Why “Anything But Trump” Should Not Be Biden’s Foreign Policy Mantra
Trump made many errors, but there are some policies that are worth building upon.
Getting the incoming administration of President Joe Biden to acknowledge Donald Trump’s foreign policy accomplishments was always going to be an uphill battle. In part, that’s just par for the course. Especially since the end of the Cold War, a pattern has developed by which presidents of the opposing party tend to look askance at anything their immediate predecessor did. With Trump, of course, that partisan impulse has been super-charged by four years of serial abominations by an unchained narcissist. His outrages, large and small. The incessant norm shattering. The sheer lack of basic decency.
And all that was before Trump devoted the final months of his term to a frequently delusional, but always dangerous assault on America’s constitutional order—culminating in the shocking spectacle of the President of the United States stoking a frenzied mob to violently storm the seat of American democracy and attack a co-equal branch of government in his name. Against that backdrop, if the Biden team’s instinct to recoil from Trump’s legacy was already strong before January 6, 2021, it was probably damn near overwhelming afterwards.
We get it. But as the co-editors of a just-published collection of twenty-five essays assessing Trump’s record on a range of critical national security issues, we’ve also concluded that adopting some version of ABT, or “Anything But Trump,” would be a serious mistake. While the contributors to From Trump to Biden: The Way Forward For U.S. National Security collectively found no shortage of areas where Trumpism abroad, otherwise known as “America First,” stumbled or outright failed, they also identified a number of his administration’s policies that advanced important U.S. national interests, and are worthy of being built upon.
Trump’s foreign policy deficiencies are no doubt well known to Biden and require little elaboration here. Even a partial list is long: The gratuitous insults of longstanding democratic allies and questioning of solemn treaty commitments. The flattery of tyrants and disregard for human rights. The sudden and irresponsible withdrawal of troops from key military theaters. An oftentimes shambolic decision-making process marked by chaos, flip flops, and deep contradictions between Trump and his top advisors.
Harder to acknowledge for the Biden team—though new Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an admirable effort in his confirmation hearing—will be Trump’s successes, and those areas where his administration’s policies have left the United States better positioned to secure its interests. Three of the outgoing administration’s achievements, in particular, deserve highlighting—at least in part because they represent sharp breaks from the policies of the Obama administration, in which Biden and most of his top advisors played such central roles.
China. The Trump administration put a decisive end to decades of misguided attempts by administrations of both parties to convert the Chinese Communist Party into a so-called responsible stakeholder in the American-led international order. Instead, it unambiguously identified China as the United States’ fiercest geopolitical rival and most serious international threat. And it began the long overdue process of putting in place a concerted national strategy to contest and constrain Chinese power across all domains—diplomatic, economic, military, technological, and ideological.
Biden’s team has made clear they believe Trump’s China policy needs adjusting—including working more with allies, elevating human rights, making greater investments in domestic sources of U.S. power, and developing a more vigorous diplomatic track with Beijing to avoid miscalculation and carve out areas for possible cooperation. All well and good. But none of those tactical changes should alter the Biden administration’s full-throated adoption of their predecessor’s central insight: Winning the strategic competition with China, without blowing up or impoverishing the world in the process, is the defining challenge of U.S. foreign policy in the twenty-first century. In that regard, Blinken’s unsolicited acknowledgement that “President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China” was a good start.
Middle East peace. Blinken also made clear that the incoming administration appreciates Trump’s most unambiguous diplomatic success—the historic peace deals brokered between Israel and several Arab states. In doing so, Trump defied longstanding conventional wisdom—articulated most vociferously by one of Blinken’s old bosses, former Secretary of State John Kerry—that held such deals to be impossible absent a final resolution of the Palestinian conflict. While relations had been warming between Israel and many of its neighbors for years, the Trump administration early on made their further advancement a major priority and skillfully seized the opportunity that arose in 2020 to negotiate a series of normalization agreements, known as the Abraham Accords. There is every reason to believe that additional breakthroughs are in the offing—including with Saudi Arabia, the Muslim’s world’s most influential state—but achieving them will require sustained U.S. focus and support. An important moment now exists for American diplomacy to restructure the geostrategic map of the Middle East in ways enormously beneficial to U.S. interests. Biden should not let it pass.
Iran. Probably the hardest Trump achievement for the new administration to accept is the enormous leverage that the United States established vis a vis Iran thanks to Trump’s campaign of crippling economic sanctions—made possible, of course, by his controversial decision to trash the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy accomplishment, the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). From Biden and Blinken on down, the new team’s ranks are replete with JCPOA acolytes who have spent the past several years harshly attacking Trump’s withdrawal. While Biden now recognizes that the Iran deal had shortcomings that need to be addressed in follow-on diplomacy, he’s also said that he’s prepared to restore U.S. compliance with the JCPOA if Iran does likewise—a move that would require lifting Trump’s most powerful sanctions preemptively and squandering much of the leverage now available to pressure Iran into a tougher deal. How Biden squares that circle and avoids misplaying the strong hand that he’s inherited will be among the most important foreign policy tests of his term.
Finally, even as it grapples with Trump’s legacy on these specific issues, Biden’s team would be well advised to also take to heart a more fundamental foreign policy lesson of Trump’s presidency: The instinctive appeal that “America First” had to millions of voters convinced that U.S. foreign policy had become the story of free-trade deals that sent manufacturing jobs overseas, free-loading allies, and endless wars. Trump understood that popular discontent with the so-called “Washington foreign policy consensus” and shamelessly exploited it with his destructive blend of nationalism, isolationism, protectionism, and unilateralism. Whatever steps it takes to reverse Trump’s approach to the world, the Biden administration ignores that popular sentiment at its peril.
Interestingly, there are clear signs that the incoming administration is attuned to this concern. Biden’s national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, helped write a two-year study that was released just before November’s elections with the revealing title, Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better For The Middle Class. And at his confirmation hearing, Blinken went out of his way to stress that “in everything we do around the world, I believe that we can and we must ensure that our foreign policy is actually working to deliver for American working families here at home.” If they ultimately succeed in that task, and are able to convince the American public once again that vigorous U.S. international leadership is essential to their own security and prosperity, it would indeed be one of the greatest foreign policy accomplishments that President Biden could leave to his eventual successor.
John Hannah is senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He formerly served as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney and as an advisor to Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and James Baker.
David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.