Home / Articles / Dueling Visions: America’s Role in the World and the 2020 Election
The following article is based on remarks given at Hampden-Sydney College’s Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest on October 7, 2020.
We know for a fact from polling that this is not an election in which major foreign policy issues or the differing worldviews of the candidates are looming large in the minds of voters. Where these issues do creep into the top ten, it is about foreign policy issues that have a direct impact on the homeland—such as terrorist attacks in the United States or immigration policy.
It has been ever thus in recent times, and except for the election of 2004, when we were in the midst of the George W. Bush response to terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the globe, foreign policy has not loomed large in elections since 1988. But every presidency ends up becoming a foreign policy presidency whether it was a foreign policy election or not. Events happen. Black Hawks down in Mogadishu, genocide in Rwanda, spreading civil war in the Balkans, terrorist attacks at home and abroad, great power rivals expanding with impunity into adjacent territories, ISIS executing journalists and aid workers on the evening news, rogue states threatening nuclear ambitions, and on and on.
Even so, we have not really had a presidential candidate, who then took office, who had a thoroughly formed worldview and/or deep foreign policy experience since George H.W. Bush in 1988. Every president since then, in many ways, has had to form his views and learn on the job.
So that is why I want to start with a brief exploration of how presidential candidates form their view of the world—their thinking about how the world works, what makes it tick. To my mind, this is a more interesting and fundamental way to address this topic rather than the standard laundry list of campaign policies and how they compare—what boxing writers would call “the tale of the tape.”
I have had the chance throughout my career to study and teach about the phenomenon of how leaders come to have a coherent worldview—or to use one of those wonderful German words—a Weltanschauung. But even though I have worked on or advised several presidential campaigns, where I really saw this was in being one of the advisors and speechwriters for then-Texas Governor George W. Bush in 1999-2000. There, although surrounded by senior advisors who had worked for his father, he very much was his own man—and applying his different thoughts and his different life experiences to a very different setting than the time of Bush 41.
Governor Bush had instincts, and a strong sense of strategic settings, but we, his advisors, had to “put the music to it,” so to speak. On the whole, as a candidate, I think he was more skeptical of conventional activist Republican foreign policy than most—a policy history personified by his father. And, of course, as a candidate in a competition, he was trying to carve out a difference between himself—who was a relatively inexperienced Governor of Texas—and his opponent, a Vice President and former Senator who had been very involved in foreign policy over the years. In the end, the issues we toiled and fought over were not influential in the election, and we wound up, just like Barack Obama and Donald Trump after him, with an initial presidential agenda that focused on domestic renewal and policy, not foreign affairs.
That is, until events happened. A President quite convinced that his first-term legacy would be the No Child Left Behind Act was in fact reading to school children in a Florida classroom when the first plane struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. And the world, and his presidency, completely changed. And continued to change—being shaped by events, choices, advisors, policy outcomes, politics, and allies, among other things. President George W. Bush’s worldview, in particular, was very much re-shaped over the course of his first term in office—as the politics and events on the ground changed in Iraq and his own worldview was expanded by meetings and discussions with figures such as a human rights activist Natan Sharansky. The difference between his campaign positions of 2000 and his ambitious inaugural address for his second term in 2005 show a dramatic evolution in his worldview and ideas about the role of America on the global stage.
Let me briefly mention some of the very fundamental aspects of a candidate’s worldview that might shape his policy choices, but proceed them as ideas. When one digs underneath the surface of policy differences, you often see starkly different views about the universality of values—especially human rights and self-determination. One sees different views about the nature of sovereignty, about power, about what makes for legitimacy and decision making in taking actions on the world stage. Presidential candidates have an instinct about how naturally cooperative or uncooperative is the world, and whether its natural state is that nations and peoples seek common purpose or it’s everyone for themselves. American presidents, in particular, need to have a view on the nature of American exceptionalism, the malleability of the rest of the world, the exportability of “American values,” and the role and method of exhibiting values in policy. Even our unschooled candidates have strong instincts about the utility of the use of military force and diplomacy, about balancing issues at home versus abroad, and about how trade, and commerce choices can lead America and other nations to economic prosperity. On a more pragmatic and less philosophical scale, presidential candidates have views about the most effective means of getting things done internationally and the efficacy of working with other actors.
A few things to note in this exercise in formation that even inexperienced candidates would have. First, a candidate could come to form views on any of these things at any point in their lives. What were the formative experiences that shaped their views? By the time you see it emerge in their policy ideas, it is not simply their worldview that has shaped it—it has also been shaped by the advisors around them, the processes by which a view was translated into a policy, and the politics shaping things at the time at home and abroad (in particular the domestic impacts in a democracy on foreign policy, see Dereliction of Duty). And, of course, events on the ground. The famous British Statesman Harold Macmillan was once asked what the greatest influence on his administration had been when he was prime minister. “Events, dear boy, events,” he was said to have replied. Speaking of our British friends, as I noted a president’s worldview can also be shaped by allies—and here I think of the influence of Winston Churchill on Franklin D. Roosevelt, Margaret Thatcher on Ronald Reagan and Bush 41, or even Tony Blair on Bush 43.
This diagram gives one a graphic example of how we might “map” the different foreign policy schools of thought based on fundamental views and instincts about the international political order and the American role in the world. It is borrowed from a framework used by Professor Henry Nau of George Washington University. It measures the instinct or worldview of one’s propensity as an American leader to favor spreading democracy versus simply defending our security and the natural preference (or reliance on) force versus diplomacy. I have “mapped” to this framework Walter Russell Mead’s four historic American schools of foreign policy thought, some common labels, and also where I think one might situate the seven presidents before Trump in terms of their thinking and track record. This gives you some context for how ideas, policies, and records might come together for an American president.
Now, let me go to the second major point I wish to make. It is that the more interesting and bigger difference in worldviews and foreign policy is NOT between Donald Trump and Joseph Biden; it is between Trump and a broad consensus about America’s role and the international community that has persisted in some recognizable form since the end of World War II and has been fading since 2009. As I heard Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, say recently, for the most part over the past 70 years, presidents have played the game between the 40-yard lines—to use a football analogy.
Now, there have been very fierce disagreements and divides over the major foreign policy issues of the past 70 years, so perhaps we should expand that thought to between the 30-yard lines. But I do think Dr. Haass’s point holds up. Underneath the many disagreements between parties or presidents about tactics, modalities, approaches, locales, and end states of various foreign policy challenges, there has been a broad consensus on several fundamental issues, such as:
First, that American power and prestige would underpin the basic economic and security structures of the post-WWII world. And that the United States would play the lead role in making these structures and enforcing their rules.
Second, that these structures would be inclusive and international, with the United States never giving up the prerogative of unilateral action but always seeking first to work through international power structures that it hoped to lead, if not dominate.
Third, that U.S. power would be wielded to liberalize political and economic arrangements around the world, always trying to bend the arc of history—where it could—towards human rights, free markets, and liberal political orders. While this would cause the relative rise in power of allies, former adversaries, and even future adversaries, ultimately it would benefit the United States most of all and create a more peaceable, prosperous, and manageable globe. It was assumed that, especially with the end of the Cold War, there would be a kind of liberal convergence of most countries around these ideas.
Fourth, that U.S. military power would be applied regularly and muscularly around the globe, with practically permanent troop commitments to Europe and Asia, treaty agreements to protect most other areas of the world, and the ability to apply a huge projection of power to almost anywhere else on the globe within days. That freedom of the seas would be guaranteed by the U.S. Navy and so on.
While President Obama implicitly challenged that consensus with notions such as “leading from behind” and “focusing on nation building here at home,” Candidate Trump came into office with a more forceful rejection of the American role consensus. He pointed out to the American public that the assumptions behind the old foreign policy consensus were all being called into question by outcomes, and he would vigorously re-examine and challenge them. Unconventional Republican candidates had proposed this more nationalist and populist agenda before—Pat Buchanan memorably resurrected the Taft-ian tradition of Republican foreign policy in the 1990s, but these efforts mostly ended up trying to shape the occasional plank in the party platform, not disassembling the post-WWII general foreign policy consensus.
And President Trump held to his promises. On trade, he has broken with a decades-long bipartisan consensus around free trade that has seemed to leave whole constituencies out of its benefits and fuel the rise of competitive states—at our expense in his mind. He has been more skeptical than even hardline Republicans of the past about international organizations, treaty arrangements, alliances, arms control agreements, and diplomacy in general.
While his opponents—I think fixated on his tone and style—have criticized his belligerent tone, for his part, President Trump has claimed to be the peace president and has taken an even more aggressive stance than President Obama (who came to national attention largely as an anti-war candidate) about reducing U.S. troop presence and security guarantees in the Middle East and Afghanistan—and even Europe. And President Trump has asked far more explicitly than administrations past for allies to pick up more of their share of the cost for the enduring U.S. presences overseas.
