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. Trump spent his first term focusing narrowly on U.S. interests, a strategy he calls “America First.”
Not only did Trump reject multilateralism, weaken alliances and undermine human rights norms, he also waged war on the foreign policy establishment inside his own government. Trump’s White House tried to gut funding for diplomacy, dismantle independent U.S. international broadcasting and install political hacks to mismanage the U.S. Agency for International Development. Trump also sows doubt about the integrity of U.S. democracy and the credibility of the U.S. intelligence community almost every day.
Trump’s team is breaking the tools of foreign policy his successors might need to put it together again. Harris identified the problem, but she didn’t offer much in the way of solutions — aside from building “relationships” — perhaps because they are scarce. It could take decades to repair the institutions Trump intentionally damaged inside our government and around the world.
There is evidence the Biden team is working on this behind the scenes. The campaign has hundreds of foreign policy “advisers” writing hundreds of memos to one another. The real action, though, is at the top. A small group of former Obama administration officials, lawmakers and a few outsiders have been preparing a fresh approach.
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) told me that a Biden administration won’t try to tackle the large foreign policy issues right away; instead, it will prioritize the domestic need to fight the pandemic. That new pandemic strategy will have an international component, he said, reconnecting the U.S. government with the larger global response.
Next, the Biden administration will “assemble the global network of free societies, of democracies, of those countries who are willing to lock arms with us, to stand up and say, ‘We are a community of democracies who care about free press, human rights, democracy and the values that distinguish us,’ ” Coons said. “And then, from that position of strength, reengage on climate and nuclear proliferation with Iran and North Korea and confronting China.”
Biden is expecting help from Republicans who profess to believe in those values. He wants to bring together internationalist Democrats and Republicans to resist the protectionist and nativist elements on both the left and the right. “If U.S. policymakers seek to restore a bipartisan consensus favoring American global leadership, they must persuade ordinary Americans that international engagement and alliances are worth the cost,” Coons wrote Wednesday in Foreign Affairs.
That might be asking too much of a party that will almost certainly be focused on defeating Biden in 2024. The Republicans have reason to see him fail, not to help him undo what happened on their watch. Biden will need a full team of confirmed officials to deploy across the globe, but if Republicans hold the Senate, there’s no reason to expect they will oblige.
Even if the GOP and the American people can be convinced U.S. global leadership is worth restoring, there’s no assurance the world will go along. Regional hegemons such as Russia and Turkey are excitedly expanding their spheres of influence, with deadly consequences. China has used these past four years to pitch its alternative vision for a world order, one in which things such as freedom, human rights and democracy are optional.
As President Barack Obama discovered in 2009, the international community might give you the Nobel Peace Prize, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the issues get solved. Even rebuilding relationships with allies won’t be a cake walk. International groups such as the Group of Seven and the Group of 20 can’t even meet in person anymore because of the pandemic.
The Trump team is leaving Biden, if he wins, a set of problems even more intractable than it found them. Biden can’t return to the Iran deal but won’t be able to strike a new one. He won’t be able to reengage with North Korea or return to Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure.” Biden likely won’t give up the leverage of Trump’s China tariffs for nothing, but he will find it extremely hard to wring more concessions out of Beijing.
To be fair to Harris, no campaign is expected to have all the answers in advance — but the questions don’t get easier after the election. If Biden wins, the incoming administration is in for a very rough ride. If Trump wins, it might be the nail in the coffin of the U.S.-led global order Biden is pledging to salvage.