Over the last four years, many national security experts, both outside and within the Trump administration, have warned that the return of ideological competition between autocratic China and Russia and the democratic United States is the defining feature of international relations today. (They’re wrong; it’s climate change, although “great power competition” is the next most important global dynamic.)
But the greatest changes in the shifting balance of power among the U.S., China and Russia in the last four years have come not from Beijing or Moscow, but from Washington. After simultaneously weakening democracy at home and disengaging from leadership abroad, President Donald Trump is leaving behind an America in much worse shape to compete with China and Russia in 2021 than it was in 2017.
Most damaging, the American system of government is less democratic today than it was four years ago.
Most damaging, the American system of government is less democratic today than it was four years ago. Three leading organizations tracking democratic trends in the world, Freedom House, The Economist’s Democracy Index and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Index, have all downgraded the U.S. as a democracy in the last four years. In its assessment of North American trends, V-Dem concluded last year, “Only one country in this region has registered a substantial decline in liberal democracy — the United States of America.”
In parallel, elite polarization has deepened. Trump’s continued refusal to recognize the election results aggravates both trends and make it harder for President-elect Joe Biden to find common ground with Republicans on national security issues. We are inspiring no one with our practice of democracy, including the egregious attempts to overturn a free and fair election. American democratic decline in turn strengthens our autocratic adversaries.
Through executive order, Biden can reverse several egregious policies, but continued polarization makes fundamental democratic reforms unlikely. Moreover, the pandemic and the dovetailing recession will not allow Biden to devote much attention to foreign policy. Thus Trump’s domestic damage is a debilitating hindrance to Biden’s quest to restore America as a world leader.
Trump has also neglected (and sometimes poisoned) bilateral relationships around the world, at times treating American adversaries more respectfully than our allies, while withdrawing from several international treaties and organizations that benefit American interests. While we avoided several nightmarish outcomes, such as war with Iran or a departure from NATO, the alleged “America First” ethos has helped no one — except, perhaps, our enemies. Biden’s administration will inherit a needlessly packed foreign policy to-do list.
Regarding foreign policy, Biden has more autonomy than he does on the domestic front. He can move almost immediately to stop counterproductive attempts to befriend Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Likewise, he can signal solidarity with our allies — a process already initiated by the order and tenor of congratulatory calls with world leaders. But the U.S. position regarding almost every bilateral relationship is worse today.
President Barack Obama flagged North Korea as one of America’s greatest security threats. Trump, instead, used Kim to burnish his image and underscore what he cast as the failure of his predecessors. Three summits helped Kim gain stature on the world stage, but they did not slow progress on nuclear and missile capabilities. In addition, Seoul’s faith in our alliance was shaken by unilateral concessions to North Korea that blindsided South Korean officials, such as forgoing joint military exercises.
Trump inherited a more secure position regarding Iran but then withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and pivoted toward increased pressure (the opposite strategy followed regarding North Korea). On Trump’s watch, the Iranian threat grew substantially; Iran’s uranium stockpile ballooned to 12 times the amount allowed under the JCPOA — enough for two weapons.
In Asia, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — conceived as a U.S.-led multilateral trade organization to counter China’s Pacific Rim influence — made it harder for remaining countries to resist China’s economic pull. Other countries proceeded without us. Trump’s trade war did not improve our economic posture, and China’s military modernization continues without an adequate response.
On Trump’s watch, Hong Kong’s autonomy eroded substantially, and Taiwan is navigating rising tension with Beijing. To its credit, Trump’s team did deepen relations with Vietnam, Australia and India. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue among Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. is an achievement. But the challenge of responding to China’s rise is greater today than it was four years ago.
In Europe, Trump’s constant berating of allies and indifference to democracy helped to divide the continent, allowing Putin to court populist, illiberal leaders and movements, including Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, France’s Marine Le Pen and Britain’s Nigel Farage. Trump’s attempt to leverage assistance to Ukraine for his campaign deeply damaged U.S.-Ukraine relations, another gift to Putin. NATO will welcome Biden’s return, but it will be reluctant to entrust leadership over European security to Americans. After all, another isolationist might be elected in 2024.
NATO will welcome Biden’s return, but it will be reluctant to entrust leadership over European security to Americans. After all, another isolationist might be elected in 2024.
In the greater Middle East, the Trump administration’s erratic policy swings have left U.S. forces spread thin and without clear missions. In Syria, a U.S. military operation originally focused solely on the Islamic State terrorist group was expanded to take on Iran and then contracted to “keep the oil” in a far northeast corner of the country. In Afghanistan, Trump whittled the force commitment without consulting NATO allies, who now have more forces in the country than we do. Trump pledged a withdrawal of all forces by March, handing Biden’s team a difficult issue to manage in its first weeks in office.
The Trump administration did help negotiate Israeli diplomatic relations with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, but these agreements did not result in an end to “blood in the [Middle East] sand,” as Trump claimed; that objective, as Yemenis, Libyans, Syrians and Palestinians will attest, remains far away.
Trump also mostly ignored an entire continent: Africa. Relations with every African capital are in need of refreshing, and more attention to the developing conflict in and surrounding Ethiopia is needed. Likewise, South America endured four years of neglect; Trump’s one major gambit in the region — coercive regime change in Venezuela — failed.
Regarding multilateral diplomacy, as a result of Trump’s presidency, U.S. engagement with the international system has never been thinner than at any other point in the past hundred years.
Biden can reverse some of Trump’s isolationist moves quickly. He can and must re-enter the Paris climate accords, renew our World Health Organization membership and extend the New START Treaty with Russia. Other restorative ambitions will be more challenging. On re-entering the JCPOA, the Iranian theocrats and their backers in Russia and China have gained leverage and will be more intransigent after the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Slowing climate change requires more than the minimalist goals codified in the now-dated Paris Agreement. Withdrawals from structures like the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty might be impossible to reverse. Even getting back into the Open Skies agreement will not be automatic.
Most daunting is how to re-engage existing international organizations and invent new ones to contain and compete with China. Biden would need to invest tremendous political capital to explain correctly why joining the reconstituted Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership serves U.S. national interests. While the U.S. pulled back under Trump, China has exercised a growing role in multilateral institutions while expanding and creating new ones, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), ASEAN plus Three, the “17+1” in Europe, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System. Beijing also supported massive expansion in financial technology, including a coming digital yuan, and joined the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Similarly, but to a lesser extent, Russia has expanded its multilateral presence in its region while deepening cooperation with China through the Eurasian Economic Union and the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Trump’s apathy allowed Moscow to mediate a peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan on favorable terms and to shape events in Kyrgyzstan and Belarus during tumultuous political upheavals. Central Asian countries sandwiched between China and Russia yearn for greater American presence.
Offsetting this tremendously challenging global agenda is some good news. First, Biden arguably will be the most qualified foreign policy president in U.S. history. In addition, early national security nominations inspire confidence. Third, there is now tremendous demand in the world for American leadership and partnership, as well as our pragmatic idealism. From NATO to the WHO, multilateral organizations will applaud our greater engagement.
Those who believe in democratic and liberal values will celebrate a Biden administration recommitted to amplifying morality in U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the last four years have been so erratic that even governments in China and Russia may welcome a more professional and consistent American interlocutor. In our absence, the world has moved on, rendering incrementalism or an effort to return to the status quo ante not enough. Biden has signaled a commitment to a bold agenda on domestic policy. He needs to do the same for foreign policy.