The national conventions finished amidst historic domestic unrest, while Donald Trump and Joe Biden presented their starkly contrasted plans to address the crises facing the United States. However, the differences on race relations and the protests are not the only differences between the candidates. Their foreign policy views could not be more dissimilar.
Trump touts his America first strategy in the reversal of the interventionist policy pursued by his predecessors, particularly George Bush and Barack Obama. Critics call the strategy neoisolationism and warn us that it could have detrimental effects on the country. In his remarks for the Republican convention, Trump drew a sharp line between his foreign policy with that of previous administrations, portraying himself as an outsider who places the interests of the United States at the top for his national agenda.
Trump could point to some foreign policy achievements for his first term, such as success in brokering a peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. But more often than not, the hallmark of his foreign policy has been all its unpredictability, which has undermined confidence in our abilities and jeopardized our important national security objectives.
The challenge for Biden will be to convince voters that after four years of the "gut driven" leadership of Trump, returning to the more conventional approach to foreign policy will make us safer and more prosperous. While Biden spoke little about world affairs over the Democratic convention, his campaign highlights his experience in foreign policy under Obama. Biden has made the case for restoring our leadership in climate change, nuclear weapons, and foreign aggression, while focusing the United States on its strategic alliances, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
For Trump, suspicion of the alliance that helped to defeat the Soviet Union and to contain Russian aggression looms large. At the convention, he took credit for the increase in defense spending by alliance members in his first term. However, Trump has also taken some steps that have fractured and badly strained relations with our closest partners while at the same time emboldening our adversaries, such as pulling 12,000 forces out of Germany and withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty.
While Trump has threatened to leave the alliance, which was arguably our most important multilateral relationship codified after World War Two, he has remained woefully silent over Russian domestic repression and bold aggression in Ukraine and Syria. Most recently, Trump outrageously said he has seen no evidence that Moscow poisoned opposition politician Alexei Navalny, despite much indication of the contrary.
Biden by contrast said he will restore our ironclad pledge to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization while working with other partners to craft a strategy that acknowledges the challenges of Russian aggression in a way that Trump has failed to do. Biden has also vowed to pursue an extension of the New Start Treaty, from which Trump has promised to withdraw, and use that accord as a foundation for new arms control deals.
The candidates also differ drastically on policy toward the Middle East, specifically on the Iran deal, one of the signature foreign policy achievements of Obama, from which Trump quickly withdrew. While Trump has criticized the deal for failing to permanently prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, he withdrew without a replacement deal in hand, allowing Iran to pursue its nuclear program unrestrained. Biden said he would restore the Iran deal and work closely with our partners to strengthen its terms and push back more effectively against the other destabilizing activities of Tehran.
Perhaps of greatest importance to voters, Trump has had no consistent response to the coronavirus with regard to China, which Biden has criticized. Indeed, there have been no efforts to work with Beijing, other than bashing the country for the pandemic. Further, while Trump finally negotiated a trade deal with China earlier this year, it did little for the United States. The spiraling trade war that preceded it has also caused turmoil for our farmers and manufacturers.
The clearest distinction between the foreign policy of the candidates is the likelihood that Biden will assert our military and moral authority around the world, and to restore many of the world affairs pursued since the end of the Cold War by most presidents, in order to restore the leadership status of the United States.
Whether voters will favor returning to the foreign policy of the past is unclear, notably with what critics have called our endless wars and costly global commitments, which fueled Trump to election victory four years ago. But if voters conclude that America first means America alone, then the promise of a return to normal from Biden could become ever more appealing.
Judith Miller is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a former reporter at the New York Times. Douglas Schoen is a political consultant who served as campaign adviser to Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg.