Biden vs. Trump: You saw them in town halls, how do they differ on international stage?
For the last four years the Trump administration's approach to foreign policy from trade to immigration, and from climate change to North Korea, has been defined by its departure from convention. International treaties have been abandoned, allies ignored or scorned and the idea of U.S. leadership and credibility on the world stage tested.
Trump has also claimed successes, such as withdrawing U.S. troops from overseas conflicts and acting as a broker for improved relations in the Middle East.
Democrat Joe Biden has vowed to reverse many of Trump's decisions, but Biden's foreign policy might not give the world as much whiplash as some may expect.
Trump vs. Biden: What each president would mean for the military
Here's how a second term for Trump's foreign policy could be expected to play out versus a first presidential term for Biden.
China: Two courses, both set on confrontation
Under Trump: Trump has strained relations with China by characterizing Beijing as a threat to American security and prosperity. He has attempted to confront China in economic terms by pursuing an ambitious trade deal, an effort that suits his view of himself as a dealmaker. But the second phase of the agreement has stalled because of the coronavirus pandemic, which Trump has branded the "China virus" to the annoyance of Beijing, and over tensions connected to a security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong that tramples on the city-state's prized autonomy.
The early months of Trump's presidency saw him lavish praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping, but take little interest in China's expanding international ambitions, human rights record, aggressions in the South China Sea, or the need to cooperate on global issues, such as climate change. It's ultimately unclear how far Trump would be willing to push China and risk decoupling the world's two largest economies. He has imposed limited economic sanctions on China over Hong Kong and for rights violations in China’s campaign targeting Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region.
Under Biden: The veteran politician from Delaware is also likely to adopt a tough stance on China if elected.
"If China has its way, it will keep robbing the U.S. of our technology and intellectual property, or forcing American companies to give it away in order to do business in China," Biden said in a speech last year.
But true to his multilateralist instincts, and unlike Trump, Biden would almost certainly seek to "build a united front of friends and partners to challenge China's abusive behavior," as he noted in that same address.
Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based security think tank, said that while Biden would be "tougher" on China in terms of raising concerns about its human rights abuses against, for example, on Muslim minority Uighurs held in Chinese government-run detention centers.
"I'd expect a less confrontational rhetorical approach overall, meaning less bluster of the sort (U.S. Secretary of State) Pompeo specializes in, which tends to damage relations for no good reason beyond domestic political consumption," Friedman said.
Biden himself has given an insight on how he would have handled China over its obfuscation over the coronavirus outbreak.
"I would be on the phone with China and making it clear, we are going to need to be in your country; you have to be open; you have to be clear; we have to know what's going on; we have to be there with you, and insist on it and insist, insist, insist," Biden said during the Feb. 25 Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina. He has called Xi a "thug" and vowed to slap aggressive economic sanctions on China if it targets American citizens and companies.
Trade deals: Go-it-alone vs. international pressure
Under Trump: On his third day in office, Trump signed an executive order withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country trade agreement signed by President Barack Obama in 2016 after seven years of negotiation. Trump’s withdrawal from the pact set the stage for the hardline approach he would take against countries that he accused of taking advantage of the U.S.
He slapped tariffs on more than $360 billion in Chinese imports, prompting Beijing to impose retaliatory levies on more than $110 billion worth of U.S. goods. The two countries eventually agreed to sign a limited new “Phase One” trade deal that called for China to boost its purchase of U.S. goods and services by $200 billion over the next two years. But the agreement left unresolved other issues such as complaints that China subsidizes its companies to give them an unfair advantage over foreign businesses. Plans for a “Phase Two” trade deal to focus on those issues faltered as Trump’s relationship with Xi Jinping deteriorated.
Closer to home, Trump kept his campaign promise to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, a quarter-century-old pact with Mexico and Canada. The new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, guarantees U.S. farmers greater access to Canada’s agriculture market, puts new e-commerce rules in place and dictates that a higher percentage of autos be made from parts manufactured in North America.
