Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 13 May 2024

 Foreign Policy and the 2024 Election: Feckless or Reckless?

President Joe Biden and Donald Trump speak at campaign rallies. Photo: Luis Santana And Ivy Ceballo/Zuma Press

As the election year conversation churns through compelling tales of murdered puppiesbrain-eating worms and an adult movie star’s presidential entanglements, the world beyond our shores gets more threatening. And it’s becoming clearer that among the many delectable choices on offer to the American people this fall is this one: How do you like your foreign policy? Feckless or reckless?

It is hard to recall or imagine a foreign policy record more feckless than that of this current president.

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It began in the infamy of abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban months after Joe Biden took office and weeks after he assured us there would be no Taliban takeover. It looks to be ending in the infamy of abandoning our principal Middle Eastern ally as it strives to finish the task of eliminating not just its enemy but our enemy too, one that continues to hold Americans hostage.

In between, President Biden’s term has been marked by diplomacy that is desultory, diffident and oddly deferential to our strategic adversaries.

“America is back,” Mr. Biden told us at the start of his administration. Three years later we can add the postscript: Until it isn’t.

To its credit, the administration quickly grasped the meaning and implications of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But even as it has identified the threat and supplied vital assistance to Kyiv, it has repeatedly stopped short of giving Ukraine the kind of support that might have enabled its military to repel the Russians. Instead, at almost every turn, apparently fearful of provoking a wider conflict with Russia, it has confined support to enabling Ukraine simply to keep prolonging the war rather than winning it.

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The administration has talked a good game with China, too, correctly continuing the realignment that began under its predecessor in identifying the strategic challenge Beijing poses, and even forging some sensible diplomatic and security arrangements to build a broader alliance against the emerging superpower.

But the gulf between this rhetorical and diplomatic shift and the commitment of resources to execute it grows wider. Weakened by real cuts in defense spending, strained by aging equipment and inadequate personnel, the state of readiness of America’s armed forces grows more alarming by the week.

In the Middle East beyond Israel, the crucial early misstep of alienating Saudi Arabia while pursuing the chimera of a rapprochement with Iran emboldened the Islamic Republic even as it provided new openings for Russia and China in the region.

Speaking unintelligibly and carrying an invisible stick is the short way to losing the strategic superiority this country has spent a century developing.

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With the reality of a weakening American imperium and an increasingly unstable globe, it’s hardly surprising that voters remember the Donald Trump presidency as a golden age of American power and world peace. But they should look back more closely to recall what a Trump foreign policy looks like.

It was President Trump who agreed to the initial deal with the Taliban for U.S. withdrawal, and though he claims he wouldn’t have quit in the way his successor did, once the insurgents had been emboldened in this way, a messy exit was almost guaranteed.

On Ukraine, the Republican Party has dangerously undermined our national security with its efforts to pull the plug on support—seemingly in large part because of the former president’s weird and personal grudge against the country’s president and an even weirder and personal weakness for Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Trump got the Middle East broadly right as president—renouncing the Iran nuclear deal, taking out one of the Islamic Republic’s most effective military leaders, deepening our alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and, with the Abraham Accords, cutting the Gordian knot of Israeli-Arab relations.

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But even here he isn’t without blame. He still seems to harbor a grudge against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for having had the temerity to congratulate Mr. Biden on winning the election four years ago.

This is the recklessness that another Trump presidency threatens—this strange elevation of personal pique over strategic interest and in many cases a comity with some of the most unlikely and strategically hostile men on the planet. Who’s the next autocrat Mr. Trump might fall “in love” with, as he did with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean who likes to execute his political opponents with anti-aircraft artillery? Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, maybe, if the Iranian leader is shrewd enough to say something nice about the U.S. president? Meanwhile, we have to await the verdict of Mr. Trump’s whims when it comes to our North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies.

To this dangerous record of consistently preferring America’s adversaries to its allies, we must add Mr. Trump’s reckless handling of government secrets in and out of office.

One thing we can be certain of: The looming election offers us four more years. Four more years of feckless, uncertain and enfeebling policy from Mr. Biden (with the added bonus that some of that time might be shared by the even more alarming prospect of President Kamala Harris). Or four more years of reckless, unstable diplomacy from Mr. Trump, whose only guiding star seems to be his own personal satisfaction.

Unless we still have time to demand changes from both men before we place either of them on a world stage whose boards are on fire.

Wonder Land: Iran, Russia and China know that both Joe Biden and Donald Trump are weak adversaries, not least because they have failed to raise U.S. defense capacity to the level of an unmistakable deterrent. Images: AP/Shutterstock Composite: Mark Kelly

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