In less than a week, on November 3rd, the results of the 2020 United States Presidential election will be revealed. Not only is this election huge for Americans as it could mean the difference in regards of COVID deaths, systemic racism, or immigration, but it will have long-standing international repercussions. Of course, not every member of the international community needs to be invested in American domestic politics; it would be arrogant and egotistical of Americans to believe that their affairs are central to people in other countries. However, whether we like it or not, the United States has considerable influence on international politics, thus its foreign policy approach can have huge effects on the lives of those in other countries. Issues like climate change, peace in the Middle East, and the rising power of China will all be affected depending on who is elected president. So what would American foreign policy look like under Biden versus under Trump?
Trump’s approach: nationalism, strongman politics, and a rejection of science
Trump is known for his “America First” approach to politics which he claims to achieve by being a tough negotiator in international disputes and by implementing protectionist economic barriers. This nationalist attitude has been made clear through many of Trump’s foreign policies, such as the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in 2017, the highly controversial and xenophobic Muslim Ban, and the plan to build a wall to stop refugees and asylum-seekers coming from Central America.
Another trend which can be identified in Trump’s foreign policy is his support and even friendships with dictators, or “strongmen,” in other countries. Trump is known for being close to Russian president Vladimir Putin, who has been accused of meddling in the 2016 United States presidential election, directly attacking Ukrainian sovereignty, and funding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s military campaign to commit atrocities against the Syrian people. Another strongman who Trump has spoken positively of is Robert Duterte of the Philippines: Duterte is known for ordering the killing of 7,000 people in his war on drugs, violently targeting journalists, and overall denying human rights. This tendency of Trump’s to praise leaders who are constantly accused of violating human rights is increasingly disturbing given Trump’s recent rhetoric. He recently said that he will not necessarily give up power if he loses the upcoming election, so perhaps he is taking some inspiration from these other strongmen.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Trump has repeatedly denied the existence of climate change despite the overwhelming proof provided by scientists and other experts. In 2017, Trump announced his plan to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which was a massive blow to the symbolic and material goals of the global climate movement. Trump has also been entirely reluctant to move towards implementing greater renewable energy programs to replace domestic oil and gas industries. The US is responsible for producing roughly 15% of global carbon emissions, therefore its position on climate change has repercussions for the international community
Biden’s approach: learning from the past, neoliberal institutions, and the Green New Deal
Biden is expected to take an overall different ideological approach than Trump, trading nationalist rhetoric for internationalist and liberal talking points. Biden’s campaign says it is the United States duty to “lead by example” and restore the international community’s trust, which will most likely mean that Biden’s administration will prioritize international cooperation through institutions like NATO and the World Trade Organization. Biden has also emphasized the need for a return to formal diplomacy and the facilitation of individual relationships between leaders and their governments, which he has vowed to do by restoring the State Department.
Biden has been accused of holding conservative opinions and promoting harsh legislation in his earlier career, however it does appear as though he is trying to distance himself from his past. While Biden has covered many foreign policy topics throughout his career, the two examples of immigration from Central America and conflict in the Middle East stand out as issues around which Biden is really trying to revamp his reputation. When he was a senator, he proposed punishing employers for hiring undocumented immigrants and he supported the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which approved the construction of seven hundred miles of fencing along the Southern border. Under Obama’s presidency, large-scale detention camps were set up along the Southern border due to the increased volume of refugees fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. In this sense, Obama certainly was responsible for expanding the detention and deportation system, however it is also important to understand the historical context and the huge number of migrants that were coming in at the time. Biden wants to move away from both Obama’s track-record and distinguish himself from Trump’s zero-tolerance attitude on this issue, and has said he will prioritize the reunification of separated families at the border, protect sanctuary cities, and give citizenship to Dreamers.
Biden also does not have the best report card when it comes to foreign policy towards the Middle East: he supported President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which he has rightfully been criticized for. More recently, Biden has said he would not move the American embassy back from Jerusalem and has voiced his continued commitment to Israel, which is deeply disturbing and devastating to the Palestinian cause. On a more positive note, Biden has said he will reevaluate the American relationship with Saudi Arabia and will decrease American involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Overall, Biden presents himself as being in favor of limiting American influence in the Middle East, however there’s no way to know yet if his rhetoric is to be trusted.
While Biden is by no means a progressive, he certainly has a more clear and scientifically informed plan to tackle climate change than Trump and has even cited the Green New Deal as a “crucial framework” to be built upon. Biden has outlined some major points that his environmental plan will address such as achieving net zero emissions no later than 2050, reentering the Paris climate agreement, and investing 1.7 billion federal dollars into clean energy initiatives. Whether Biden’s position on climate change in practice will actually live up to these expectations, it will certainly be refreshing to have a president who believes in the fundamental validity of science.
For Americans and those outside of the United States, this election will have profound effects on the future of international relations and the overall health of our planet. This election and the current state of American politics should serve as a reminder to the entire international community that democracy should not be taken for granted and that voting can hugely impact others outside one’s own national borders. So if you’re an American reading this, please go vote!