There has been little focus on foreign policy in the election campaign, and the debates didn’t much help.
Maybe that’s because Donald Trump’s most intense foreign-policy concern has been with Hunter Biden’s business interests abroad.
But a look back at four years of Trump’s America First performance leads me to this conclusion: An imperfect Joe Biden is better suited to cope with a world in crisis than an erratic President Trump.
Nothing better illustrates Trump’s foreign-policy failings than his shameful mishandling of COVID-19. As U.S. deaths soar past 220,000, the world looks on with amazement as Trump declares, “We have done a phenomenal job.”
Many Americans fail to grasp how Trump’s inability to cope with the coronavirus undermines America’s image as a competent nation. (Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton told CNN that the president had “the attention of a fruit fly” in dealing with the pandemic.)
A September Pew Research survey of 13 U.S. allies reported that just 15% of those surveyed thought the United States had done a good job with COVID-19.
Trump prefers strongmen to democratic allies and failed personal relationships to strategic policy that works.
Allies were already disturbed by the partisan paralysis that has made the U.S. government dysfunctional, and by Trump’s denigration of science. So it’s not surprising that the Pew poll showed that Trump, with a 16% favorability rating, was less trusted to do the right thing in international affairs than Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping.
Those allied doubts are strengthened, of course, by Trump’s open disdain for NATO and partners such as South Korea. If he is reelected, says Bolton, there is a “very real risk” he would quit NATO.
And at a time when Beijing is promoting its authoritarian model as more suitable than democracy, Trump prefers the wrong model. He told author Bob Woodward: “It’s funny, the relationships I have — the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. … The easy ones I maybe don’t like as much.”
In other words, the U.S. president instinctively insults close American allies such as Germany’s Angela Merkel or Canada’s Justin Trudeau, while making nice to Putin and Xi.
Yet, those Trump instincts have proven wrong over and over.
His embrace of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has fizzled, as Pyongyang builds up its stash of nuclear weapons and missiles. His withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has left Tehran free to enrich uranium, while failing to bring the ayatollahs back to the table. His obeisance to Putin has left the Kremlin free to buzz U.S. planes and ships, while intervening in our elections.
And even where his instincts were correct, to take a tougher position toward China, his lack of discipline and strategy undermined him. China is barreling ahead with economic and military gains that undercut U.S. interests. Its officials and top foreign-policy scholars speak openly of U.S. decline under Trump.
Typical is Wu Xinbo, the well-known director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, who wrote that the United States is “spiritually exhausted, physically weak, and could no longer carry the world.”
When I interviewed Wu in Shanghai last November, he asked me why Americans were so alarmed about Chinese ambitions. "Is it because America has to be number one forever? Before America there were so many number ones.
“It depends on how you make the effort.”
It is Wu’s last point — how America’s democracy makes the effort — that illustrates why Biden is better suited to our times.
We know what we will get if Trump is reelected. “He will treat victory as a complete vindication,” says Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “It will mean the continued hyper-personalization of his foreign policy, dependent on his personal moods.”
But Biden, whatever his past mistakes in foreign policy, is focused on necessary steps to revive America at home and build back our alliances.
Longtime Biden foreign-policy adviser Tony Blinken rightly told the Associated Press that the “first big national security challenge” on Jan. 21 will be COVID-19.
A Biden White House would listen to scientists and finally devise a national strategy for containing the virus. It would also coordinate with international groups and agencies, and with allies, on vaccine production and distribution, as well as preventing future pandemics. Under Biden, more Americans could trust that a vaccine would be safe.
Moreover, at this historic moment, when Putin is calling democracy an “obsolete” system, Biden would support the right side. “First and foremost, we must repair and reinvigorate our own democracy,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs in March, “even as we strengthen the coalition of democracies that stand with us.”
That means organizing a bipartisan effort to revive the democratic institutions Trump has weakened. It means mobilizing the U.S. government to work with private industry and Silicon Valley on the things Trump neglected: climate change, inequality, racial justice — and the advanced technology needed to compete with China.
And it means, please God, a president who values foreign-policy expertise over ego, and refrains from making policy by tweeting. That alone is almost sufficient to recommend Biden over Trump.