On the human rights front, presidents as different as Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan embraced in their own way what might be called “the freedom agenda”—a central tenet of American policy since the beginning of the Cold War even if subjected to very different tactics by various presidents. President Trump has not shown enthusiasm for this—although it is possible he could find his own way of expressing this long-standing pillar of American policy. And finally, he shuffled the deck on the traditional treatment of allies and adversaries, sometimes seeming to apply more pressure to the former than the latter.
None of this is to say that his foreign policy has been wrong, bad, or unsuccessful. It’s simply to note his break with consensus. On some issues, his very willingness to break with a consensus has sort of unclogged some clogged pipes—and produced results that seemed suspended by the consensus approach. He correctly read not only the mood of much of the American public in 2016 about populist and nationalist themes, but he also was aided by the simple observation that this American-led liberal convergence agenda was not producing the results its architects had promised over the years.
As my friend Nadia Shadlow, who was one of the chief authors of the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, wrote in the pages of Foreign Affairs:
Contrary to the optimistic predictions made in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, widespread political liberalization and the growth of transnational organizations have not tempered rivalries among countries. Likewise, globalization and economic interdependence have not been unalloyed goods; often, they have generated unanticipated inequalities and vulnerabilities. The promise that globalization’s rising tide would lift all boats went unfulfilled: some rose to extreme heights, some stagnated, and others simply sank. It turned out that liberal convergence was not a win-win: there were, in fact, winners and losers.
Why do I maintain that this breaking with consensus and foreign policy conventions is more important to understand than just the Trump-the-Departure-Candidate versus Biden-the-Conventional-Candidate dynamic? Well, because Vice President Biden too cannot return to that consensus foreign policy worldview if he is elected—even if that is his inclination—and I think it is. The events and outcomes that in part caused President Trump to veer off the conventional foreign policy path are well in place, and this world will not be put back into a bottle designed in 1950 or 1990.
Today’s global arena challenges just about all of the premises of the foreign policy consensus I outlined above, from trade to defense, but let me give you just one example here with China. Both parties have maintained since the opening of China in the late 1970s to this American-built and American-dominated international system that the effect of open economic systems and the resultant progress and prosperity would liberalize China in many ways. Bring them into the system as a partner—or, at least, as a “responsible stakeholder” in the words of my former boss Robert Zoellick, former Deputy Secretary of State, U.S. Trade Representative, and President of the World Bank. But it turns out that China is not only not likely to liberalize its political systems, but it also is increasingly aggressive in applying its more totalitarian approach to the areas around it—from Hong Kong to the Uyghurs in Western China.
China is expanding its military presence in disputed territories to international outcry, building an energy system that will make a mockery of any climate change accord the well-behaved nations of the world might sign with each other, and continues to be the chief trading partner against whom everyone in the World Trade Organization wants to file a dispute. China is wealthy, powerful, and ambitious as a result of being pulled and invited into the post-WWII international system, and the Chinese Communist Party is not going anywhere. In the end, I strongly suspect that they will not want to be a “responsible stakeholder” in any system that they did not construct and cannot control.
So, even a President Biden, who is thoroughly conventional because of his 40+ year involvement in foreign policy as a Senator and Vice President, will have to carve out his own ways of being different from the old consensus. This diagram shows a way one might want to visualize this dynamic. Trump foreign policy might be 50% outside of the traditional consensus way of thinking on fundamental issues, but a President Biden, too, would have to have a good portion of his lie outside of the same.
Where might a Biden administration’s policies and views lie outside of the old consensus? Well, in much the same way that nationalist impulses challenge the conservative internationalists from the right, progressive impulses challenge the liberal internationalists from the left.
The progressive critique of consensus foreign policy does not share the Wilsonian belief that the world’s nation-states are ultimately on track to converge around liberal democratic norms and that American power underpins this trajectory. Instead, progressives look out at the world that neoliberal economic ideas have produced as being one that has heightened inequality, spurred not-free but rather authoritarian capitalist states, threatened the environment, and made social and racial justice more difficult to achieve around the globe. They will demand from a President Biden policies and philosophies that put these concerns at the forefront of American foreign policy goals rather than his version of traditional Democratic Party realism.
So, it would be hard for either candidate to return to conventionality. One does not want to anyway, and the other very much might want to, but in both cases that toothpaste of reality cannot be put back into the tube. And those realities were accelerated by the last two administrations’ rather diffident attitude towards American leadership.
