On U.S. Foreign Policy, the New Boss Acts a Lot Like the Old One
WASHINGTON — A fist bump and meeting with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. Tariffs and export controls on China. Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. American troops out of Afghanistan.
More than a year and a half into the tenure of President Biden, his administration’s approach to strategic priorities is surprisingly consistent with the policies of the Trump administration, former officials and analysts say.
Mr. Biden vowed on the campaign trail to break from the paths taken by the previous administration, and in some ways on foreign policy he has done that. He has repaired alliances, particularly in Western Europe, that Donald J. Trump had weakened with his “America First” proclamations and criticisms of other nations. In recent months, Mr. Biden’s efforts positioned Washington to lead a coalition imposing sanctions against Russia during the war in Ukraine.
And Mr. Biden has denounced autocracies, promoted the importance of democracy and called for global cooperation on issues that include climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
But in critical areas, the Biden administration has not made substantial breaks, showing how difficult it is in Washington to chart new courses on foreign policy.
That was underscored this month when Mr. Biden traveled to Israel and Saudi Arabia, a trip partly aimed at strengthening the closer ties among those states that Trump officials had promoted under the so-called Abraham Accords.
In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Biden met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite his earlier vow to make the nation a “pariah” for human rights violations, notably the murder of a Washington Post writer in 2018. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the prince ordered the brutal killing. Behind the scenes, the United States still provides important support for the Saudi military in the Yemen war despite Mr. Biden’s earlier pledge to end that aid because of Saudi airstrikes that killed civilians.
“The policies are converging,” said Stephen E. Biegun, deputy secretary of state in the Trump administration and a National Security Council official under President George W. Bush. “Continuity is the norm, even between presidents as different as Trump and Biden.”
Some former officials and analysts praised the consistency, arguing that the Trump administration, despite the deep flaws of the commander in chief, properly diagnosed important challenges to American interests and sought to deal with them.
Others are less sanguine. They say Mr. Biden’s choices have compounded problems with American foreign policy and sometimes deviated from the president’s stated principles. Senior Democratic lawmakers have criticized his meeting with Prince Mohammed and aid to the Saudi military, for instance, even though administration officials have promoted a United Nations-brokered cease-fire in Yemen.
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“As time has gone on, Biden has not lived up to a lot of his campaign promises, and he has stuck with the status quo on the Middle East and on Asia,” said Emma Ashford, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Both the Trump and Biden administrations have had to grapple with the question of how to maintain America’s global dominance at a time when it appears in decline. China has ascended as a counterweight, and Russia has become bolder.
The Trump administration’s national security strategy formally reoriented foreign policy toward “great power competition” with China and Russia and away from prioritizing terrorist groups and other nonstate actors. The Biden administration has continued that drive, in part because of events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Biden White House has delayed the release of its own national security strategy, which had been expected early this year. Officials are rewriting it because of the Ukraine war. The final document is still expected to emphasize competition among powerful nations.
Mr. Biden has said that China is the greatest competitor of the United States — an assertion that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken reiterated in a recent speech — while Russia is the biggest threat to American security and alliances.
Some scholars say the tradition of continuity between administrations is a product of the conventional ideas and groupthink arising from the bipartisan foreign policy establishment in Washington, which Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama, derisively called “the Blob.”
But others argue that outside circumstances — including the behavior of foreign governments, the sentiments of American voters and the influence of corporations — leave U.S. leaders with a narrow band of choices.
“There’s a lot of gravitational pull that brings the policies to the same place,” Mr. Biegun said. “It’s still the same issues. It’s still the same world. We still have largely the same tools with which to influence others to get to the same outcomes, and it’s still the same America.”
In committing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump were responding to the will of most Americans, who had grown weary of two decades of war. For Mr. Biden, the move was also a chance to address unfinished business. As vice president, he had advocated bringing troops home, in line with Mr. Obama’s desire to wind down the “forever wars,” but he was opposed by U.S. generals insisting on a presence in Afghanistan.
