American Retrenchment or Partial Reengagement
President Trump’s foreign policy has largely mirrored his trade policy. Leveraging U.S. economic and military power as its main tool, the administration has sought to gain commitments from allies and adversaries, not hesitating to leave the table when outcomes are perceived to be disadvantageous to American interests. One of the biggest changes compared to previous administrations is how that interest has been defined. It has also employed different tools, prioritizing military spending and economic sanctions over traditional diplomacy, pushing to limit State Department and USAID budgets.
The “America First” foreign policy doctrine is in many regards transactional and non-systemic. Relations with allies in NATO and Europe have illustrated this well—the Trump administration has not been shy about pushing for increased burden-sharing on security and limiting the region’s energy dependency on Russia. It has simultaneously withdrawn from the JCPOA and the Paris Climate Agreement, rejecting imperfect—yet for allies important—international agreements. A reaction to the view that America has been left holding the bag for sustaining the international system, the past four years has shifted focus towards a narrower economic and security-driven definition of the national interest.
Vice President Biden, a chief architect of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, wrote in Foreign Affairs of current U.S. foreign policy, “President Donald Trump has belittled, undermined, and in some cases abandoned U.S. allies and partners.” In contrast, his promise is to reengage in the relationships to reaffirm the White House’s commitment to traditional principles of human rights and democracy.
Rebuilding soft power and moral leadership is a key focus of the Biden platform, underpinning pledges to reinvest in the diplomatic corps and international organizations. He proposes a Summit of Democracy—to solidify U.S. support for its core values that studies show have come under pressure in the last decade. Donald Trump meanwhile has instead focused on economic and security dimensions of U.S. relations. These distinct differences are reflected across their positions on the foreign relations with friends and foes alike, as well as the toolboxes at their disposal to accomplish their foreign policy goals.
For more in-depth comparison and examination of candidate positions by region, click here.