By Charlie Stuart
This article was originally featured in our special election 2020 magazine, (p.15) released 16 November 2020, which you can view here.
While the organs of the American press are hard at work dissecting the latest Presidential tweet, revealing or suppressing the misdeeds of Hunter Biden, and breathlessly pouring over the latest omen guaranteed to contest the winner of the Presidential Election, there are events of genuine consequence going on in the world. For example, the United States is in the process of selling more sophisticated weaponry, such as Harpoon anti-ship missiles and MQ-9 Reaper combat drones, to Taiwan in the face of an ever-more-belligerent China. Turkey reignited a proxy war with the Russian sphere in the Southern Caucasus by sponsoring Azerbaijan’s invasion of the disputed ethnic-Armenian territory of Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey also instigated diplomatic and maritime spats with two of its NATO allies, France and Greece. Lebanon, due to internal corruption and Hezbollah, appears increasingly unstable. On a cheerier note, the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan are normalizing diplomatic and economic relations with the State of Israel, and more Arab states are likely to follow as existential threats from Turkey and Iran loom large over the Middle East. These and other happenings are far more important to the future of the US and the world, yet all we seem to get out of the American political discussion is a sort of domestic navel-gazing with the occasional slogan about China or NATO meaninglessly thrown in like a cheap toy in a cereal box.
There are a number of clear answers America needs from its presidential candidates, on the following questions:
• Will the US commit to defend Taiwan should China attempt an invasion? Do we know where the Japanese stand on this and will we continue to work with them to deter Chinese aggression? Is the US going to continue to pursue relationships with states like India and Vietnam to isolate China economically?
• Once American troop deployments end in Iraq, can we trust that the US will not enter or re-enter any conflict where there isn’t a direct threat to the US or its allies? What steps can be taken to ensure that worthwhile counterterrorism operations like those in Afghanistan don’t suck American soldiers into decades-long quagmires? What is our position on the conflict in Yemen? Libya? Lebanon? Operations against Boko Haram in the Sahel?
• How is the US going to approach the issue of nuclear proliferation, especially with regard to North Korea’s nuclear program and START with Russia?
• What is the US position on a more bellicose Turkey? Should Turkey be permitted to remain in NATO?
• Is the US going to continue to build on the success of warming Arab-Israeli relations?
• Fundamentally, what policy course should the US pursue abroad? Is NATO still relevant to American interests? If not, could it be reformed to meet 21st century security needs? What is the US position on free trade? Should the US be concerned with enforcing its values across the world or should it narrow its scope of interests?
Sadly, most of the answers to these questions have not been produced, because the American press writ large is too incompetent to ask about such issues, and when answers have been given they have been about as substantial as what one might hear from a post-game NFL interview.
Leaving unanswered questions aside, where can we expect our two candidates to take us?
Joe Biden: Try to Turn the Clock Back to 2016
Lightly gilded by a few big domestic policy proposals, Mr. Biden’s campaign seems to make one core political appeal: He isn’t Donald Trump. If you find the president distasteful in any way, you can support Biden safe in the knowledge that he is experienced and likeable. His unspoken campaign promise is that he’ll return to pre-Trump days, as if the 45th President never even governed.
The problem with this from a foreign policy perspective is that objectively, even if one dislikes Trump’s domestic policy or his personality, there’s not a single person in Washington who can claim consistency on matters of foreign policy and not appreciate at least some aspect of what Trump has done. Principled hawks should appreciate his hardline stance on Iran. Principled doves should appreciate his reliance on diplomacy to carry out objectives abroad, as America now has the lowest number of troops stationed overseas since the 1920s. Is Biden really going to roll back everything?
When it comes to the issue of the Paris Climate Accord, a deal that Trump pulled the US out of and Biden pledges to rejoin, there’s no point in revisiting the past either. The solution to global climate change lies in innovation. We need to invest in improved battery technologies, nuclear energy (the next generation of nuclear power, in particular), utilizing solar and wind technology where possible, iterating carbon capture until it becomes feasible, and using the shale revolution and clean coal technology to maintain reliable energy sources while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Paris deal, however, is simply a waste of time and money that will do little to solve the challenge at hand, as commitments made by heavier polluters like China paled in comparison to the costly restrictions originally agreed to by the US. The money spent on regulatory compliance is put to far better use in the development of the next generation of energy technologies, as the Trump administration is doing, for example, in the newly-created Office of Nuclear Energy.