Under Biden: Like Trump, Biden argues that China must be held accountable for unfair trade practices and failing to live up to its commitments. But the former vice president has slammed Trump’s go-it-alone trade war and new trade deal with Beijing as “an unmitigated disaster,” arguing that they inflicted pain on American workers and farmers but did nothing to curb Beijing’s trade abuses. Biden has said he would take a different approach by rallying U.S. allies, such as Canada and the European Union, to modernize international trade rules and pressure the Chinese government and other trade abusers to follow the rules – and hold them accountable when they don’t. Though he has not offered detailed trade proposals, Biden’s economic agenda includes a $400 billion investment to buy more American-made products and services to reduce the U.S.’s dependence on China for certain goods.
Biden backed free-trade policies during his three decades as a senator. He voted for NAFTA and, as Obama’s vice president, backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But Biden said during a recent television interview that the U.S.’s new trade deal with Mexico and Canada is an improvement over NAFTA. He also has said he would not join the Trans-Pacific Partnership unless parts of it are renegotiated. Biden, who has the backing of labor unions, has promised that organized labor would have a seat at the table when every trade deal is negotiated.
Climate: No change vs. all change
Under Trump: Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on whether human activity is responsible for our warming planet and soon after taking office he withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate, which has been signed by almost 200 countries. He has cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency, supported the development of new oil pipelines and weakened industry-wide automobile fuel-efficiency standards. He has blamed wildfires raging on the West Coast of the U.S. on forest mismanagement. He dropped the phrase "climate" from his administration's formulation of pressing national security threats. There is no reason to think Trump has had second thoughts or will reverse course on any of his climate-related policies in any second term.
Under Biden: In a Sept. 14 address, he said: "I’ll bring us back into the Paris Agreement. I’ll put us back into business of leading the world on climate change. And I’ll challenge every other country to up the ante on climate commitments." Biden has vowed, "on day one," to "ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050."
COVID-19: Shunning global collaboration or embracing it
Under Trump: The Trump administration has shunned international collaboration to confront the COVID-19 pandemic – a decision that experts say may harm Americans amid a global race to produce a vaccine. The president has begun to withdraw the United States from the World Health Organization, and his administration is redirecting more than $62 million – money the U.S. owes the WHO – to pay other international dues. The president has also refused to join a global vaccine collaborative, known as COVAX, because it’s linked to the WHO. The coalition, which includes more than 170 countries, is designed to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to coronavirus tests, treatments and vaccines. The White House has defended the decisions, saying the WHO is "corrupt" and China has "total control" over the body.
Under Biden: Biden has said he would rejoin the WHO "on my first day as president" if he wins. "Americans are safer when America is engaged in strengthening global health," he tweeted. Biden has also pledged to restore a National Security Council pandemic unit that Trump disbanded, strengthen the Defense Department and the CDC's disease overseas detection programs, and reengage in other alliances to make the U.S. a global leader in this crisis, among other steps.
Iran: Deal or no deal?
Under Trump: In 2018, Trump withdrew the U.S. from a nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers and reimposed economic sanctions that had been lifted as part of an agreement aimed at blocking Iran's path to a nuclear weapon. While Iran has remained in the deal with the other signatories and insists it has no interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon, it has taken steps to loosen its compliance, such as stockpiling low-enriched uranium. Iran has also harassed naval and commercial ships in the Persian Gulf and stepped up its support for militants firing rockets at or near U.S. forces in Iraq. After the Pentagon assassinated top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January, Tehran and Washington appeared to be inching toward an all-out military confrontation before both sides showed restraint.
Michael Makovsky, a security expert and CEO of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, a Washington-based pro-Israel think tank that argues for a tough U.S. approach to Iran, said that in any second Trump term the administration may seek to try to broker a new nuclear deal with Iran – something Tehran has repeatedly ruled out – but Makovsky thinks the "strategic aim should be regime collapse." So do many of Trump's closest national security advisers, from Pompeo on down.
