Biden’s foreign policy isn’t the same as Trump’s

There’s a growing argument, coming mostly from the left, that President Joe Biden’s foreign policy is essentially the same as former President Donald Trump’s.

It goes something like this: Two months into his administration, Biden is pursuing many of the same objectives as his predecessor. Sure, the tone has changed — namely, talk of rebuilding alliances and defending democracy and human rights — but much of the substance remains the same.

For example, Biden has taken an adversarial stance toward China and Russia; sold billions in weapons to a dictator in Egypt; kept the economic sanctions Trump imposed on Iran and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in place; declined to sanction Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his role in ordering the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi; and is unlikely to drastically slash the Pentagon budget.

In effect, they argue that US foreign policy right now is Trump’s with Bidenesque characteristics.

That critique is coming from a small but vocal chorus of analysts, activists, and noted commentators like Noam Chomsky. Stephen Miles, executive director of the progressive foreign policy group Win Without War, recently told Politico that “There’s this fear of being attacked on the right of not being tough enough on China or Iran or other issues.” The problem, he adds, is “there doesn’t seem to be as much concern about the overwhelming majority of the Democratic Party.”

It’s a provocative case, but it’s not very convincing. While there are some similarities between the two presidents, Biden and Trump have extremely different foreign policies. Any claims that they’re the same are incomplete at best.

The case for Biden’s foreign policy as the same as Trump’s, briefly explained

In December, I wrote a story about how Biden wanted the US to pursue a traditional, post-World War II foreign policy to defend the “liberal international order” — essentially the diplomatic and economic rules and norms that run the world. As Biden formed a team to do just that, progressives I interviewed couldn’t mask their displeasure.

“Americans are looking for a complete, fundamental shift in US foreign policy,” Yasmine Taeb, a senior fellow at the progressive Center for International Policy who’s leading the left’s critique of Biden’s team, told me at the time. “I hope they recognize that the vast majority of the American people have rejected establishment foreign policy and the trajectory that we’ve been on for decades.”

Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up sign through the window of his car.
James Devaney/GC Images

Now, Taeb and others are essentially saying, “I told you so.” They argue that two months into Biden’s presidency, it’s clear that “complete, fundamental shift in US foreign policy” hasn’t happened yet. What Americans have gotten instead is a Biden foreign policy that echoes Trump’s more than progressive critics like.

Take Biden selling $200 million in missiles to Egypt, a country led by a dictator who has routinely violated human rights, jailing thousands of political dissidents and killing hundreds more. Biden’s detractors compare that to Trump’s decision to sell $8 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, even after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the 2018 murder of US resident Jamal Khashoggi.

They also point out that Biden’s team hasn’t lifted sanctions the Trump administration placed on the ICC. Trump took that action because the ICC was considering opening two investigations: one into alleged war crimes committed by US troops during the Afghanistan war, and one into alleged war crimes committed by Israelis and Palestinians during the 2014 Gaza War; the court was also considering making a determination on whether Israeli settlements in the West Bank constitute a war crime.

Two months in, Biden’s team has kept those sanctions in place. It’s not exactly clear why; when asked by reporters, the administration usually declines to comment. But Axios and the Guardian last month noted that Jerusalem is lobbying allies, including the US, to keep the financial pressure on the court in hopes that it will drop the case.

That rationale — that the Biden administration is keeping Trump’s sanctions on partly at Israel’s behest — tracks with comments some US officials have made.

“We have serious concerns about the ICC’s attempts to exercise its jurisdiction over Israeli personnel,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a February statement. “The United States has always taken the position that the court’s jurisdiction should be reserved for countries that consent to it, or that are referred by the UN Security Council.”

For these and the other reasons cited above, critics say Biden’s foreign policy represents more continuity than change from the Trump years. That seems fair on the surface, but the truth is Biden’s foreign policy is nothing like Trump’s. Not even close.