In 2012, President Barack Obama famously roasted his challenger, Mitt Romney, during the third presidential debate for Romney’s claim that Russia was America’s most serious geopolitical rival, quipping that, “…the 1980s [called] to ask for their foreign policy back.” Since that time, Obama’s party and most of the Washington policy establishment have fallen into a panic of Russophobia over Russian attempts to disrupt the US Election in 2016. Joe Biden, Vice President under Obama, has also sounded a lot like Romney did in 2012, telling CBS’ Norah O’Donnell that, “the biggest threat to America right now in terms of breaking up our security and our alliances is Russia.” This is a baffling claim given the fact that, under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey seems to be making great strides to disrupt the NATO alliance from within. Russia could only wish to be so effectual at this stage, and Biden would, like Romney, do well to acclimate himself with the times in which he lives.
The best argument for Biden vis a vis foreign policy is that he would bring an instant increase in credibility to the table with America’s European allies. This credibility, however, would only be sustained by his unwillingness to rock the boat. Biden does not seem to want to reform or reshape NATO like Trump does. He wants to return to the status quo ante with the UN, regardless of the stances it takes on Israel, China, and other areas of importance. Simply put, there’s a real risk that Biden eases up on sworn enemies while getting in the way of important progress toward realistic peace like reducing American troop deployments and working on bilateral trade and defense agreements where multilateralism has stagnated.
Donald Trump: Refresh US Foreign Policy for a New Era
Many of the foreign policy decisions made by the president have broken tradition with generally interventionist policies. The central claim about foreign policy that then-candidate Trump made in 2016 is that the United States has been involved in too many conflicts, with too many soldiers, for too long, and for too little discernible benefit. Thus, the Trump administration has set aside the political establishment and sought to reconsider almost every aspect of American policy abroad, eliminate elements that don’t work, and maintain or create mechanisms that do. The Trump Doctrine has three observable core tenets: First, America does not need to police the entire world to secure its interests. Second, US relationships with key allies and trading partners should be set forth in strong bilateral deals, not entrusted to the fickle bureaucracy of third-party international organizations like the UN. Third, America should act decisively against vulnerable opponents, and establish a livable balance of power in all other cases.
When it comes to geopolitical threats that cannot be handled in a decisive manner without unimaginable consequences, President Trump has tried to set in motion sustainable strategies for the long haul. On China, he has pressed long-ignored issues of intellectual property theft, currency manipulation, and unfair trading practices. He has also beefed up American arms sales to Taiwan and secured new bilateral trade agreements with Japan and South Korea, partners who can aid the US in containing the Chinese threat to regional peace.
In North Korea, President Trump has faced a regional nuclear threat that many past administrations have done little to mitigate. As of now, he has unfortunately not succeeded in de-nuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but what he has done is demonstrated a pragmatic willingness to sit down face-to-face and negotiate with anyone so as to avoid conflict where it can be avoided. The President wants foreign leaders to understand that, unlike past administrations, he isn’t going to launch an invasion or a coup when he doesn’t get his way, but he also isn’t going to relieve sanctions or grant any other concessions without tangible movement toward his policy goals. When it comes to dealing with leaders like Kim Jong Un who are thought to be more volatile, it pays to be a straight shooter. Wars are most often begun when at least one of the parties involved makes a miscalculation as to what another will bear. Trump intends that his potential adversaries know precisely what lines they must not cross.
Whose Policy Is Best?
Former Obama administration Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that Joe Biden was on the wrong side of almost every big foreign policy decision of the last half century. Whether stemming from his continued support for the Iraq War or opposing the Special Operations raid to eliminate notorious terrorist leader Osama bin-Laden, Biden has proven himself an unwise decision-maker time and time again. All criticisms of Trump’s foreign policy truly stem from disrupting the status quo, which was a model that was failing for America. Trump decided that while bureaucratic delay and warmongering prove popular at think tanks and on the DC cocktail circuit, they are of no use to the security of the American people.
Trump has been needlessly brash in his use of language, and he likely could have had better personal relationships with our European allies than he does if he had relaxed his strong personality, but his tangible foreign policy record is, on balance, one of stunning success. He’s managed to broker trade deals and peace deals one after another and weaken the positions of most of America’s major enemies. Most impressively, he’s made it through nearly four years of power without starting a war, the first Commander in Chief in nearly 25 years to do so.
So, are you really going to support a man with 47 wasted years in Washington backing regime change conflicts and a sclerotic establishment just because President Trump upsets your sensibilities from time to time?