Is Trump’s foreign policy more benign than Biden’s?

Any day now the news will come that the US and Russia have decided to renew the important nuclear arms reduction of around 1000 warheads each that was agreed by Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev. Another feather in Trump’s foreign policy hat? Yes, indeed. 

In fact his record on foreign policy is said by his supporters to be better than both the Democrat and Republican presidents before him. Most important, he has not started any new wars.

This has led Edward Luce, the Financial Times’s wise man in Washington, to write under the provocative headline, “The case for re-electing Donald Trump”, that “the highest number of checks on Trump’s ‘promises kept’ sheet are on foreign policy”. He points to the drawing down of US troops in Afghanistan and the Middle East; Isis losing its territory; the identifying of China as the chief threat to the US and Europe; and the forcing of US allies to think harder about providing Nato with more funding, rather than piggy-backing on America. He should have added Trump’s softly, softly approach to Kim Jong-un, president of North Korea, which at the least has probably slowed the country’s rate of growth in nuclear weapons.

The US has an almost unique kind of foreign policy establishment- made up of either neo-conservatives or liberal interventionists. Both are tough on Russia and prone to intervening in foreign disputes. They are often liberal on social, human rights and economic issues but hard-line on military and foreign policy. They are well represented among Joe Biden’s advisors.

In Europe only the UK of former prime minister Tony Blair has had a similar “neo-conservative/liberal interventionist” foreign policy orientation, while at the same time being centre-left on domestic social and human rights issues.  

So this raises the interesting question whether Joe Biden if he wins next week’s election will emulate Trump or will he become yet one more Democratic scalp for the foreign policy neo-conservatives and liberal interventionists, also known as the “Blob”? “Blob”, a wonderfully pejorative term, was coined by Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, which is rather ironic because on many big issues, not all by any means, Obama and Rhodes signed on to its prescriptions.

If readers want a prompt on what the Blob has been up to in recent times they should look at the suggestion made two years ago that Nato should defend Montenegro. Most Americans couldn’t place it on the map, yet the Blob was angry that Trump wouldn’t go nose to nose with Moscow over its standing. Unsurprisingly, once the Blob ran head on into Trump’s “no” the issue has faded far away. In reality tiny Montenegro isn’t important to anyone but itself.

Another more recent example is from last week when Herbert R. McMaster, Trump’ former national security advisor and a strong neo-conservative, compared the US withdrawal from Afghanistan today to the 1938 so-called Munich appeasement of Hitler.

It was the pressure from similar well-placed civilian and military opinion, and including nearly all the foreign affairs columnists in the important newspapers, that pushed Obama to raise the number of American troops in Afghanistan sharply to a total of 100,000. It did no good, as Obama now concedes.

Obama was also talked by them into supporting the Anglo-French toppling of the regime of Muammar Gadhafi in Libya-in particular by his advisors, Susan Rice and Samantha Power. If not seeing themselves as neo-cons on foreign policy they sang from the same hymn sheet on a number of issues, including Libya. (There is often such a blurring of the lines of division between liberal interventionists and neo-cons.) The consequences live on in Libya- a devastating civil war, large-scale human rights abuses and an economy driven into the sand. At least Gadhafi, for all his outrageous faults, kept peace and law and order and delivered on economic progress. Obama has since said this was his worst foreign policy mistake. 

One time when Obama did get it right was when he decided- at the last moment, it should be said, thanks in big part to Rhodes’s  advocacy- not to go into Syria. If he had it would have become another Iraq or Afghanistan or Vietnam, a never-ending war. 

A key issue for the future is going to be the attitude towards Ukraine. Trump has earned opprobrium for being too lenient with President Vladimir Putin. Trump raised feathers at home among the Blob when he said the responsibility for Russia’s action in Ukraine should be blamed on Obama, not Putin. Every time Trump meets, shakes Putin’s hand and talks very quietly to him sometimes without even his own interpreter present, the Blob sees the modern equivalent of “reds under the bed”. Yet in truth, the impending nuclear arms deal is the first time that Trump has done something new that Putin desires. On every occasion possible Trump has rebuffed Russia, abrogating previous nuclear arms treaties, extending Nato’s borders and troops ever nearer Russia and sending sophisticated arms to Ukraine. He keeps 60,000 military personnel in the Middle East, partly to deter Russia from further involvement. He has increased military spending by more than Russia spends altogether. (The Democrats in Congress, including Biden, supported him on this.)

