The 2020 US presidential campaign has been driven by a few key issues—the pandemic and its damaging economic effects, massive protests in favor of racial justice, and, not least, the polarizing presidency and personality of President Donald Trump himself. Questions of foreign policy have barely registered with the electorate so far. But they should, because what’s at stake are two very different visions of America’s place in the world. President Trump’s foreign policy thrives on unpredictability and a go-it-alone approach that has confused both allies and enemies, calling into question the continued viability of US global leadership. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s vision would return to traditional left-of-center policy ideas, with an emphasis on diplomatic engagement aimed at reducing US military commitments abroad while shoring up the international order the United States has helped build since the end of the Second World War. How these competing strategies would shake out in a second Trump term or a Biden presidency has significant implications for American interests at home and abroad.
Trump: Making America Great Again—Again
Foreign policy in a second Trump term would likely be a continuation of the policies of the first. The National Security Strategy issued by the White House in 2017 outlined its general principles:
An America First National Security Strategy is based on American principles, a clear-eyed assessment of U.S. interests, and a determination to tackle the challenges that we face. It is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology. It is based upon the view that peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad. And it is grounded in the realization that American principles are a lasting force for good in the world.1
In practice, this philosophy has dictated a foreign policy approach dominated by American unilateralism and seemingly driven not by principle but by narrow self-interest,2 one that has relied extensively on the President’s own whims and “gut” instincts and far less on traditional policy processes and deference either to expertise or long-standing bipartisan consensus. As a result, US foreign policy has been subjected to head-snapping shifts and sudden reversals throughout Trump’s tenure.
The abrupt withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a proposed 12-nation economic bloc designed to counterbalance China, as well as the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, were the opening salvos against international norms of which the United States had been the principal advocate and supporter for seven decades. The invective aimed at NATO and other American allies for allegedly free-riding on the US military, as well as the US withdrawal from arms control accords such as the Open Skies Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, have created a sense of instability in US foreign policy and left many allies and adversaries alike unsure of where the United States stands on many different issues at any given moment.
If successful in his re-election bid, Trump is likely to feel emboldened and validated at home and abroad, and will continue to pursue his individualistic course in foreign affairs without restraint by principle or party.3 In the Middle East, this would likely involve renewed dedication to a number of controversial policies.
Trump and the Middle East
President Trump has abandoned 30 years of US Middle East peace process orthodoxy by introducing a Palestinian-Israeli plan4 whose raison d’être seems to be ending any pretense that the United States would act as an even-handed arbiter without prejudice to so-called final status issues, an abandonment of principle symbolized by the administration’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018 and recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in March 2019. A second Trump Administration would continue to advance Israeli positions, while extending US efforts to isolate and pressure the Palestinian Authority and effectively take the issue of Palestine out of the regional political equation. The administration would simultaneously redouble its efforts to forge political, economic and security ties between individual Arab states and Israel, building on what it sees as the singular diplomatic triumph of the Abraham Accords.5
One of the goals of Trump’s Arab-Israeli strategy is to add military and diplomatic heft to the regional anti-Iran coalition the administration has been striving to build, thus sending a stark warning to Tehran that Washington’s policy of “maximum pressure” will continue and, if anything, intensify in a second Trump term. The administration is doubling down on this policy already. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced September 20 that due to Iran’s non-compliance with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal (formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA), suspended UN sanctions would “snap back,” and the United States would use its own laws to enforce compliance on Iran and third countries. Since the United States formally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, its authority to reinstate UN “snap-back” sanctions has been broadly rejected by the international community. But US willingness to sanction friendly governments and their companies set Washington on a collision course with European allies, especially Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. Such tensions would likely multiply in a second term.
In addition to staying the course with regard to Arab-Israeli peace and Iran, Trump would probably continue to cultivate close relations with the Gulf monarchies and other repressive regional autocrats, including “my favorite dictator,”6 President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi of Egypt. Trump sees such leaders as closely aligned with his own agenda, not only in terms of diplomacy but also in terms of acquisition of US weapons and other products, a main driver of his foreign policy. The regimes with which Trump is friendly can count on the White House to continue to shield them from American congressional pressure and criticism due to their human rights records, as Trump has repeatedly done with Saudi Arabia despite the murder of the US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the disastrous Saudi war in Yemen.7
A few surprises could await in a second Trump term. Regime collapse in Tehran would be only one outcome that would gratify the administration (albeit one for which it has no apparent plan); a sudden turnabout to make a sweeping diplomatic deal would also be the kind of showy masterstroke Trump favors and one he has already indicated he could get behind, having urged Tehran in June to “make the Big deal” before the US presidential election.8 Something similar could be put on the table after the election, although Iran’s leaders have indicated they aren’t interested, yet. Trump could also move to make good on promises to pull the US out of “endless wars” in the region, perhaps by suddenly withdrawing all remaining forces from Iraq and Syria and sharply reducing the US presence elsewhere in the region, which currently numbers about 50,000, mainly in the Gulf Arab states. Alternatively, Trump might demand billions more from host governments as a condition to keep them there.