Under Biden: As vice president in the Obama administration, Biden was part of the team that negotiated 2015's nuclear deal with Iran. Biden has said that if Iran returns to full compliance with the deal he would re-enter the agreement "using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it, while more effectively pushing back against Iran's other destabilizing activities."
Whether Iran is prepared to resume the deal that Trump abandoned or would insist on modifications remains unclear. Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran's mission to the United Nations in New York, referred a question on this point to comments made by Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Sept. 7.
"The path will be open to the U.S., whenever it decides to avoid making mistakes, and to compensate its illegal actions by returning (to the deal)."
Iran's position has been consistent. In a USA TODAY interview with Iran's foreign minister in 2018, Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tehran would be open to talking to any U.S. administration about a new nuclear accord provided the U.S. started by first abiding by the one that has already been negotiated.
Israel: Favored support either way
Under Trump: Strong support for Israel has been a cornerstone of Trump's foreign policy. He relocated the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the holy city that Palestinians also see as part of their future capital, and overlooked Jewish settlement expansion on land claimed by Palestinians. He recognized Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, territory Israel seized from Syria in 1967. In January, Trump and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled a peace plan aimed at ending decades of hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians but it drew fierce criticism and was then ignored as it was developed without Palestinian input.
More recently, Trump has brokered a normalization of relations between Israel and some Arab states in the Middle East such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
"U.S.-Israel relations under a second term for Trump are likely to look a lot as they have over the past four years," said Michael Koplow, policy director of Israel Policy Forum, an American Jewish group that promotes a two-state solution to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. "The Trump approach has been to support Israeli government policies and to isolate the Palestinians as a means of building pressure on them."
Koplow added that toward the end of any second Trump term his administration would also likely "green light" some form of Israeli annexation of Palestinian areas of the West Bank.
Under Biden: Koplow said that U.S.-Israel relations under a Biden presidency would also remain strong but that his administration would likely seek a "restoration" of diplomatic relations and aid to the Palestinians and a firm stance against Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. He said a Biden administration would seek to build upon the Trump administration’s approach of fostering normalized relations between Israel and other Middle Eastern states but that there will be tension with the Israeli government over any potential nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Khaldoun Barghouti, a Palestinian journalist and analyst of Israeli affairs from the West Bank, said that Israel's "honeymoon" would continue if Trump is re-elected but if Biden wins Palestinians will still feel "helpless and alone" because the Democrat, despite publicly supporting a "two-state solution to the the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, is unlikely to overturn actions taken by Trump, because successive U.S. administrations have failed to broker peace and because Israeli actions on the ground "won't be stopped."
North Korea: From ‘fire and fury’ to ‘photo-ops’
Under Trump: The U.S. came "much closer" to war with North Korea "than anyone would know," the president told journalist Bob Woodward, whose new book recounts in chilling detail how then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis agonized over the prospect of a nuclear conflict with Pyongyang. But Trump embraced a policy of "maximum pressure," developing a series of crippling sanctions against North Korea while threatening "fire and fury" against the reclusive authoritarian nation. Trump's next move – a series of showy summits with Kim Jong Un aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal – have not yielded concrete results.
Under Biden: The former vice president has blasted Trump's meetings with Kim as "photo-ops," calling them a "vanity project" that have given the ruthless dictator undeserved legitimacy with no concessions in return. Biden has said he would end the personal diplomacy with Kim and increase sanctions on his regime in an effort to force real negotiations. He also says he would strengthen America's regional alliances with Japan and South Korea, and ratchet up pressure on China, to further isolate North Korea.
Russia: Lots of love or back to basics
Under Trump: The president has appeared to be a big fan of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. He failed, for example, to press Putin over intelligence allegations that a Russian military unit offered Taliban-linked militants bounties to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
When the 2019 Mueller report and 2020 Senate intelligence report described Russia’s attempts to sway the 2016 presidential election, the president denied the evidence and did not take action against the Kremlin.
Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group think tank, argues that Trump's stance on Russia is a matter of individual inclination.
"Trump has been uniquely unusual in his personal desire to never criticize Putin, never criticize Russia," Bremmer said. "I’ve never seen any foreign policy issues where the president has been more distant in orientation from pretty much everyone internally.”
