Biden Should Pursue a Trump 2.0 Foreign Policy

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December 26, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: Joe BidenChinaEuropean UnionGermanyDonald Trump

Biden Should Pursue a Trump 2.0 Foreign Policy

On a range of issues—trade negotiations, relations with China, balancing between Iran and the Sunni Arab states in the Middle East—Biden should be thinking of pursuing a better-managed version of Trump’s foreign policy.

IF COUNTRIES in the mostly free world don’t respond warmly to whatever U.S. foreign policy Joe Biden offers them, they will be showing gross ingratitude, since ending the unpredictable and impolite oscillations of Trump's foreign policy has been the constant theme of their complaints for the last four years. Biden should be able to manage that easily enough, as he’ll be surrounded by people with advanced Ivy League degrees in making things run smoothly.

In addition, the points in his manifesto that reflect Democratic talking points and the interests of supportive NGOs—for instance, new arms control treaties, toughening global rules on gender violence, liberalizing migration rules for Muslim majority countries—will be popular with the countries concerned, alienate only Republican voters, and give him favorable headlines in The New York Times. He is already on the same page as European Union leaders in Berlin, Paris, and Brussels in wanting “More Europe” policies such as an integrated European defense policy and the rubber-stamping of ambitious financial packages designed to save Europe from both the coronavirus and the endless Euro crisis. And, finally, Biden would win any competition in not being Donald Trump. He is more unlike Donald Trump than any other Democrat except perhaps for those who apparently voted from their graves in Milwaukee. And that’s a foreign policy in itself.

At the same time, Biden takes office at the moment when it’s increasingly respectable to point out that many of Trump’s innovations in foreign policy now look necessary and sensible. Some will say Trump’s obnoxious behavior is to blame for the resistance of America’s allies to seeing the virtues in those policies. But how successful were the many presidents who asked NATO’s European members to increase their defense spending in politely diplomatic terms? It took noisy table-thumping from Trump to change some minds. Come to that, has Angela Merkel’s Germany yet learned the obligations of alliance solidarity either towards Russia over Nord Stream Two or towards China on a range of topics from Huawei to its imprisonment of Uighur Muslims? Germany’s political culture, which is a sort of commercial pacifism heavily scented with anti-Americanism, is a problem for America mainly, but also for those European countries which are perpetually nervous of a Russo-German partnership that would decide key issues “Rapallo-style.”

On a range of issues—trade negotiations, relations with China, balancing between Iran and the Sunni Arab states in the Middle East—Biden should be thinking of pursuing a better-managed version of Trump’s foreign policy. One can see some signs of that in the rhetoric of his forthcoming foreign policy. He promises, for instance, to end the endless wars carried on ... well, not by President Trump, but by some of the neoconservative “Never Trumpers” who urged voters to save America from Trump by backing Biden (it reminds one of Lebanese politics.) On the other hand, he wants to demonstrate that he wouldn’t be a pushover for foreign enemies, from terrorists to Beijing. So his foreign policy statement declares with appalling frankness: “Biden believes the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be deterring—and if necessary, retaliating against—a nuclear attack.” That conforms to NATO orthodoxy; still, it’s rare to see a Democratic leader explicitly threatening nuclear retaliation. And the entire confection is topped off with a strong commitment to promoting democracy by heightened public diplomacy that would include a world conference on expanding it (and perhaps its definition too).

In short, Biden seems to be promising Teddy Roosevelt’s policy of carrying a big stick and speaking softly—but about globalism in the manner of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In Asia, that presumably means telling the Chinese communists frankly that if they want to restore an economic partnership that has served China better than America, Beijing will have to make political and human rights concessions to do so. If that offer is rejected, Biden’s emphasis on democracy should then inspire not a conference but a massive expenditure on U.S. public diplomacy and broadcasting that leaps over the barriers and firewalls against it.

A somewhat different approach is needed for Europe. It’s clear that a Biden-Harris administration would align itself with the Eurocrats in Brussels, the center-Left parties in the European Parliament, and the governments in Paris, Berlin, Spain, and Italy. That probably means Washington urging greater centralization of power in Brussels as a corrective to “nationalism” and “populism,” and, in particular, pressing Budapest and Warsaw to give ground to “democratic” renewal, e.g., measures to give the courts greater authority over legislation and guarantees of editorial independence for state-owned media.

Exactly how strongly Washington would press these points—and how immediately—is another matter. Given the uniformity of U.S. media and Big Tech friendliness to Biden and hostility to Trump in the campaign, the United States is in a weak position to urge media diversity in other countries. Another argument for restraint is that Europe stands poised on the edge of a carefully-balanced series of steps towards the “More Europe” policies that Biden’s State Department will want to support. Part of that balance is that Budapest will not obstruct the financial packages (from which Hungary benefits, along with Mediterranean Europe and the rest of Central Europe) if it’s not subjected to incessant attacks on “Rule of Law” grounds. Germany put this package together, and it won’t want to preside over it falling apart. As such, the new Biden team will take their cue from her. And that’s likely to be a plea for caution too.

Neither Merkel nor Biden will want to risk the kind of row, either internal to Europe or external, that would disturb the unstable Italian political situation and give Matteo Salvini another shot at power. A populist Italy would significantly strengthen the resistance to any new Biden-Brussels axis. Above all, the progressive urge to scapegoat Viktor Orbán may have to be foregone when President Emmanuel Macron has joined the majority of European states in acknowledging that the Hungarian prime minister called the migration crisis right five years ago.

John O’Sullivan is the President of the Danube Institute in Budapest, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a former editor of The National Interest.

Image: Reuters.