Let’s turn to some of specific policy issues that result from these different worldviews: for his part, President Trump came to office unburdened by being invested in the general elite foreign policy consensus over the decades. Moreover, he is running unabashedly as a populist, and a nationalist (America First). For his part, Vice President Biden is mostly conventional in his thinking and experience as I learned when engaging with him when he was the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during my time as an Assistant Secretary of State. But, having said that, I think the former Vice President is very much his own man, sometimes not always to his credit. Bush and Obama Secretary of Defense Bob Gates famously said in his memoirs that while he liked working with Vice President Biden, “I think he has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” So, Biden will go against the grain when he wants to.
In terms of issues, I will first look at where the candidates really differ, and then move to where they are in an alignment that they likely will not admit during the campaign. In my judgment, the biggest differences will stem from their contrasting belief in international cooperation in general, and multinational institutions as effective venues for advancing American policy goals. President Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal), and the World Health Organization. Vice President Biden has said he will reverse all that and more. As a rule, a President Biden will be more interested in participating in, leading, and investing in international organizations and working much of U.S. foreign policy through and with them.
The candidates have very different views on arms control and proliferation—not so much in the outcomes, but rather in the methods. Here again, President Trump would be much more unilateral in orientation (but not entirely—that is a canard) and a President Biden more likely to work arms control in the conventional way—led by technocratic experts and characterized by complex international negotiations and oversight regimes.
Vice President Biden has made much of “re-building” the State Department and placing more of an emphasis on diplomacy. For his part, President Trump has been non-plussed about empty senior positions and reported low morale at State, saying to one interviewer that when it comes to foreign policy, “I am the only one that matters.” So, that is a big difference in philosophy and approach although I think it emerges less dramatically on the ground with policy outcomes than it might appear.
As I alluded to, clearly on allies and alliances, the candidates are very different in tone, perhaps a little less so in substance. On trade, Vice President Biden very much came up in the free-trading tradition of the foreign policy consensus, but will be challenged by reality and his own party to offer trade policies that seem to more emphatically favor Democratic Party constituencies and progressive priorities—so that is an interesting area to watch. And, in the meantime, one could wonder if a free trade constituency could ever re-emerge in a politically relevant way. There are a few other areas where there might be some less dramatic differences, such as the Middle East, but I want to turn to similarities.
In terms of so-called great power rivalries, it is hard to discern too much of a difference between the two candidates no matter what their campaigns might say. Both promise to be tough on China and Russia. Both promise to be tough on so-called rogue states such as Iran and North Korea, but their approaches might be very different—as evidenced by their different ideas about the Iran nuclear deal.
Both candidates promise a robust level of defense spending (no reductions), and the differences in their stated defense priorities are not significant. Interestingly, from my perspective, both candidates share a more dovish attitude towards American military deployments, particularly in difficult areas or on missions that do not seem to promise a quick return. They even have used similar language about deployments and missions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. One will end the “forever wars,” and the other will conclude the “endless wars.”
For my part, I think it is misguided to have an idea such as “time to bring the troops home,” in the President’s words, drive national security policy. It is a sentiment that has stayed with us from the time of the draftee military—a World War II sentiment if you will—and the times where we mobilized on all levels nationally to fight big wars, including the Cold War. But we now have a very small and professional all-volunteer force. Nobody needs to go back to the farm or the factory to get the economy moving and return to normal.
The troops I spent time with over the past few years in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Southern Philippines, and elsewhere are triple volunteers in some ways for these deployments. They like to play “away games,” so to speak. Their work is done in these places—they exercise their craft and their profession in these places. They are not seeking to end these deployments if the national security interest calls for keeping some pattern of them going. But our leaders have done a poor job preparing the American public to understand that phenomenon and the relatively low cost of having a high impact/low footprint set of deployments around the world. And sometimes the need for a high impact/high footprint deployment. I hope both candidates mature their philosophies on this issue.
In conclusion, if I were to put both President Trump and Vice President Biden on my map of foreign policy traditions and ways of thinking, I think you would see as represented here that President Trump is definitely the most nationalist president we have had since World War II and the most skeptical of an activist internationalist leadership posture for the United States. Vice President Biden, on the other hand, is a traditional Democratic realist, but will be under a lot of pressure from a changing party to satisfy emerging and energetic progressive priorities that have not been well represented in the past.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.