In the main, however, Trump’s Middle East policy in a second term would be a far more intense version of the policies he pursued during his first, one more driven by the president’s own whims, his narrow, transactional approach to foreign leaders, and his disdain for human rights. Constrained neither by a State Department that has been hollowed out and deeply politicized, nor by a national security establishment (at the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community) that has been cowed by the president’s wrathful paranoia and is increasingly led by third- and fourth-tier appointees after the turnover and burnout of the first term, Trump’s Middle East policy, and indeed his foreign policy in general, would be even more unpredictable than the first.
President Biden: Starting Over, But Not from Scratch
A President Joe Biden would return to a traditional, center-left approach to foreign policy, focused on rebuilding America’s reputation and alliances abroad, stressing democracy at home and abroad, and emphasizing diplomacy over military engagement to advance US interests. In Biden’s view,9 the United States faces a variety of global challenges, from climate change to infectious disease pandemics, that require global approaches, and the rise of authoritarianism and illiberal populism makes meeting these challenges harder. Biden has written that he would take a variety of steps on the domestic front to “renew our core values,” including reinforcing voting rights and judicial independence, improving educational opportunities, reforming criminal justice, ensuring the integrity of US elections, and ending family separations at the border. In addition, Biden insists, he will shape “a foreign policy for the middle class” by implementing a variety of policies designed to ensure the US economy is more inclusive and that trade policies are designed to ensure “a fair playing field” for American businesses.
Internationally, Biden has stated that he will take steps to rebuild America’s alliances and leadership role, starting with a focus on democracy. Biden says he will call a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office, bringing together “the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.” Fighting corruption would be a key to advancing this agenda. Biden would push back against Russia and “get tough” with China as well, coordinating with allies and partners against its human rights abuses, intellectual property theft, and unfair trade practices.
To energize American diplomacy, which he and his advisers believe has been downplayed during the Trump administration, Biden would work to rebuild the State Department and the US Foreign Service, the senior ranks of which have been decimated over the last few years. Biden would consider reinstating senior diplomats who left or were forced out under Trump and would likely push for substantial increases in both State Department funding and foreign aid programming.
Biden and the Middle East
All of this is more or less standard for a traditional Democrat who served as Chairman or Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign relations Committee for 17 years, and was vice president to a notoriously risk-averse president. How would Biden’s approach to the Middle East differ from that of Trump?
First of all, Biden’s emphasis on democracy would translate directly into a new approach toward Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other authoritarian allies. While Biden would not seek to overturn the strong security ties the US maintains with these countries, he would insist on more accountability for human rights violations as the price for doing business. Biden would no longer offer a “blank check”11 to Egypt despite “gross human rights violations’; ongoing arms sales would at least be examined going forward. As for Saudi Arabia, Biden advisors have indicated that a President Biden would seek a closer partnership with the US Congress on restricting arms sales to the kingdom due to its war in Yemen, and would take another look at a possible visa ban for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials involved in serious human rights abuses. This has support in Congress but was rejected by Trump. In short, Biden believes that while these relationships serve US interests, they need to be recalibrated en route to a more “realistic” footing.
In terms of Iran, President Biden would consider returning to the JCPOA, but it would not be automatic.12 Biden would do so only if Iran first brought itself into compliance with the JCPOA’s limits on highly enriched uranium and centrifuges. A Biden Administration would also seek to address widely criticized defects and gaps in the JCPOA: sunset clauses that would allow Iran to resume certain nuclear activities, the lack of limitations on Iran’s ballistic missile program, and the fact that military facilities remain off-limits to international inspectors. Biden would not be quick to drop the additional sanctions Trump has imposed, but would be more likely to use them as bargaining chips to entice Iran into returning to compliance with the terms of the JCPOA and eventually enter into a broader dialogue with the United States on issues such as Tehran’s malign activities in the region and its domestic human rights abuses. Biden would be careful to coordinate closely with the P5+1 and the EU on the JCPOA and sanctions to avoid the confrontations with allies the Trump administration has stoked.
On Arab-Israeli peace issues, Biden remains formally committed to a two-state solution and welcomed the Abraham Accords as a step in the right direction. A campaign statement said that “It is good to see others in the Middle East recognizing Israel and even welcoming it as a partner. A Biden-Harris administration will build on these steps…”13
Biden would be unlikely to reverse fundamental decisions Trump has taken by returning the US embassy to Tel Aviv or de-recognizing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights. But he would attempt to place US relations with both Israel and the Palestinians on a more even keel. This could include reopening a liaison office to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem and restoring Palestinian aid programs ended in 2019 by the Trump administration.14
Biden would be less likely to embrace Benjamin Netanyahu—or any Israeli prime minister, for that matter—as closely as Trump has, while avoiding the miscues that Obama made early on in his administration that permanently soured that relationship. Biden would probably not formally repudiate the Trump peace plan, but many elements would be ignored or superseded, particularly with regard to permitting annexation of Israeli settlement blocs, which the Biden administration could be expected to oppose strenuously. Other elements, such as encouraging economic development and international investment in the Palestinian territories, would be heartily embraced.
The future of US military deployments in the region is one area where Biden and Trump seem largely to agree. Like Trump, Biden wants to end “forever wars” and would do so by withdrawing “the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,”15 leaving only a relatively small mission in place to focus on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.
