Election 2020 and Foreign Policy

By Joe Barnes
Bonner Means Baker Fellow


The November presidential election will provide voters a clear choice when it comes to foreign policy. Donald Trump and Joe Biden differ – sometimes sharply – on a host of important issues, including international action on climate change, arms control, the Iran nuclear deal and the U.S. approach to China.

Biden is a fairly conventional liberal internationalist; like his candidacy in general, the former vice president’s foreign policy embodies, at root, a restoration of the status quo ante — a “return to normalcy,” following the tumultuous interregnum of Trump’s tenure in office. If Trump ran, in 2016, as the “anti-Obama,” Biden is running, in part, as the “anti-Trump”: a calm, steady figure who, in foreign policy and elsewhere, will put the Trump years decisively behind the country. (Whether such a restoration is possible is another question altogether.)

If Biden’s foreign policy approach is conventional, Trump’s is decidedly not. Even attempting to define it is a frustrating, perhaps even fruitless, endeavor. Trump’s foreign policy is like his presidency itself:  highly personalized, erratic, often contradictory and all-too-often marked by ramshackle planning and shoddy execution. That said, there are a few strands that stand out. One is a strong protectionist instinct, evident almost everywhere in his trade policy. Another is a disdain for treaties and international institutions. A third could be called a “zero-sum” approach to international relations, where every negotiation must yield a “winner” and a “loser.” Not least there is, to Trump’s foreign policy, a strong current of resentment  — a sense that the United States has been ill-used by the very international system it has constructed over the course of decades.

Foreign policy has rarely been the predominant issue in U.S. presidential elections. (This is a fact routinely – and, in general, impotently — deplored by foreign policy experts.) The 2020 election, like past ones, is likely to focus on domestic policy. This is not just understandable but, in many ways, necessary. The domestic challenges facing the country are acute and urgent. The Covid-19 epidemic rages on, with no end sight, as the loci of cases shift from the Northeast to the South and West. The economy has plunged into a deep recession because of the pandemic, with hopes of a swift recovery appearing evermore unlikely. And mass protests – triggered by the shocking killing of George Floyd – have swept the country, with demands for police reform and calls for a national effort to dismantle systemic racism.

Still, foreign policy will no doubt play a part in the campaign. We can expect Biden, for instance, to assail Trump for soiling the international reputation of the United States and for overseeing a retreat from U.S. leadership around the world.

Trump is particularly vulnerable on his policy toward Russia. He has spent much of his first term, after all, defending himself from accusations that his campaign colluded with Moscow during the 2016 election. And he has shown a personal admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin – as he has for other strongmen – that has raised doubts about his ability to defend U.S. interests. (The Trump administration’s actual policy toward Russia is in fact quite complicated; simply describing Trump as a “Russian puppet” fails to capture the significant instances when he has taken a confrontational line toward Moscow.) Recent reports that Russia paid bounties to insurgents to kill U.S. service people in Afghanistan could give even more traction to the critique of Trump as pro-Russian. Needless to say, the salience of this line of attack will further increase should evidence emerge of Russian interference in the 2020 campaign.

On China, we may see the spectacle of Trump and Biden accusing each other for being “soft on China.”   Biden will claim that Trump has cozied up to China’s authoritarian leadership; Trump will point to his trade war against China as a sign of his willingness to confront Beijing. These differences will play out against a broader shift toward a less accommodating line toward China in the foreign policy community. China’s external actions– especially its assertiveness in the South China Sea – have alarmed foreign policy experts focused on the international balance of power. Beijing’s moves on the domestic front – the detention of huge numbers of Uyghurs and recent moves to quash what is left of democracy in Hong Kong — have disenchanted many liberal internationalists who place an emphasis on promotion of human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

A major foreign crisis – particularly if it involves major military action and substantial casualties – could shift the terms of debate in the presidential contest. There are potential flashpoints aplenty: the Persian Gulf, the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea. There has traditionally been a “rally around the flag” effect that boosts the incumbent president’s popularly in times of military conflict. But whether such a shift of popular support would move toward Trump in our current, highly-polarized environment is unclear.

Today, Biden holds a substantial lead over Trump in national opinion polls. But, with the election still months away, it is far too early to write off Trump’s chances for re-election. These are, after all, strange and unpredictable times. And we should expect much the same of the presidential campaign.

Marin Beal, a rising junior at Rice University, assisted in researching materials for this post.