It’s the type of question that does not land well with advisers to Joe Biden: Aren’t there some Donald Trump foreign policy decisions they should keep, and maybe even build upon, if Biden wins the White House?
After an initial “Are you kidding?!” cooler-headed Biden advisers grudgingly admit that maybe, just maybe, some of the current president’s approaches are worth considering. It makes political sense, for example, to take a harder line toward Beijing, given how negatively the U.S. public now views China. In other cases, such as keeping the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, it seems like a fait accompli.
World leaders, who are appearing this week at a largely virtual United Nations General Assembly, are closely watching the U.S. election. International diplomats privately say they expect a putative President Biden to reverse many Trump policies, but they also hope that wild swings in U.S. foreign policy don’t become the norm in the years ahead.
“For the United States to be a trusted and credible international partner, we have to have greater consistency in our approach. We don’t, and we haven’t for quite some time,” said Heather Conley, an analyst who served at the State Department during the second Bush administration.
In a sign of the whiplash years of U.S. political turbulence has produced abroad, an Asian diplomat said one way to signal that the United States can be relied upon going forward is if more of its agreements with other countries were approved by the Senate.
There’s little question Biden’s foreign policy would look and feel a lot different than Trump’s. The former vice president speaks often about restoring alliances, promoting human rights and standing up to dictators — themes you don’t often hear from Trump. In his convention speech, Biden vowed to “work in common purpose for a more secure, peaceful, and prosperous world.”
Understandably, Biden tends to say less about the Trump policies he’d keep. His campaign would reveal only that his “focus is going to be on rebuilding America’s standing in the world and undoing the incredible damage Donald Trump has wreaked.”
Still, based on talks with a half-dozen people in and around the Biden campaign, here are some ways in which U.S. foreign policy may not change all that much if Trump loses to Biden in November.
A tougher tone
Trump has taken a bullying tone toward many countries, including some allies he’s accused of freeloading. “Angela, you owe me $1 trillion,” he’s reported to have once said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, misstating the financial underpinnings of the NATO military alliance.
While Biden is not likely to be so crude, don’t be surprised if he at times takes a more forceful position toward both allies and adversaries than he did when he served as Barack Obama’s vice president.
The obvious top target for this tone is an adversary China, which itself has taken a more bellicose attitude toward the United States in recent months.
Unlike Trump, Biden probably won’t use terms like “China virus,” which have offended many Asians amid the coronavirus pandemic. But he appears to have laid aside his past hopes that increased global engagement would nudge China toward democracy. Biden once said “a rising China is a positive, positive development, not only for China but for America and the world writ large.” More recently, he’s called Chinese leader Xi Jinping a “thug,” accused China’s leaders of committing genocide against Uighur Muslims and pledged to rally countries to hold China accountable for its economic “cheating.”
Biden also is likely to keep up the pressure on allies, including Germany, when it comes to defense spending. Obama’s first Defense secretary, Robert Gates, bluntly warned NATO in a 2011 speech of “the real possibility for a dim, if not dismal future for the trans-Atlantic alliance.” U.S. pressure led to a 2014 deal in which NATO members agreed to strive for the goal of spending 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense by 2024.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric on the topic — he’s privately threatened to pull the U.S. out of NATO — might even give Biden more room to push the issue while still presenting himself as a welcome alternative to Trump. And how much other NATO members spend on defense could be a particularly salient issue if Biden bows to demands from progressives to cut U.S. defense spending.
The removal of Trump as an irritant could expose the fact that certain trans-Atlantic differences of opinion go well beyond the current occupant of the Oval Office. Germany, for one, has been reluctant to sign up for across-the-board confrontation with China, which has become a major trading partner. Many European countries also rely on Russia for energy supplies, so they tread carefully in dealings with Moscow.
Trump’s overt hostility toward multilateral institutions could present Biden with an opportunity to push through reforms to some international bodies. That includes the World Health Organization, which Trump has moved to quit, and the World Trade Organization, which is increasingly dysfunctional thanks to U.S. decisions.
Another example: Trump quit the U.N. Human Rights Council on the grounds that it was too focused on Israel and that its members include notoriously abusive governments. Instead of simply reinstating its support for the council, Biden could engage it while echoing Trump’s criticisms to push for reforms.
Biden also wants to host a summit for the world’s democracies. Such a gathering is an obvious slap at Trump, who has praised many dictators. But it’s also an implicit challenge to bodies like the U.N. Security Council, where autocracies like China and Russia often block U.S. initiatives. The idea recalls a proposal once pushed by late Republican Sen. John McCain, who called for establishing a “league of democracies” during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Trump is known for using sticks more than carrots in his interactions with other countries. Sanctions and tariffs, which don’t necessarily require congressional action, are among the president’s favorite sticks. He has relied on both to unusual degrees to pursue his agenda on everything from trade to the imprisonment of Americans overseas.
Expect Biden to keep many of these penalties in place.
Trump’s tariffs on China would give Biden some leverage over an increasingly hostile Beijing, and he has hinted he might keep at least some during the initial months of his presidency. Although Biden has described Trump’s use of tariffs as “shortsighted,” he’s also asserted: “I will use tariffs when they are needed, but the difference between me and Trump is that I will have a strategy — a plan — to use those tariffs to win, not just to fake toughness.”
The tariffs “could come off, but no administration is likely to remove them without getting something in return,” said Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security.