This leads us to an important point. The line is fuzzy when it comes to comparing Biden (and Obama) with Trump. Trump has continued Obama’s military intervention in Somalia, massively stepping up bombing operations. He has supported with arms sales, as Obama did, Saudi Arabia’s cruel war with tiny Yemen, killing tens of thousand of women and children. He has reversed himself on Syria, saying he is no longer withdrawing all US troops. A significant number were needed, he recently said, to protect Syria’s eastern oil field. 

Trump sabotaged the carefully wrought de-nuclearisation deal with Iran. He has forced Europe to join the US in sqeezing the Iranian economy to the point of ruin.

Trump has used sanctions more than any other recent president. Currently, at least a quarter of the world’s population is under some type of US sanctions regime.

Some are imposed on Chinese companies. In fact he has parked his early love-in with President Xi Jinping in some underground parking place. He has become increasingly confrontational, first attacking China with large tariff increases because of China’s theft of intellectual property, accusatory towards Beijing for allowing the corona virus to spread, and bearing down sharply on what he perceives as China’s attempt to undermine the US with cutting-edge digital technology. The Democrats, once again, following the Blog’s attitude, have accepted this hardline approach with barely a thought for the long-term consequences. Both Trump and Biden seem to be unaware of the risks of driving Beijing into Moscow’s arms.

In conclusion one can only say that Trump has been all over the ideological map, trusting no school of thought, only his own instincts. Sometime he goes against the grain of the Blob. Other times he follows its prejudices. Often his opinions and policies turn on a dime. 

What will Biden do if he wins? He has the advantage of great experience in foreign policy and the wisdom gained from it, unlike either Obama or Trump. While a senator he opposed the Second Gulf War against Iraq. As vice-president he opposed the war in Libya. He has promised to restore US membership of the Paris Accord on climate change, which Trump hates. He will want to pursue further nuclear arms control treaties with Russia. He is unlikely to intervene militarily in a new crisis. He will end supporting Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. He will slow down the rise in the Pentagon’s budget.

But he will still be tough on China. He has already made the crass mistake of publically calling Xi a thug. (And Putin too.) He won’t shift ground easily on Ukraine.

There is no case for re-electing Trump because of a supposedly benign, anti-war, foreign policy. If he did some good things they have been more than outweighed by bad things- mainly things that the Blob wanted him to do.  

Biden’s instincts will be to question the Blob’s counsel. His age and experience gives him a perspective that his younger colleagues don’t have.

We can dare to hope that Biden won’t take the Blob’s advice as often as Obama consciously but regretfully did and Trump unwittingly and happily did.

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power has been an international foreign affairs columnist for over 40 years and has interviewed over 70 of of the world's most famous and influential presidents, prime ministers, and political and literary icons including Ignacio Lula Da Silva, Indira Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, Willy Brandt, Julius Nyerere, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Paul McCartney, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eldridge Cleaver, Jimmy Carter, Olusegan Obasanjo, Georgio Arbatov, Dilma Rousseff, Olof Palme, Helmut Schmidt, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Seale, Jose Saramago, Ben Okri, Manmohan Singh, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Barbara Ward, Valeria Rezende, Pranab Mukherjee, Ben Mkapa, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Pervez Musharraf, Imran Khan, George Weah and Angela Davis. Many of these were full-page broadsheet interviews. For 17 years Jonathan Power wrote a weekly column on foreign affairs for the International Herald Tribune. He has also been a frequent guest columnist for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. He has written eight books on foreign affairs and, in his early days as a journalist, made films for the BBC, one of which won the Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival. Previous to his journalistic career, he worked on the staff of Martin Luther King. Jonathan has probably been printed more times in American newspapers than any other European. He is also listed in Who's Who.

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