How Trump and Biden contrast on foreign policy

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President Trump’s campaign manager has urged the Commission on Presidential Debates to “rethink and reissue a set of topics … with an emphasis on foreign policy” for the final presidential debate. Trump believes his foreign policy contrasts positively with Joe Biden’s.

If the debate does feature foreign policy, we’ll see men with very different visions. Trump will link American initiatives closely to his domestic policies, mostly shunning collaboration with allies. Biden prefers collective action, “soft” power and a return to the view of recent Democratic and Republican presidents that incentivizing democratization is imperative.

Here’s how the two administrations could differ in the next four years:


Trump has made confronting China on trade a cornerstone of his foreign policy; Biden has promised an even tougher approach. In substance, however, they might not be far apart.

Trump’s tariffs, which Biden lambasts as harmful to U.S. farming and manufacturing, would nevertheless be useful at the negotiating table for Biden; he is unlikely to walk them back immediately. Instead, he could rely on them — as well as some other targeted measures enacted by Trump which Democrats support, such as restricting trade with Chinese companies in the national security space — to pressure China to make concessions.

A more significant contrast is that Biden likely would maintain a more consistent dialogue with Beijing than Trump, who rails against China one moment and praises President Xi Jinping the next. Another difference: Biden almost certainly would be more vocal on human rights, including the detention of Uighurs, the crackdown on Hong Kong protesters and treatment of Tibetans. Biden says he would rebuild U.S. alliances in Asia to present a more unified front, which he believes frayed under Trump.


Recently, the Trump administration initiated improved relationships in Asia by re-engaging in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in Tokyo (“Quad”) with Australia, India and Japan. Each country is moving closer to the U.S. view on the enormity of China’s threat; this might offer a foundation to develop a collective security pact. To work, it must be underpinned by more than a shared suspicion of Beijing and be bound by stronger economic and diplomatic ties. Rejoining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is one way to do that, while restoring U.S. leadership on economic issues in Asia.

Trump pulled the U.S. out of TPP in 2017 and there’s no chance he will rejoin. Biden has indicated he might seek to rejoin it but has also said he would want to renegotiate it. An obstacle for Biden would be that manufacturing has been migrating from China to Southeast Asia, which will make renegotiating better terms with members of TPP more difficult for the U.S.

A Biden administration also would to try to improve relations with other Asian allies not in the Quad, like South Korea, and revive concerns about human rights and press freedom in countries like the Philippines that have more authoritarian leaders who have found common cause with Trump.

Middle East

The Trump team frequently refers to the president’s role in brokering accords among Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. It’s a solid achievement that has bipartisan support; Trump is pushing other Muslim nations to do the same. This Israel-centric approach would be a key feature of a second Trump term.

Biden staunchly supports Israel, too, but backs a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and believes Trump has been too one-sided. He would restore aid to Palestinians and reopen dialogue; he has pledged to rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement if Iran returns to compliance, calling Trump’s withdrawal a disaster.

Biden is very critical of Turkey and expressed deep concern about the U.S. keeping nuclear weapons there. Expect a stronger stance against Turkey by Biden and the likelihood of sanctions — something on which Democrats and Republicans in Congress generally agree, and which the Trump administration has considered but not enacted.

Biden condemned Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria, calling it a betrayal of Syrian Kurdish allies and “the most shameful thing any president has done in modern history in terms of foreign policy.” Expect renewed support under Biden for U.S.-allied forces in Syria, although the footprint would remain small and hidden.

Biden likely would maintain the status quo in Iraq, providing capacity-building and military support to the Iraqi government; neither candidate has an answer for the growing belligerence of Shia militias there, however. Under Biden, expect some pushback against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council for its Saudi-led war in Yemen and human rights violations.

And then there’s Afghanistan. Centered on a 2016 campaign promise to end foreign wars, Trump pressed for a deal with the Taliban that will allow all U.S. troops to come home from Afghanistan. He appears committed to pulling almost all out by the end of the year, but his own Pentagon has pushed back. It’s a risky gambit because it requires trusting the Taliban will not overrun the country and plunge it back into the dark ages just as soon as our troops are gone.

A Biden Administration would also face tension — the left supports quick withdrawal, but Biden has hinted he would leave a residual force and make further troop reductions based on conditions on the ground, in consultation with NATO.

North Korea

Trump’s most audacious foreign policy endeavor was meeting three times with Kim Jong Un; however, he failed to net results in terms of denuclearization. Expect Biden to continue negotiations with North Korea but he has specifically said he would not continue Trump’s direct personal diplomacy with Kim. It is unclear what either administration would do if Kim disregards U.S. pressure and continues his nuclear program.


Perhaps nothing would change as much as U.S. policy on Russia. Biden would feel compelled to be a more vocal critic of Putin, to retaliate for Russia’s election interference, and to impose new sanctions over Putin’s poisoning of opponents and international meddling. Biden would cooperate — to a much higher degree than Trump — with Western European countries on policy toward Russia. How Putin would react is unclear.

Latin America, Caribbean

Trump’s approach to Latin America has focused almost singularly on immigration; Biden would shift toward more “soft” power initiatives. Biden has a four-year plan to provide $4 billion in assistance to address the leading factors in Latin America that cause illegal migration, including unemployment, gang violence and drug trafficking. He likely would adopt a renewed focus on regional anti-corruption, though previous efforts had little success.


Trump has made a calculated effort to push out President Nicolas Maduro by enacting withering sanctions, aligning other Latin American countries against him, expressing clear support for rival Juan Guaido, and even threatening military action. To date, this has not worked. Biden agrees that Maduro is a tyrant, supports Guaido, and has vowed to maintain sanctions.


Where Trump and Biden differ most is alliances. Trump would continue to focus on bilateral relationships; Biden thinks Trump has severely harmed America’s ties to its closest allies, while cozying up to dictators and authoritarian leaders.

One of the first things the Biden team would do is to hold what his advisers refer to as a “summit of democracies,” emphasizing the importance of America’s relationship with Western democracies and other traditional post-World War II allies.

Similarly, a Biden administration would move quickly to reinforce the commitment of the U.S. to NATO, widely viewed among former State Department and Pentagon officials in the Biden camp as the most important alliance. Trump’s lack of commitment to NATO means its influence would significantly diminish with four more years.

David Tafuri is supporting Joe Biden in the election and is fund-raising for Biden’s campaign. Tafuri is an international lawyer who served as the U.S. Department of State’s Rule of Law Coordinator for Iraq at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the height of the war in Iraq. He was an outside foreign policy adviser to President Obama’s 2008 campaign. He appears frequently on CNN, Fox News, BBC and other networks. Follow him on Twitter @DavidTafuri.

Tags Afghanistan China Chinese sanctions Diplomacy Donald Trump Forever wars Iran Iran sanctions Iraq Joe Biden Kim Jong Un NATO North Korea Russia Syria Trans-Pacific Partnership Turkey U.S.-China trade war US foreign policy US foreign relations Vladimir Putin Xi Jinping

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