Biden, however, would also terminate US support for Saudi Arabia’s Yemen intervention, looking instead to revitalize US diplomacy to resolve regional conflicts that impact US interests. These would include not only Yemen, but the internecine Gulf dispute pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies against Qatar; a Biden administration could be expected to promote Iran-Saudi talks as well. Syria could be ripe for new American diplomacy and humanitarian assistance if the Assad regime can first be ushered out through an international process; Libya, too, might be the focus of a new US diplomatic effort, if only to try to set some limits on the interventions by US allies in its bloody civil war.
Overall, as Biden advisers Jake Sullivan and Daniel Benaim have written, the Biden Administration’s strategy would be “simultaneously less ambitious and more ambitious than traditional U.S. statecraft in the Middle East: less ambitious in terms of the military ends the United States seeks and in its efforts to remake nations from within, but more ambitious in using U.S. leverage and diplomacy to press for a de-escalation in tensions and eventually a new modus vivendi among the key regional actors.”16
Just as both candidates are a study in contrast, their foreign policies offer a stark choice for the American voter. This choice is for more or less US global engagement and leadership, stronger emphasis on democracy and human rights, or an expanding level of comfort with an increasingly authoritarian world. The decision voters make will have long-term effects on the place of the United States in the international system, and the future of that system as well.
1 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, December 2017, p.1, accessed at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf
2 Charles W. Dunne, “How Principled Is US Realism in the Middle East?” Arab Center Washington DC, February 22, 2019, accessed at http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/how-principled-is-us-realism-in-the-middle-east/
3 The Republican National Committee decided not to adopt a new party platform in this electoral cycle, instead passing a resolution “to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.” Accessed at https://prod-cdn-static.gop.com/media/documents/RESOLUTION_REGARDING_THE_REPUBLICAN_PARTY_PLATFORM.pdf?_ga=2.109560193.504857691.1598219603-2087748323.1598219603
4 The Trump plan would allow only a non-contiguous Palestinian state subject to full Israeli security control and a long list of requirements the Palestinians must meet before its establishment. In addition, it would permit the immediate annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank; rule out any “right of return for Palestinian refugees; and leave nearly all of Jerusalem in Israel’s hands, save for a potential future Palestinian “capital” on the city’s outskirts near the separation wall. For further details see Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People, The White House, January 2020, accessed at https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Peace-to-Prosperity-0120.pdf
5 Normalization agreements signed by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the White House on September 15, 2020. See full text and accompanying statements at https://www.state.gov/the-abraham-accords/
6 Nancy A. Youssef, Vivian Salama and Michael C. Bender, “Trump, Awaiting Egyptian Counterpart at Summit, Called Out for ‘My Favorite Dictator,’” Wall Street Journal, Sept. 13, 2019, accessed at https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-awaiting-egyptian-counterpart-at-summit-called-out-for-my-favorite-dictator-11568403645
7 In July 2019, Trump vetoed bipartisan legislation to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE because of their military involvement in Yemen, which is largely responsible for what the UN termed the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. In issuing his veto, Trump said the legislation would “weaken America’s global competitiveness” in the arms market. See Merritt Kennedy, “Trump Vetoes Bills Intended To Block Arms Sales To Saudi Arabia,” NPR, July 25, 2019, accessed at https://www.npr.org/2019/07/25/745200244/trump-vetoes-bills-intended-to-block-arms-sales-to-saudi-arabia
8 David E. Sanger, Farnaz Fassihi and Rick Gladstone, “Urging Iran to ‘Make the Big Deal,’ Trump Ties Nuclear Negotiations to Election,” The New York Times, June 5, 2020, accessed at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/world/middleeast/trump-iran-nuclear.html
9 Joseph R. Biden, Jr., “Why America Must Lead Again: Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2020, accessed at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-01-23/why-america-must-lead-again
 The Trump Administration has instituted harsh measures against the entry of illegal immigrants across the US-Mexico border, including separating children from their parents. See, for example, “Family separation under the Trump administration – a timeline,” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 17, 2020, accessed at https://www.splcenter.org/news/2020/06/17/family-separation-under-trump-administration-timeline
11 Online campaign event with Biden foreign policy advisers, Sept. 15, 2020
12 Joe Biden, “There’s a smarter way to be tough on Iran,” CNN, Sept. 13, 2020, accessed at https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/13/opinions/smarter-way-to-be-tough-on-iran-joe-biden/index.html
13 “Statement by Joe Biden on the agreements between Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain,” Sept. 15, 2020, accessed at https://joebiden.com/2020/09/15/statement-by-joe-biden-on-the-agreements-between-israel-the-uae-and-bahrain/
14 Yolande Knell, “US stops all aid to Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza,” BBC, February 1, 2019, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-47095082
15 Biden, Foreign Affairs, op. cit.
16 Daniel Benaim and Jake Sullivan, “America’s Opportunity in the Middle East: Diplomacy Could Succeed Where Military Force Has Failed,’ Foreign Affairs, May 22, 2020, accessed at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/middle-east/2020-05-22/americas-opportunity-middle-east