Biden and Trump are “a bit different” on foreign policy

Consider either what Biden has done or has said he wants to do on foreign policy:

There’s more, but it’s already notable that Biden and Trump just don’t see the world the same way.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Covid-19 response on March 29 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

What’s more, Biden’s different tone — defending democracy and supporting human rights, among other things — is in itself a substantive policy change from the Trump years.

“I made it clear that no American president [should] ever back down from speaking out of what’s happening to the Uyghurs, what’s happening in Hong Kong, what’s happening in-country,” Biden said during a press conference last week about his conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“The moment a president walks away from that, as the last one did, is the moment we begin to lose our legitimacy around the world,” he continued. “It’s who we are.”

Biden has followed through on his rhetoric by sanctioning Chinese officials for human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and for cracking down on Hong Kong’s democracy.

But don’t take it from me or Biden. Trump administration officials also note the wide gap between the current president’s positions and the old one’s.

Indeed, the list above didn’t just come from my head. It came from conversations with Trump-era staff who said US foreign policy would be “a bit different,” according to one, if the Republican had won a second term.

Among other things, they said the US wouldn’t have extended New START for five years, rejoined the WHO, lifted the terrorist label on the Houthis, or pushed for a return to the UN Human Rights Council.

And already former Trump administration officials, like then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Elbridge Colby, are blasting Biden for pursuing a foreign policy built around defending democracy and human rights instead of pure national interests.

The central theme of President Biden’s foreign policy is a global, muscular liberalism,” he wrote in the Washington Post last week. “But it is not a sensible policy today,” he wrote, partly because the US is no longer the unquestioned global power.

While he didn’t specifically mention Trump in the piece, he argued the more economic-focused course Trump took — “making sure we can determine our future free of external coercion and being able to trade and invest overseas on terms that promote a broad-based national prosperity” — would be better.

So no, Biden’s foreign policy isn’t nearly the same as Trump’s. But the meme persists, it seems, mostly because Biden has yet to return the US to the Iran nuclear deal.

How the Iran nuclear deal keeps the myth of Biden-as-Trump alive

Those who argue Biden is pursuing a Trump-like foreign policy have one overriding complaint: that Biden hasn’t lifted Trump-imposed sanctions on Iran as a way to return swiftly to the nuclear pact — a decision praised by Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser and son in law.

But Biden’s team says the situation isn’t as simple as progressives and Iran doves make it out to be. Tehran is in violation of the agreement, namely by enriching uranium at levels beyond caps outlined in the deal. Until the US can verify Iran has come back into compliance, there’s no reason to remove the economic leverage America has.

International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and Iranian technicians at the Natanz nuclear site in Iran in 2014.
Kazem Ghane/IRNA/AFP/Getty Images

Indeed, Biden’s team feels they inherited a bad situation. After Trump withdrew the US from the pact in 2018, Iran decided to violate the deal as a way to pressure the US back into the accord. Dropping the sanctions now, some in the new administration would say, rewards Tehran for no longer abiding by the nuclear deal’s terms.

Hence the delay. The US would “have to evaluate whether they were actually making good if they say they are coming back into compliance with their obligations, and then we would take it from there,” Secretary of State Tony Blinken said in his January confirmation hearing.

But even here there’s a yawning gap between how Trump and Biden handle the issue. The Trump administration wanted Iran to change nearly every aspect of its foreign policy before winning sanctions relief. Biden just wants Iran to abide by the nuclear pact again, and has even proposed partial sanctions removal for partial compliance.

Ryan Tully, who served as a top official on Trump’s National Security Council, confirmed his team would’ve pursued a different course. “We wouldn’t give sanctions relief to get to the negotiating table with Iran,” he told me.

The US may not be back in the nuclear deal, then, but it’s at least trying to get there. “Biden is offering Tehran a way out that doesn’t involve either its capitulation or collapse,” said Henry Rome, an expert on US policy toward Iran at the Eurasia Group consulting firm. “It’s a very different ballgame.”

“A very different ballgame” goes not only for Biden’s Iran policy, but his entire foreign policy. There are clearly some similarities between the last two administrations — it’s been only two months, after all — but overall, they are vastly different.

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