Biden is right to scrap Trump’s destructive unilateralism and insulting attitude toward democratic allies. Yet Trump has been heading in the right direction by downsizing the nation’s military commitments in the Middle East and pulling back on foreign trade. Biden would be wise to follow Trump’s lead when it comes to ending the nation’s forever wars and standing up to China on trade.
Doing so would be good politics as well as good policy. If Biden’s presidency is to be more than a respite from Trump’s angry brand of populism, he needs to revive the nation’s political center. While the left and right are miles apart on many domestic issues, foreign policy offers Biden an opportunity to rebuild the middle ground.
Biden should begin by rejecting Trump’s disdain for teamwork with democratic allies. Most Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, realize that the United States must cooperate with like-minded partners to address international challenges, including resisting Chinese and Russian expansionism.
There is also a bipartisan consensus that the nation has overreached in the Middle East. Trump correctly read the electorate’s inward turn and its weariness with strategic overstretch. To be sure, he has been playing to his base by pulling U.S. troops out of the region, substantially cutting force levels in Afghanistan and Iraq even after losing the November election.
Nonetheless, progressive Democrats are as happy as Trump Republicans about a pullback from the Middle East. When she was still in the hunt for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) asserted that “America should end its military involvement in conflicts in the Middle East.”
Indeed, Trump’s preference for easing off on foreign entanglement has gone mainstream. A recent survey revealed that three-quarters of Americans want U.S. troops to leave Afghanistan and Iraq, and the 2020 Democratic platform calls for “turning the page on two decades of large-scale military deployments and open-ended wars in the Middle East.”
Trump has made a mess of getting out, impulsively withdrawing troops without a follow-on strategy or consultations with allies. Biden should instead couple deft regional diplomacy with a residual military presence capable of surgical operations. But he should capitalize on the political sweet spot afforded by retrenchment from the Middle East.
In similar fashion, Biden should tone down Trump’s strident economic protectionism but continue efforts to ensure that more Americans benefit from global trade. The suburbs tilted toward the Democrats in the 2020 election, helping Biden win, yet Trump performed strongly among working-class voters — many of whom favor policies protecting U.S. jobs from foreign competition.
Not without reason. Although foreign trade boosts employment in the export sector and reduces the cost of consumer goods, import competition from China has cost the United States at least 2 million jobs since 1999, many of them in the manufacturing sector. Opinion surveys reveal that most Americans see international trade as benefiting the U.S. economy, but they want trade deals more favorable to U.S. workers.
Trump played the trade card from day one, pledging in his inaugural address to “protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products.” Progressive Democrats may be more wary of big business than Trump, but they end up in the same place on trade. As Warren put it, “our trade policy in America has been broken for decades and it has been broken because it works for giant multinational corporations and not for much of anyone else.”
Skepticism of free trade has now captured both sides of the aisle. The Republican Party has backed away from its traditional support for trade liberalization, and Biden’s campaign website was unequivocal on the issue: “The goal of every decision about trade must be to build the American middle class, create jobs, raise wages, and strengthen communities.”
As with his approach to strategic pullback, Trump has made a hash of trade policy. His slapdash tariffs have failed to appreciably boost manufacturing employment, and the U.S trade deficit hit a 14-year high this past summer. Rather than picking trade fights with everyone, Biden should drop Trump’s tariffs on allies and instead confront China with a united front of major economies; raise labor, wage and environmental standards in future trade arrangements (as Trump did in revising NAFTA); and make sizable domestic investments in manufacturing technology and worker retraining.
Biden’s victory may have been narrower than many of us had hoped for. Rather than merely lament Trump’s strong showing, Democrats need to harvest lessons from his presidency to revive the nation’s political center. Crafting a foreign policy that appeals to left and right alike is a good place to start.