Role of foreign policy in the Biden-Trump fight

Gaza, Ukraine and China could be crucial factors in November


Earlier this year, speaking at a campaign event in Conway, North Carolina, Donald Trump said he would not stop Russia from attacking a NATO country if it did not pay enough for its security. “No, I would not protect you,” Trump recalled telling the president of a big country who asked him whether the US would still defend his country from Russia if it did not pay. “In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You got to pay your bills.”

Even by Trump's standards, it was an extremely provocative statement. The pushback was immediate. The White House and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the statement in no uncertain terms and assured that the US and NATO would stand united against any potential Russian misadventure. Still, as Trump leads Biden in opinion polls, there is an element of fear in most European capitals. America's role in the world, like its commitment to NATO, remains a key campaign issue.

Trump is not the first presidential candidate to argue for American isolationism. Back in 1916, Woodrow Wilson vowed to keep America out of World War I. A couple of decades later, Franklin D. Roosevelt assured voters that American boys would not be sent away to foreign wars. Both Wilson and Roosevelt won, but they had to eat their words on isolationism. The US played a leading role in both World Wars.

Trump, however, appears confident that Americans have had enough of foreign interventions. And opinion polls back him. The primary concerns for voters heading to the November polls are immigration, economy, inflation and abortion, not foreign affairs. They want more attention to be paid to problems at home. In April, a Pew survey found that nearly half of the voters felt that the US foreign policy priority should be getting other countries to assume the cost of maintaining world order.

Yet, the November polls will not be immune to critical foreign policy challenges, especially as two key conflicts—Ukraine and Gaza—continue to linger, and the China-Russia axis is shaking the foundations of the liberal international order. Biden is clearly making it a campaign issue as he takes his role as the main defender of the liberal, democratic world order quite seriously.

“I really believe that we have value-based as well as practical-based alliances around the world. And Trump wants to just abandon them,” said Biden, in a recent interview with the Time magazine. In the interview, he took credit for reassuring NATO after four years under Trump, for reviving the Quad alliance (US, India, Japan and Australia) and for setting up AUKUS (an alliance of Australia, the UK and the US). Yet, much of the Western world is worried about Trump returning to the White House and undoing whatever Biden has achieved.

Biden's latest major foreign engagement—the G7 summit in Italy—was, in fact, overshadowed by worries about a potential Trump return. The former president has threatened that in his second term, he would certainly reevaluate the future of the NATO alliance.

Ukraine, naturally, was among the major topics of discussion at the G7 summit, with President Volodymyr Zelensky appealing to the leaders present to further augment their support for war efforts. Biden signed a ten-year security pact with Kyiv and also facilitated an agreement with his European partners to provide a $50 billion package to rebuild Ukraine.

Trump, meanwhile, has once again threatened to end US aid to Ukraine quickly if he was reelected. At a campaign rally in Detroit on June 16, he called Zelenskyythe greatest salesman of any politician he has ever seen. “He just left four days ago with $60 billion, and he gets home, and he announces that he needs another $60 billion. It never ends,” he said. Perhaps in anticipation of Trump's return, NATO is going ahead with its plans to take over from the US in coordinating military aid to Ukraine.

Trump is hoping that the growing war fatigue among Americans would play to his advantage. Many Americans, especially Republicans, say there is no point in backing Ukraine anymore as Russia has the upper hand.

Just like the Ukraine crisis, the war in Gaza is another major foreign policy concern for Biden, with probably a much bigger political cost. The wider Democratic coalition has been critical of Israel, and the progressive wing of the party keeps on reminding Biden that the war has already caused more than 37,500 deaths, of which a majority are civilians.

Opinion polls have shown that nearly 50 per cent of the Democrats sympathise with Palestinians. And it is turning out to be a major problem for Biden as young Americans increasingly challenge the traditional narratives on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Biden’s handling of the Gaza war is supported by just about 10 per cent of young voters. There is also strong opposition to the American position on the war from minority groups. Therefore, it is not surprising that Biden is trailing in battleground states like Michigan and Minnesota, where there is a significant presence of Arab and Muslim voters. It could cost him dearly in other swing states as well if young voters opt to sit this election out.

The third critical foreign policy issue dominating the presidential polls is China, on which there is significant bipartisan consensus in the US. Both Biden and Trump agree that China remains the biggest threat to the US across multiple sectors, ranging from geopolitics to cutting-edge technology. Yet, there is a big difference between the manner in which both leaders have gone about dealing with the threat. Biden challenged China when he felt it was warranted, like in the case of semiconductor technology, but also worked with Beijing, when he felt it was necessary. He also built alliances to balance Chinese power, especially in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad and AUKUS were specifically targeted against China.

Trump, on the other hand, does not subscribe to anything except his “America First” rhetoric. The former president and his core team of advisors believe that China's gains are always at America’s expense. So, relations with China are essentially a zero-sum game, in which Beijing's gain is Washington's loss. Trump is bolstered by the fact that 80 per cent of Republicans and 60 per cent of independents think on similar lines. And a majority of Americans believe that Biden's trade policies with China have been bad for national security. In a closely contested election, these numbers will be crucial. No wonder Trump has threatened to impose a flat 60 per cent tariff on all Chinese imports as it could bring more support in battleground states in the south, Midwest and around the Great Lakes.

Despite his zero-sum policy on China, Trump seems to be a fan of President Xi Jinping, once calling him “smart, brilliant and perfect”. Trump's admiration for autocratic strongmen can be unnerving. He said Hitler did some good things and commanded complete loyalty. He has spoken highly about Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Orban was recently a guest at his Mar-a-Lago residence and Trump was effusive in his praise of the visiting leader: “There's nobody that's better, smarter or a better leader.”

With the Republican Party now completely under Trump's control, his victory in November could witness an erosion of democratic norms in the US, dealing a big blow to the already fragile liberal world order.