Other Trump policies toward China, including technology restrictions and limits on the movements of its diplomats in the United States, also could be here to stay. Given the increasingly widespread and bipartisan desire in Washington to stand up to China’s communist government, Biden could face blowback for moves that could be portrayed as soft on Beijing.
The Trump administration also has imposed economic and visa sanctions against an array of individuals. Biden might decide to remove some of those sanctions, such as the ones targeting officials with the International Criminal Court; but he’s likely to keep many of the so-called Magnitsky sanctions Trump has imposed on individuals overseas for corruption and human rights abuses.
“He may not have agreed with some of the steps put in place by Trump, but now that they are in place, he’s not going to lift them wholesale without thinking through what he might be able to get for lifting them,” one former U.S. ambassador said about Biden.
Immigration is a particularly tricky area. Trump has put in place unusually stringent limits on people seeking to come to the U.S., including severely lowering the number of refugees and outright banning immigrants from some countries. Biden has pledged to reverse these and many other Trump immigration policies.
But if Biden wants to strike a comprehensive immigration reform deal with Republicans, it could help to keep at least some of the changes made under Trump. One obvious possibility: Successful enhancements to security procedures designed to keep out potential terrorists. Another possibility: New rules that make it harder for foreigners to come to America to give birth to children who would then have U.S. citizenship — so-called birth tourism.
At times, it appears Biden is trying to walk a fine line on immigration. He’s said, for instance, that he won’t tear down the existing portion of a wall Trump has built along the southern border, but that he won’t add to it. Instead, he’s pledged to pursue more technologically advanced ways to secure the boundary.
Hard to reverse
A few Trump-era moves would be politically and practically hard to jettison.
Biden already has said he won’t reverse Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and recognize that city as the Israeli capital. Biden has said relocating the embassy again won’t help the dormant peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. He has, however, pledged to reopen the U.S. Consulate that dealt with the Palestinians, which Trump shut down.
Biden also is unlikely to re-recognize Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela.
Trump dropped official U.S. recognition of Maduro in January 2019, instead recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president. Going back on all that would be … awkward. Besides, disdain for Maduro — a dictator who has overseen the economic ruin of his country — is widespread in Washington and among U.S. allies in Latin America.
Biden probably will tweak the overall U.S. policy toward Venezuela somewhat, possibly to encourage more dialogue between the opposition and the Maduro regime. Democrats also have criticized how little attention Trump has paid to humanitarian suffering and refugee flows from Venezuela and Central America. A Biden administration will likely try to address the problem.
Trump didn’t feel encumbered by international agreements made by his predecessor; he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal despite the advice of some of his top aides. Iran, in response, has taken steps to restart its nuclear program, making it harder for Biden to achieve his stated goal of rejoining the deal.
Take the deal
The Trump administration negotiated an update to the North American Free Trade Agreement dubbed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Biden has already said he supports the USMCA. He also will likely hang on to Trump’s “phase one” trade deal with China, though that pact is fragile.
Overall, a President Biden is expected to show much more skepticism toward trade deals than he has before in his decadeslong political career. That skepticism also aligns him, to some degree, with Trump, though for different reasons.
Trump has long been convinced that both allies and adversaries have been ripping off the United States in trade deals. Biden, under pressure from progressives, says he wants to pursue trade deals that don’t exacerbate economic inequality. Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; Biden has been coy about whether he’d rejoin that massive pact, which he once championed, saying he’d want to renegotiate parts of it.
Biden campaign officials say they want to focus first on the domestic economic recovery, in a nod to the difficult political climate for launching any new trade deals right now. But the Trump administration is currently negotiating trade agreements with Britain and Kenya; if Biden wins and those deals are unfinished, he’ll have to decide whether to pursue them or put them on hiatus.
Why not build on it?
Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan. Trump wants to leave Afghanistan. And Biden also wants to leave Afghanistan. So expect the Biden team to look for ways to maintain peace talks with the Taliban, who, under Trump, have agreed to a deal that is still being implemented.
The details, though, could derail the agreement. Biden, for instance, wants to keep a small number of U.S. troops in the country to battle terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Taliban want all U.S. and NATO troops out.
Events on the ground could also force Biden’s hand. As it makes peace plans with the U.S., the Taliban has continued to battle with forces loyal to the Afghan government, which remains fragmented and divided over how best to end the country’s internal conflict.
Even if the current deal falls apart, a Biden administration will likely try to keep the channels open to strike a new agreement. The Trump-era deal could offer a template to build upon.
In fact, one person close to the Biden campaign said it’s possible that if he wins, he may ask Trump’s envoy to the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, to stick around for a few months to help the new administration find its footing with the Taliban.
When asked about this possibility during a recent call with reporters, Khalilzad said it was too soon to discuss the idea, but that he was committed to staying at least until November’s election.
Biden also has said he wants to build on a push by the Trump administration to get Arab countries to normalize their relations with Israel.
Earlier this month, representatives of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a White House ceremony to sign pledges to establish diplomatic, economic and other ties. It was a historic moment, and one Biden applauded.
“A Biden-Harris administration will build on these steps, challenge other nations to keep pace,” Biden pledged.
He added a caveat, though, saying his administration would use the momentum to “leverage these growing ties into progress toward a two-state solution and a more stable, peaceful region.”
Trump’s approach to these agreements has made scant mention of the Palestinians, and put zero emphasis on the idea of a two-state solution. Biden’s desire to make a two-state solution a goal of the normalization push will no doubt complicate things, not least because the Israeli right wing would fight it.
Doug Palmer and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.