Despite the chaotic withdrawal last August as the Taliban took over the country, polls have shown most Americans supported ending U.S. military involvement there.
Mr. Trump and Mr. Biden have advocated a smaller U.S. military presence in conflict regions. But both hit limits to that thinking. Mr. Biden has sent more American troops to Europe since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and to Somalia, reversing a Trump-era withdrawal. U.S. troops remain in Iraq and Syria.
“There’s deep skepticism of the war on terror by senior members of the Biden administration,” said Brian Finucane, a senior adviser at International Crisis Group who worked on military issues as a lawyer at the State Department. “Nevertheless they’re not willing yet to undertake broad structural reform to dial back the war.”
Mr. Finucane said reform would include repealing the 2001 war authorization that Congress gave the executive branch after the attacks of Sept. 11.
“Even if the Biden administration doesn’t take affirmative steps to further stretch the scope of the 2001 A.U.M.F., as long as it remains on the books, it can be used by future administrations,” he said, referring to the authorization. “And other officials can extend the war on terror.”
On the most pressing Middle East issue — Iran and its nuclear program — Mr. Biden has taken a different tack than Mr. Trump. The administration has been negotiating with Tehran a return to an Obama-era nuclear agreement that Mr. Trump dismantled, which led to Iran’s accelerating its uranium enrichment. But the talks have hit an impasse. And Mr. Biden has said he would stick with one of Mr. Trump’s major actions against the Iranian military, the designation of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, despite that being an obstacle to a new agreement.
China policy stands out as the most vivid example of continuity between the two administrations. The State Department has kept a Trump-era genocide designation on China for its repression of Uyghur Muslims. Biden officials have continued to send U.S. naval ships through the Taiwan Strait and shape weapons sales to Taiwan to try to deter a potential invasion by China.
Most controversially, Mr. Biden has kept Trump-era tariffs on China, despite the fact that some economists and several top U.S. officials, including Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, question their purpose and impact.
Mr. Biden and his political aides are keenly aware of the rising anti-free-trade sentiment in the United States that Mr. Trump capitalized on to marshal votes. That awareness has led Mr. Biden to shy away from trying to re-enter the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations that Mr. Obama helped organize to strengthen economic competition against China but that Mr. Trump and progressive Democrats rejected.
Analysts say Washington needs to offer Asian nations better trade agreements and market access with the United States if it wants to counter China’s economic influence.
“Neither the Trump nor Biden administrations have had a trade and economic policy that the Asian friends of the U.S. have been pleading for to help reduce their reliance on China,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “Both Biden and Trump administrations are to some extent over-militarizing the China problem because they can’t figure out the economic piece.”
It is in Europe that Mr. Biden has set himself apart from Mr. Trump. The Trump administration was at times contradictory on Europe and Russia: While Mr. Trump praised President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, criticized the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and withheld military aid to Ukraine for domestic political gain, some officials under him worked in the opposite direction. By contrast, Mr. Biden and his aides have uniformly reaffirmed the importance of trans-Atlantic alliances, which has helped them coordinate sanctions and weapons shipments to oppose Russia in Ukraine.
“There’s no question in my mind that words and politics matter,” said Alina Polyakova, president of the Center for European Policy Analysis. “If allies don’t trust the U.S. will uphold Article 5 of NATO and come to an ally’s defense, it doesn’t matter how much you invest.”
Ultimately the biggest contrast between the presidents, and perhaps the aspect most closely watched by America’s allies and adversaries, lies in their views on democracy. Mr. Trump complimented autocrats and broke with democratic traditions well before the insurrection in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, that congressional investigators argue he organized. Mr. Biden has placed promotion of democracy at the ideological center of his foreign policy, and in December he welcomed officials from more than 100 countries to a “summit for democracy.”
“American democracy is the magnetic soft power of the United States,” Ms. Schake said. “We are different and better than the forces we are contesting against in the international order.”
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