Under Biden: The former senator places enormous value on America’s relationship with Europe and NATO. Russia objects to NATO forces being so close to its borders. Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia James F. Collins said Biden’s foreign policy toward Russia would be a “distinct contrast” from the last four years.
“Biden is going to go back to a sense that America needs to work with allies," he said. Having a much stronger relationship with Europe means Biden would be able to coordinate pressure on Russia, in the form of sanctions against Russian state-owned enterprises and individual officials. A case in point: Trump has said little about the recent poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in August.
When it comes to dealing with the threats the Russian government poses, Biden and his administration would be in-step, said Bremmer.
"The administration would all be rowing in the same direction."
Military: Should troops stay or go?
Under Trump: The current occupant of the White House has vowed to end America's "endless wars" in the Middle East and reduce the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and, to a lesser extent, Syria. In Afghanistan, Trump has advocated peace negotiations between the government and Taliban insurgents and said he would reduce U.S. forces by half, to about 4,000 by Election Day. In Iraq, he is bringing down U.S. forces to 3,000 from 5,200. About 500 U.S. troops remain in Syria, where they are confronting the Islamic State group. Trump has also brought some U.S. troops in Germany home and deployed others to Poland. But his administration has also sent dozens more ships and added about 14,000 troops to the Middle East to counter threats from Iran.
He has also overseen an escalation in the number of U.S. attacks by air to historic levels and continues to authorize counter-terrorism operations in far-flung locations such as Niger, Tunisia and the Philippines, even though studies show the U.S.'s biggest terrorism threat is from homegrown white extremists.
In Yemen, through arms sales of fighter jets and lethal drones, Trump has backed a Saudi Arabia-led war against Houthi rebels that has contributed to a humanitarian catastrophe and caused atrocities against civilians. It has led to calls for the United Nations to investigate claims of war crimes.
Mackenzie Eaglen, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said the difference between Trump and Biden's approach to the military is to some extent a matter of degree. Both favor reduced American overseas involvement, she said, with Trump seeking a faster withdrawal than Biden of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and those based in friendly countries like Germany.
Under Biden: Todd Harrison, a security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said Biden would likely reverse course and keep the 12,000 troops Trump pulled out of Germany as a check against Russian aggression in Europe. While Trump has questioned the utility of keeping tens of thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan, Biden would also likely revert to a traditional U.S. stance supporting the presence of U.S. troops there.
Big change on Cuba; status quo on Venezuela, Mexico?
Under Trump: The Trump administration has tried unsuccessfully to force Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro from power – assembling a broad coalition of countries to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s legitimate leader. The White House has used sanctions to cripple Maduro’s brutal regime, but Trump has also hinted that he would consider military action to oust the socialist leader.
Trump has also taken a hardline on Cuba, re-imposing travel and trade restrictions that the Obama administration had loosened. The Republican president went further in 2019, allowing Americans to sue entities that had benefited from property confiscated by the Cuban government. Along the border with Mexico, he has vowed to push ahead with the construction of a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants.
Under Biden: U.S. policy toward Venezuela would not shift much in a Biden administration. The former vice president says Maduro is a tyrant and supports Guaido and has vowed to increase sanctions. But Biden says Trump’s approach to Venezuela has been “undermined by politicization, faulty execution and clunky sloganeering,” and U.S. sanctions “have been clouded by saber-rattling and misguided efforts to engage with coup plotters.” He has vowed more funding to help Venezuela’s neighbors cope with the ongoing refugee crisis.
Biden would undo Trump’s hardline on Cuba. “I’d try to reverse the failed Trump policies, it inflicted harm on Cubans and their families,” Biden told a Miami TV station earlier this month. “It’s done nothing to advance democracy and human rights, on the contrary, the crackdown on Cubans by the regime has gotten worse under Trump, not better.”
On the border wall with Mexico, Biden has said: "There will not be another foot of wall constructed (during) my administration."
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook