle East, and toward Europeans pulling their full weight. At the same time, a Biden administration is likely to re-prioritize participation in traditional international bodies and restore confidence in our traditional alliances, and hopefully will bring them along to help fight these new battles, pulling America from isolationist to influencer in these struggles.
As China has developed regional coalitions and expanded its belt-and-road policy, America quickly needs to bring the rest of the world up to speed with similar approaches as a counterweight. America will need to wield its soft influence powerfully and return to leading western countries with confidence. The US and the West will need to work expeditiously to match China’s effectiveness at influencing the trajectory of developing nations through the restoration of a multifaceted approach to foreign influence, including the preservation of our military presence around the word, the growth of a global strategic communications infrastructure that includes both media and education campaigns, increases in America’s direct foreign investment and international aid, humanitarian strategies, and the continued expansion of America’s cultural influence on other countries. Many of Joe Biden’s early picks for key foreign policy roles suggest using our traditional foreign policy might to take exactly these steps, which were in many cases neglected or in some cases repudiated by the Trump Administration.
Wielding this soft influence as leaders of an international coalition against our adversaries, American can be exponentially more powerful than trying to fight the same battles as an isolated actor. And furthermore, when the rest of the world perceives America is living up to the best of its own values, those values hold the greatest influence. When we are mired in the struggle to quell domestic populism, the notion of America as the shining city on the hill becomes dimmer.
More, now than four years ago, the battle lines of the 21st century are becoming clear. It will be a long century, likely fraught with as many struggles as the last. There is no guarantee America will triumph in this struggle, and if it is to succeed it will require both halves of this equation – independent vision as well as pragmatic cooperation. In this spirit, the gravity of the moment requires both President Trump’s rogue and ruthless ambition for our country and President Biden’s steady and cooperative leadership with our allies. Conversely, on their own, both Trump’s go-it-alone spirit and Biden’s go-along-to-get-along spirits would be detrimental. An optimistic view of American foreign policy might celebrate that we’re likely to get both for four years – but neither for eight.